Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is titled, “Trigger Warning.” In the introduction he explains why he decided on this title. He starts the introduction by saying, “There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking rather about those images or words or idea that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming.” (Gaiman, xi). He goes on to talk about the idea of a trigger warning and the fact in some way or another we all have things that trigger us in some manner. Some are more sever then others but some smell, sound, image or word is going to bring up the past for us and is going to remind us of a moment in our lives. Sometimes they are good and sometimes they are bad.
I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s stories because they explore the darker side of life. He states that he wonders that if in the future his books would be given some type of warning labels. His work can be dark and twisted and for some people I can see why they can be disturbing. He states he titled this set of stories “Trigger Warning,” in order to beat people to the punch. Yes, some of Neil Gaiman’s stories are hard to read and can make you squirm. Some of them are hard to understand and figure out what they are trying to tell you but in the end they are not only about the darker side of life. There is always some type of light to counteract the darkness as well. Just as there is in life.
Neil Gaiman’s stories give the reader a different way of looking at the world around them. He gives people the ability to safely explore the darker side of themselves or the world. He also creates stories where certain things seem like they may actually happen to us. This can be unsettling but also puts the reader on guard. Not everyone is going to warn you of certain disturbing aspects like Gaiman does here.
One of my favorite stories in this collection was “The Thing About Cassandra.” There is a young man who creates a fake girlfriend when he is young in order to fit in better. Years later people start telling him that they have seen this girl, that she is real. The man is confused and feeling like he is losing his mind for a time. He made her up yet people have seen her and she is upholding the story he created. He meets her still wondering what could be happening. The whole time the reader is wondering if this is just some freaky coincidence or if he somehow created her by creating such a detailed story about her life. In the end the reader is left wondering who is real, who is not and if it matters.
As with his other collection Gaiman provides an explanation for each of his stories and poems origins. He gives us a glimpse into where he gets his inspiration. These explanations may help to tone down the darker sides of some of the stories. The reader gets to learn that many of these stories didn’t come from a dark and twisted place. They grew out of curiosities and questions or simple prompts. I like these explanations. As a writer myself it is always interesting to me to see where people get ideas for stories. It can also show that just because a writer writes a bit darker stories or some things that make you uncomfortable does not mean they themselves are dark or intimidating. These explanations can help put a line between who the writer is as a living breathing person and his writings and imagination.
If you have read any of Gaiman’s other story collection and enjoyed at least one of the stories I highly recommend this collection as well. Yes, some of them are weird, odd or hard to comprehend. Some leave you hanging with no answers, forcing you to come up with conclusions yourself. But they are a fun adventure to go on and they may help you see the world around you just a bit differently.
Neil Gaiman has a somewhat dark and twisted way of looking at the world. He doesn’t write stories where it is easy to pick out the lesson or main idea. He doesn’t write stories where every reader is going to take the same thing away. This is one of the reasons I like his stories so much. He lets the reader interpret the story and decide what the characters decisions could ultimately mean. His collection of short stories “Smoke and Mirrors,” highlights this idea well.
As the title states the theme that runs through these stories is that reality can be and often is warped around us. What you see is not always what you get. The most obvious explanation is not generally the truth. His stories make you think twice about what you are reading. You begin to second guess everything you read and every character you meet. You wonder what their true motivation may be and if they are hiding something from the reader. His stories make you look deeper then the surface.
One of my favorite stories was “Murder Mysteries.” The story begins innocently enough with a man stuck in Los Angles when storms in England prevent him from flying home. There is little indication that anything bizarre is going to occur. But, as in many of Gaiman’s stories, there is this, “hold your breath,” waiting period. You are waiting for the moment when what you think is happening is going to be twisted around to reveal something out of the ordinary.
The man takes a late night walk and ends up sharing a cigarette with a stranger. In payment for the cigarette the stranger offers to tell the man a story. He tells him a tale of angels, a murder and the set up of the pieces that will create the present day universe. It is a story that holds the protagonist captive as well as the reader. We want to know who killed the angel and why. We are astounded to find out how the whole thing was a set-up to place the pieces for Lucifer’s fall.
The end is the point where the reader is left to make an interpretation of their own. It ends with the man on a plane on his way home. He reads about a grisly triple murder, one that sounds like it involves the people he was with before he met the stranger. You are left wondering who the stranger was. Was he the angel from the story? Was he crazy? Did he do something to our main character in order to continue his job as a vengeance bringer? Or did he let him off the hook for any crime he may have committed? Gaiman doesn’t state out right what he wants the reader to take away from the story. You are left intrigued and curious. It is up to you to look beyond the smoke and decide what the story was meant to tell you. Gaiman allows his readers to instill a part of themselves in the tale and take away what they deem is important.
The other story I really liked was, “We Can Get That for You Wholesale.” It is yet another story that appears to start out innocent. A man finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him. He goes looking for a way to punish her and decides to see if he can find an assassin to do the job. He ends up finding a company via the yellow pages.
One of the best parts of Gaiman’s writing is the way he puts these seemingly outlandish pieces into his story. We should be surprised and questioning why someone would advertise being an assassin in the yellow pages. But our protagonist passes it off and accepts it easily and in turn we do the same. He doesn’t wonder about it over and over. He doesn’t question it. He accepts it and moves and so must we as readers.
What is great about this story is the way it escalates. At first the man just wants his ex-girlfriend and the man she cheated with dead. But the man he meets with from the company keeps offering him a better deal. If he has more and more people taken out it gets cheaper and cheaper for the man.
It is a bit of dark humor. We kind of laugh as the man starts making lists of people he hates. He forces reasons why he wouldn’t mind that they die; just so he can take advantage of the deal. The reason this works so well is because we all can relate to the idea, granted on a much lesser scale.
We all have heard of a deal and thought, “Well I can’t pass that up!” You are shopping online and if you add just one more item you get free shipping. Though many times that item is actually more expensive then the shipping itself would have been. We all are guilty of hearing a deal and wanting to make sure we don’t walk away from a fantastic bargain. No one wants to be that person who “lost,” money.
The idea here is to always look beyond the surface. The man doesn’t realize what he is doing. In the end he is the reason it would appear that this company is now going to take out the world. He allowed this to happen because he didn’t stop and try to see what was beyond the smoke screen of the fancy words and bargains. I loved this story because it was fun to read and it left you wondering at the end. It left you wondering if he had just questioned the whole thing once what could have happened.
This collection not only had short stories but some poems as well. There is a type of writing for everyone inside these pages. Gaiman also provided an explanation for where the inspiration for each story came from. I enjoyed this as well, it is always nice to see where some of these ideas spring from. As a reader I got immersed in each story. I read them wondering what may be beyond what I initially perceived and that made the stories fun and intriguing to read.
As I’ve stated in previous reviews I love a story that makes you think. The Alternate History genre is on the top of that list for me. The idea is to explore what could have been or what could be. We all ask the “What if?” questions. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler hadn’t killed himself? There are so many different tracts our lives and histories could have gone down. The idea that changing one event could change all of history is an intriguing idea. Which is why I enjoy stories like the one presented in this collection.
“The Best Alternate Stories of the 20th Century,” edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg, has fourteen alternate history stories written by various authors. The questions asked range from the generic about the South winning the Civil War to what if Shakespeare had never written his famous plays and sonnets? The stories presented here do not stay in one area. It is not a collection all about the Civil War or World War II. It runs the gamut of topics and explores many ideas and questions that you may never have thought too much about before. The range of histories are scary and unnerving at times while others do not seem all that bad.
Not all the stories of the collection were memorable to me, though most were. I did have a bit of trouble in a few of the stories pinpointing exactly how history had been altered for the story, mostly in the stories that were set in the far distant future. This could be for a variety of reasons. It is most likely because I have a limited knowledge of history. There is a good possibility I missed a significant aspect of a story because I did not know about that moment in history. But this did not happen often and was only for one or two of the stories.
I did have three stories that stood out to me. The first was titled “The WinterBerry,” by Nicholas A. DiChario. The story is told in a what appears to be a diary format with dated entries. It is never stated outright who the speaker is but you can infer from the dates and other characters present that it is President John F. Kennedy. The what if question that is asked and answered is, What if President Kennedy had not died in the assassination attempt? In this story it appears he survived but was severely mentally handicapped to the point where he thinks like a young child. The story gives us a glimpse into the extent that the government could go to, to hide something them deem harmful from the American people.
John F. Kennedy is hidden away from the public, leaving everyone to believe that he has died. They say it is safer for the country. It is an interesting story because it seems plausible to me. (Not that I believe it is true but the actions taken seem like a possibility). People see leaders has infallible many times. For a country to see their leader acting and speaking like a child would be a shock and could cause issues. I could see people becoming confused and having trouble trusting the government for a time. They would have trouble reconciling the incident and consequences throwing off many other aspects of life. Hiding him away would make sense to keep people from losing trust and faith in the power of the country. The What if here asks how far would our government go to conceal truths they believe would hurt and cause disruption to the country?
The second story that stood out to me was “Dance Band of the ‘Titanic,’” by Jack L. Chalker. This story didn’t ask just one historical What if question. What it did was more of show that there are many alternate lines of history that could be running all around us.
The story centers on a ferry boat that travels on the edge of alternate world lines or parallel universes. The crew are the only ones who realize that they are slipping between different histories. People board from all type of histories and time periods and do not interact with people outside of their own time. The crew watches as these people come and go, over and over, sometimes changing dramatically and sometimes not at all.
The story focuses on one young woman who commits suicide time after time. Our protagonist is intent on saving her and eventually does just that. The question becomes how has he now altered her storyline and that of those around her?
This story takes the concept of the whole book and sort of sums it up in one story. The crew of this ferry boat are able to see just how life can be altered by one decision. I enjoyed this story because it makes you think about the concept of alternate histories.
“The Undiscovered,” by William Sanders asks the question of What if Shakespeare ended up in the New World and never wrote his famous plays and sonnets?
Inside of this story the reader gets to watch as a master of words is lost to time. He never leaves anything behind him. The story doesn’t give details about a world without his writing instead leaving the reader to consider the consequences. Such as what would our idea of love and sacrifice be like without a classic such as “Romeo and Juliet,”? What would tragedy have evolved into without “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth,”? What would our language sound like without the multitude of words and phases he left behind. This story is one where we are able to consider a world that could be vastly different from ours today.
If you want to explore what could have been I suggest taking a trip through this collection. Not every story will make you step back and go “Hmmm,” but some will. It is a book full of stories that allows you to think about the consequences of one action or one event. It allows you to be able to consider the vast amount of possibilities that history has to offer.