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Trigger WarningFour stars
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Neil Gaiman, as the cliché goes, needs no introduction. But he’s very thorough in his own introduction to this compendium of stories and poems. The title comes from a term currently in wide use online. For ages, there have been ways in which publishers, recording artists and movie studios have sought to warn audiences of content that might upset and offend them, but often those advisories prove to be more of a lure and a tease than anything else. Trigger warnings are different though. They’re serious business, used to indicate that you might be about to encounter something that could trigger a psychologically threatening association with some traumatic real-life event.

It isn’t as if there’s anything in any of these stories, specifically, that’s meant to be deliberately transgressive or to push your buttons. Nothing that could be called offensive content in the usual sense of the word. But Gaiman is fascinated by the notion of triggers, because, as he points out, life itself is not a safe space, and while it’s good to be warned, it’s also arguably healthy to find, in whatever way works for the individual, ways to face down and overcome and learn from life’s little triggers. The stories here, written in Gaiman’s fable and dark fairy tale-influenced voice, feature characters broken in some way by traumas, or deluded beliefs, or something damaging in their lives that they haven’t found ways to come to terms with. And Gaiman is very fond of pulling the narrative rug out from under you when you think you’ve got it all worked out.

I’m not going to do the usual story-by-story rating thing here. Instead I’ll focus on standout tales that give you a good idea of why collections like this are so worthwhile. Many readers disdain short fiction, thinking there just isn’t enough substance to them, that they lack a novel’s capacity for drawing you deeply into an imagined world you don’t want to leave. But that’s a huge mistake, mainly because some writers excel at the form (and Gaiman is one of those) and also because some ideas and themes make a stronger impact in the short form, where the writer is obliged to get to the point.

Gaiman’s personal debt to Ray Bradbury, an obvious and profound influence on his storytelling, is paid with interest in “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,” a story that expands upon the ideas of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to talk about the impermanence of both life and art, which Gaiman sees as being inextricable from each other. But many of the other stories detail the risks, and often dire consequences, of what happens when people live lives where they are not true to themselves, and where, sometimes, they’ve foolishly conflated the things they seek in life with the things they’re running from. “The Thing About Cassandra” is the story of a young man who meets an ex-girlfriend in a situation where such a meeting should be impossible, and then asks us to consider what it would be like if our fantasies were allowed to have a stronger impact on our realities than we intended. In “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…”, a fable as dark and fog-enshrouded as the Scottish highlands in which it’s set, two men on a quest for rumored gold find a passage instead into their own hearts of darkness. “The Return of the Thin White Duke” is a somewhat lighter story that’s kinda-sorta about David Bowie, but mostly about the fact that life is really only meaningful and interesting when we have dangers and obstacles to overcome, and that perfection brings nothing more than perfect ennui. But this is followed by the book’s closest entry to full-on horror, “Feminine Endings,” which has simply the most terrifying closing paragraph Neil Gaiman has ever written.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle,” on the other hand, is a bit of a feminist empowerment story, rooted in classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. It's a tale whose heroine, after confronting evil, realizes there’s no particular reason to slip back into the role that life has written for her, and chooses the path of unpredictability, fulfillment and adventure. And the final story, a new entry in the American Gods saga called “Black Dog,” has its hero, Shadow, drawn into some dark unfinished business when his travels take him through a rural English town.

Even the collection’s weaker tales offer something of interest. “Orange,” for example, a story told in the format of a police interview where we only get to read the answers and must infer the questions from their context, reads more like a stylistic exercise than a proper story. But even here, you see Gaiman at work challenging himself, trying on new things and playing with the narrative form to get away from convention. And what makes him stand out as a writer is that however he does this, and to whatever degree his experiments work or don’t, he’s developed a voice as a writer that’s distinct and identifiable.

It’s not the new novel fans are doubtless waiting for, but don’t think of this collection of engrossing little nightmares and dreamscapes as a trigger warning you should avoid. Not everything in it will be a safe space, but why would you want it to be?