Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

trigger warning by neil gaimanFormat read: eARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and published hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: fantasy, horror
Length: 310 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Released: February 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In this new anthology, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath. Trigger Warning includes previously published pieces of short fiction–stories, verse, and a very special Doctor Who story that was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the beloved series in 2013–as well “Black Dog,” a new tale that revisits the world of American Gods, exclusive to this collection.

Trigger Warning explores the masks we all wear and the people we are beneath them to reveal our vulnerabilities and our truest selves. Here is a rich cornucopia of horror and ghosts stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry that explore the realm of experience and emotion. In “Adventure Story”–a thematic companion to The Ocean at the End of the Lane–Gaiman ponders death and the way people take their stories with them when they die. His social media experience “A Calendar of Tales” are short takes inspired by replies to fan tweets about the months of the year–stories of pirates and the March winds, an igloo made of books, and a Mother’s Day card that portends disturbances in the universe. Gaiman offers his own ingenious spin on Sherlock Holmes in his award-nominated mystery tale “The Case of Death and Honey”. And “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” explains the creaks and clatter we hear when we’re all alone in the darkness.

A sophisticated writer whose creative genius is unparalleled, Gaiman entrances with his literary alchemy, transporting us deep into the realm of imagination, where the fantastical becomes real and the everyday incandescent. Full of wonder and terror, surprises and amusements, Trigger Warning is a treasury of delights that engage the mind, stir the heart, and shake the soul from one of the most unique and popular literary artists of our day.

My Review:

Fair warning, if you have an eARC of this book, it probably does not include the last story, Black Dog. I’m lucky I had a published print copy too. (This warning probably does not apply to purchased ebooks.)

Speaking of warnings, there’s that title: Trigger Warning. As the author says in his introduction, the phrase “trigger warning” has taken on a specific meaning in social media. If a piece has been labeled with a trigger warning, the context of the warning usually follows. If a story or article concerns a subject that some people might be upset to read, that is listed under the trigger warnings. While many of those warnings involve either death or sex (sometimes both) there are also trigger warnings for assault, abuse as well as every kind of kink imaginable.

The concept of trigger warnings derives from a specific issue for sufferers of PTSD. Things that remind a person of their original trauma can literally trigger a re-experience of that trauma. (For more details, see the NIMH page on PTSD)

There has been some talk in social media regarding whether the author should have titled his collection with a term that has so much specific meaning for people. (To see an thoughtful example, take a look at Kameron Hurley’s post on SciFi Now) The author’s contentions are laid out in his introduction, which, unlike introductions in many books that are easily skippable, provides interesting context for both the individual stories and the collection as a whole.

There’s a question asked: Do adults need to be warned about the possible “triggers” in fiction? Or is part of being an adult the responsibility of choosing such things for one’s own self?

Trigger Warning is a collection of mostly short stories, with a few poems sprinkled in for spice. Or in context, possibly for body. Or bodies.

This is a collection of various kinds of speculative fiction. Some are fantasy, some are extensions of fairy tales. Many are horror of the Twilight Zone type, where the story seems to be heading in one direction, and then takes a sudden twist at the end into the macabre or at least the strange and lethal.

As a collection, it suffers from the issue common to almost all collections, every reader’s milage varies wildly. There are some stories I really liked, a couple did not work for me at all, and some just were just OK.

There were five stories that stood out for me: Black Dog, Nothing O’Clock, The Case of Death and Honey, The Thing About Cassandra and A Calendar of Tales, which is cheating in a way because Calendar itself is a short collection of extremely brief stories.

American Gods by Neil GaimanOnly Black Dog is original to this collection. In other circumstances, it would be slight, and slightly eerie, story, But the protagonist of this particular tale is Shadow Moon, whom we first met in American Gods. Because we know who and what Shadow is, the story has multiple layers, and like American Gods, makes you rethink the entire story at the end.

The Case of Death and Honey is a Sherlock Holmes story. It was previously published in A Study in Sherlock, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, and reviewed here. This is a story that I wish were true. It would explain much.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story. Even though Matt Smith was not my favorite Doctor (they say you never forget your first Doctor, and mine was Tom Baker) this is still very much Who. The solution to the very creepy dilemma is something only the Doctor could do. And as is so often the case, while the baddies think they are playing him, he has been playing them all along.

The Thing About Cassandra is a story with a twist. I knew something bad was going to happen, but at the end of the story, all of the shoes are on other feet than the reader expected.

A Calendar of Tales is itself a mini-collection, with one story themed for each month. Some border on SF, but the ones I really enjoyed had a touch of romance to them.

Escape Rating B+: The stories I enjoyed, I liked a lot. It helped that three of them were linked to things that I was not just familiar with, but am a definite fan of. The ones that left me cold, like Orange, left me completely and utterly cold.

I will say as my very own trigger warning for this collection that it is probably not a good book to read just before bedtime. I had some interesting and downright scary dreams last night that I am grateful not to remember. Which says that either I am terribly susceptible, or that the stories did their job. Possibly both.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

For the Love of Mythology Blog Hop

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I’ve loved myth-based stories ever since I started losing myself in the library in elementary school. All those fantastic creatures and heroic deeds swept me away from boring homework. (Of course Zeus’ legendary philandering was toned down quite a bit!)

But if had to pick my favorite myth-based story now, well, it would depend on what was meant by favorite.

Atlantis Rising by Alyssa DayAlyssa Day’s Warriors of Poseidon series contained both the Greek god of the Sea and the legend of Atlantis, along with a whole bunch of nasty (and one nice) vampire and some shapeshifters. Awesome series with action, adventure, hot romance and saving the world. Start with Atlantis Rising if you’ve missed this. Even better, she’s finished so you get to find out how it ends.

American Gods by Neil GaimanOn a completely other track, if you want to learn about every mythology ever, sink your teeth, and a very long weekend, into Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It felt like he made use of every possible myth and legend, and wove them into a fantastic reinterpretation of the great American road novel. If you’ve never read it, you won’t see the end coming, and then you’ll wonder why you didn’t. But I still laugh at the idea of the Egyptian gods keeping a funeral parlor in Cairo, Illinois with a cat named, of course, Bastet. And yes, it is Her.

To help you read more about your own favorite myths, just fill out the Rafflecopter for a chance at a $10 Amazon giftcard. Then hop on over to the many other participants in this giveaway hop, and see what myths they’d love to share with you!

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To enter the drawing for one of the fabulous grand prizes, including either a $45 Amazon Gift Card or $45 in books from The Book Depository , visit one of the blog hop hosts. To visit other stops on the hop, look below:

A Study in Sherlock

A Study in Sherlock is a new collection of stories inspired by the Holmes canon. I purchased a copy because it was edited by Laurie R. King (and Leslie S. Klinger). So far, I have not been disappointed by any work touched by Ms. King, and A Study in Sherlock did not break that tradition.

The authors who contributed to this collection are all well-respected mystery writers. I’m familiar with many of them. A few (Margaret Maron, Dana Stabenow and Charles Todd) are favorites. I even met Dana Stabenow when I lived in Anchorage. Alaska is the biggest small town in the world.

As part of their contribution to the anthology, each author told the story of when they were first introduced to Sherlock Holmes. Naturally, I tried to remember when I first met the world’s first “consulting detective”. When I was a child, my mom was a subscriber to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. So, when I started reading, she got the Best Loved Books for Young Readers set for me. “Great Cases of Sherlock Holmes” is in book 4. That’s one mystery solved!

But the stories in this particular volume, like the proverbial mileage, vary. Some are actual Holmes pastiches. Some use the Canon as inspiration for detectival flights of fancy that barely relate to Holmes. And, some I liked, some, not so much.

My favorite Holmesian pastiche has to be S.J. Rozan’s The Men with the Twisted Lips. It is virtually a prequel to Dr. Watson’s own tale of The Man with the Twisted Lip, except this version of the story is told from the point of view of the opium dealers in the notorious Limehouse district, as they maneuver the observation of Mr. Neville St. Clair in his rented quarters over the Lascar’s opium den by Mrs. St. Clair, all so that Mrs. St. Clair will involve the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. This new point of view dovetails perfectly with the narrative we know. Excellently done!

The Adventure of the Concert Pianist by Margaret Maron is also very interesting. It’s a case that Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson solve on their own during the “Great Hiatus” between Reichenbach Falls and The Empty House. In fact, the adventure ends with Mrs. Hudson fainting at the sight of Holmes’ return from the “dead” in 1894.

Of the modern stories, the one that impressed me the most was The Shadow Not Cast by Lionel Chetwynd. Sergeant-Major Robert Jackson uses Holmes’ methods, along with the criteria used by an officer in the field observing an enemy position, in order to find the murderer of a rabbi and a financial reporter. The combination of Holmes’ analytical skills and a trained military observer make for one very astute detective. I’m very disappointed that there are no other stories featuring the Sergeant-Major.

There is a Neil Gaiman story in this collection, titled The Case of Death and Honey. All I can say is that I hope it is true. It would explain why Holmes’ obituary has never appeared in the London Times.

Escape Rating B+: The stories I liked, I really, really liked. The Startling Events in the Electrified City by Thomas Perry, and The Case that Holmes Lost by Charles Todd are two other excellent stories. On the other hand, there were a couple I liked but just couldn’t figure out why they were in this collection, and a few that just didn’t float my boat.

But that’s the lovely thing about collections–finish up a few pages, and there’s another story!

NPR and the Top 100 SF/F

If I didn’t already love NPR, I would now. But I’ve sat in the car too many times laughing myself silly at the Car Talk brothers not to love NPR.

However, they just gave me a whole new reason to love them. NPR is putting together a list of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) titles “ever written”. The list will be based on recommendations submitted here.

There are, naturally, a whole bunch of caveats built into this kind of thing. NPR wants this list to be strictly science fiction and fantasy for grown-ups (admittedly that term alone can be pretty loosely defined). YA SF/F will be covered some other summer. Besides, as NPR put it best, won’t it be nice to have someone besides Harry Potter win for a change?

Also, they are limiting to purely SF/F, so no paranormal or horror. Stephen King is out, and so is Sookie Stackhouse. So is Twilight. On the other, and much more interesting hand, it is perfectly okay to nominate an entire series as a single entity. So the Lord of the Rings counts as one nomination. Five noms to a posting, probably just to keep the lists manageable.

But my brain keeps hashing over what to nominate. There are two lists running in my head. One list is of the books/series that I have read and loved. Those are ones I would recommend in a heartbeat to someone who was remotely interested in science fiction or fantasy. Or someone I could get to sit still for ten seconds and listen.

1. The Lord of the Rings. This is still a comfort read. Or a comfort listen. I have multiple copies in print, and both the unabridged recording and the radio play. Tolkien could write beautiful words, and there are parts of this thing that still ring in my head, and still wring my heart. The tvtropes wiki says there are 7 basic plots; 1)Overcoming the Monster, 2)Rags to Riches, 3)The Quest, 4)Voyage and Return, 5)Comedy, 6)Tragedy and 7)Rebirth. The Lord of the Rings has everything but a comedy plot. There’s comedy in there, but it isn’t a major plot thread.

There are still things in LOTR I would like to have a serious talk with Prof. Tolkien about, if he were still around. The lack of female characters in the Fellowship. The shortage of strong female characters, period. And that’s just for starters. But the quibbles stand out because the whole is so very, very good.

2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The premise caught me, and didn’t let go. Every deity that had every been worshiped on American soil was alive, if not well, somewhere in the U.S. Some are still active, and some are trying to blend in, but they are all still here. Then Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday on a plane, and everything starts to fall apart, or come together. American Gods is part of the great American road novel tradition, except it’s written by a British ex-pat who seems to have swallowed a mythopedic dictionary whole. The point where the Egyptian gods were running a funeral parlor in Cairo, Illinois, I think I had tears in my eyes, laughing. But there’s more pathos than humor, and every god and monster has his, or her, day. The ending took me by complete surprise. And I loved every second of it.

3. Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s Discworld can be seen as a parody of any number of fantasy worlds. Or all of them. When he’s funny, he’s screamingly funny. But it’s the kind of humor that makes you think, and more and more, makes you want to weep. Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of the city of Ankh-Morpork, makes Machiavelli look like an amateur. Death is personified as the bony gentleman with the scythe–on the other hand, his adopted granddaughter is considerably scarier than he is. After all, Death named his horse ‘Binky’. Start with either Mort or Guards, Guards. Just start.

4. Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. I would include this because reading it once hurt so much I’ve never been able to read it again. Tigana is a country that is lost, gone. It was not just conquered, it was also cursed. The wizard who conquered it laid down a curse that no one who was not born there before the fall could say the name, or hear it spoken. Tigana, beautiful, artistic, advanced, lovely as it was, was doomed to be forgotten in a generation. There was only one chance to save it. A desperate group of survivors banded together to infiltrate the court of the wizard king and assassinate him before the last of those born in their beloved country before its fall became too old to recreate what they had lost. What they did not count on was how long it would take, or how much the part you are playing becomes you, if you play it for too long.

5. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi. You know up front that this is not a coming-of-age story. More like wish-fulfillment, at least up to a point, as all the major characters start out as senior citizens who suddenly get brand new young bodies. Then they have to go fight aliens with those upgraded bods. This reads like one of Robert Heinlein’s space stories at its best, updated 50 years and without Heinlein’s attitudes about women. Or maybe that’s the updating. This is a great space opera. And because the point-of-view character is older, his perspective gets to use that life experience to wonder what the hell is going on. It’s a very important part of the story. He questions, and he wants answers. As he gets them, so does the reader.

These books are ones I have read, finished and would recommend unconditionally. In another post, I’ll list the ones I want to read this summer, and why.

Holmes is everywhere

Every generation reinvents Sherlock Holmes to suit itself.  The current revision, Sherlock, was created by the same team that is also at the helm of Doctor Who. This is totally appropriate, as Sherlock beat Doctor Who for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Drama Series. The announcement was made yesterday, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday. Watson would have been pleased, especially since the actor who plays Watson also won for Best Supporting Actor.

Sherlock is either a reboot or an update of the Holmes canon. The premise updates Holmes into the 21st century, complete with cellphones, GPS, non-smoking restaurants, competition from modern forensics, and modern psychiatric diagnosis of Holmes’ quirks. Sherlock knows he is a high-functioning sociopath. This doesn’t stop him from solving crimes that the police can’t. Watson is still a police surgeon invalided out from the Afghan war.  It’s the same unwinnable war. Some things do not change.

I was astonished at how well this premise worked. It’s not the canonical Holmes, and yet it is. We forget that when Conan Doyle wrote Holmes originally, they were contemporaneous. Holmes was a creature of his times. It’s only to us that they are historical because the Victorian period is one that turned out to be a memorable epoch. And, ironically, part of the reason that the Victorian period is memorable is probably due to Holmes.

I also watched the Robert Downey Jr. /Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes not too long ago.  Once the main plot finally got going, I enjoyed the movie, and it was great steampunk, but…Downey just isn’t my Sherlock Holmes. The late Jeremy Brett still matches the portrait I see in my head when I think of Holmes, more or less.  But the “great detective” has lent himself to a multitude of portrayals over the years since Conan Doyle first published Watson’s stories, and every character in the canon has been given his, or her, due.

The original versions of the Sherlock Holmes canon remain cracking good stories, which is one reason why they have continued to be read and re-interpreted to this day.  But the fun is in the re-imaginings.  TV’s updated Sherlock is just the latest in a very distinguished line.

The resemblances between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Gregory House on House M.D. have been commented on too many times to be repeated. The creator of House has admitted that the show is an homage to Holmes in a number of ways.  Holmes=Homes=House just for starters.  There were even two episodes of Star Trek, the Next Generation where Data portrayed Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck.

Authors have continued to push the “world’s first consulting detective” into cases that his original biographer did not pursue.  One case in point, Holmes and Jack the Ripper, were, or would have been, contemporaries.  Had Holmes existed, Scotland Yard would surely have called him in to investigate such a notorious and inflammatory series of murders.  In Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye, Holmes is both a suspect and an investigator into the Ripper killings, as Watson follows his friend into horror.

On the other hand, if you prefer villains as heroes, Michael Kurland has written a series where Holmes is a bumbling, drug-addled idiot, and Professor Moriarty is the actual hero of the piece.  The Great Game concerns the “Great Game” of European politics in end of the century—the 19th century, that is—Europe, as the great powers tried to stave off, or speed up, the advent of the “Great War” that we know as World War I.

Holmes has featured in other worlds, particularly in the recent collection The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which includes the award winning story by Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald”, where Holmes and Moriarty join forces in a parallel universe in which the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraftian invention has taken over Victorian England.  Very improbable indeed!

Last, but absolutely not least, the series which contains the answer to the question, “What did Holmes do after he retired to keep bees in Sussex?”  His last recorded case (His Last Bow) takes place in August, 1914.  And then?  According to Laurie R. King, in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, he kept bees, took way too much of his 7% solution of cocaine, and was slowly killing himself in boredom.  One afternoon in 1915 a fifteen-year-old girl tripped over him on the Sussex Downs with her nose buried in a copy of Virgil.  And the second act of his life began.

The mythic side of London

The London Underground may lead to more places than those found on the brightly colored map on display in every Tube station.  The evocative names of each stop may mean more than just a place for weary travelers to get on and off a mere train.  What if the Underground was the entrance to an entire world underneath the great city, a world existing beside the London currently polished and glittering for the Royal Wedding?

The City of London is too intriguing a character, and has too long an colorful a history, not to  have been used more than once in this marvelous fashion.  Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a magical view of London Below, a world that co-exists invisibly below and around London Above, our London.  The differences between our London and London Below can be stark, brutal and even horrific.   There is a terrible beauty in the world Below, but also terrible danger.  There be monsters, monsters that take your sanity, your soul, or just steal your heart.

One man, Richard Mayhew, is the reader’s entree into London Below.  It is significant that he finds the invisible world through an act of charity–he rescues an injured young woman that he believes is a street person.  By saving her, he disappears from his life as a corporate drone, into desperate danger, running for his life. Knightsbridge Station becomes a Knight’s Bridge guarded by an actual Knight that he must battle, and there is a deadly Beast under London that must be defeated.  In the end, he saves the girl, but at what cost?  He can have his old life back, but he may have discovered too much about himself to ever want it back.

The Nightside provides a different view of a London, and is also reached by Tube stops not generally known.  Simon R. Green’s series, beginning with Something from the Nightside.  The Nightside is a place where it is always 3 am, where dreams come true and nightmares come alive.  Every sin and every form of degradation is for sale.  Gods and monsters walk side by side, and incursions from other times and other dimensions are common.  The Nightside is “Not a Nice Place”, and Green’s protagonist, John Taylor, would never claim to be a “Nice Person”.  But Taylor does what is necessary to keep the Nightside from going completely to hell.  Because the Nightside is meant to be a place where neither Heaven nor Hell has dominion.  Although sometimes it’s a pretty near thing.

Neverwhere has a lyrical feel to it, in spite of the  horrors that Richard Mayhew goes through.  There is beauty there.  At the end, we understand why he makes the choice he does.  It’s the choice we want him to  make, even though  he could be content otherwise.

The Nightside is not beautiful.  It is intentionally dark and gritty.  John Taylor is one of the snarkiest anti-heroes you’ll ever read.  He’s funny, but it is gallows humor of the extreme variety.  John Taylor does what is needed, whether anyone agrees with him or not.  They just better get out of his way if they know what’s good for them.