“Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.”
That’s Neil Gaiman, talking directly to his readers. Talking directly to you, in the introduction to a book named for the customary warning now plastered across all potentially disturbing materials. There is stuff in here that’ll mess with you, he’s saying. Stuff that’ll hang with you long after the bare few pages describing it have been turned, torn out, dog-eared or forgotten.
Like the old woman in “Down to a Sunless Sea,” who wears a bone from her dead son around her neck and carries a terrible secret, or the mother in “Adventure Story,” whose son thinks her biggest adventure is leaving her car in a different part of the grocery store parking lot — until she starts remembering out loud the oddities of her dead husband’s former employment, with its airships, Aztecs and pterodactyls.
I met that old woman at my desk in my office, dodging work for a moment to hear her story, and then carrying it like an icicle in my heart for days after. The mother came to me at home like an overheard conversation, and she reminded me of my own mother, her dead husband of my own gone father, and all of it of the secrets that parents keep when they’re not even thinking about keeping secrets. And later, when Gaiman’s little boy wanted to hear his father tell the story of Click-Clack the Rattlebag, I could almost hear his soft footsteps on my own stairs and feel his small hand in mine.
There are ghost stories in here, and monster stories. “Orange” is the most clever (written entirely as a series of answers to unspoken questions having to do with aliens, candy bars and self-tanning cream), and there are pastiches of Arthur Conan Doyle, homages to Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, and a Doctor Who story (“Nothing O’Clock”) that is perfect in tone (if slightly formulaic in its execution). It reads like a sly reminder that the Doctor and his companions (the 11th, in this case, with Amy Pond in tow) have had many adventures when the cameras weren’t on them.
Yes, almost everything in Trigger Warning has appeared elsewhere — in compendiums and anthologies and as bits and pieces of projects from all over the world — but the odds that you’ve seen them all, or most, or even any of them before is low. Depends, I guess, on your Gaiman Super Fan Ranking, how often you attend Tasmanian string quartet performances and whether or not you mark the BBC’s William Blake Week on your calendars at home. But even those of you who are obsessive collectors have “Black Dog” waiting for you at the end of the twisting path — a tale that checks in with Shadow from American Gods and finds him wandering, drinking, cavorting with murderers and the murdered, and surrounded by cats.
They are confections, these stories. Like eating a delicious piece of chocolate and, halfway through, finding a finger in it. Some are substantial (like “Black Dog” or “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…”) which sprawl a little and wander a little, and — as seems to be Gaiman’s tendency — sag a little in the middle as he ticks his narrative clock forward with tocks that all sound like dread. But others are just tastes. Teases, even. Terrible, haunting, ragged-edged things that arrive, cut you, then recede into the cracks between the pages with a smirk (a very, very British smirk) to leave you dotting the carpets with your blood.
Gaiman’s introduction is the longest piece in the entire book. He explains himself here, makes his case and his excuses. He warns and he details the places where all the following stories came from because, he says, he likes it when authors used to do that. When they used to let the readers in just a little bit.
“I am not scared of bad people,” he says, “of wicked evildoers, of monsters and creatures of the night. The people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness.” And if there is a key to the best parts of Trigger Warning, that is it. Gaiman is friends with the wicked and brother to monsters, but his best stories have never really been about them. As always, it’s people who make the worst horrors in the world. And Gaiman is just the guy who sticks around to tell their tales.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.