The modern fairy tales of Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (William Morrow, 2015) is the third collection of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction.

The title stems from the phrase often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material. After seeing the phrase online, Gaiman wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it ought to be, and decided he should be the one to do it first.

Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works. Trigger Warning collects them all together for the first time into a single cohesive theme.  

From the lightest to the most terrifying, Gaiman creates a world of unconventional and sometimes whimsical fairy tales for adults. In keeping with his own theme, Gaiman cautions readers in the foreword: “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.”

The collection starts out with “Making a Chair.” In simple prose about struggling through a creative block, Gaiman muses as to whether or not building a book should come with the same sort of warning as a chair: “Do not use as a stool or stepladder. Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”

The story comes across as a mockery of trigger warnings. Gaiman subscribes to Aristotle’s way of thinking, that seeing horrors onstage allows people to experience the feelings evoked in a safe environment and keep them from acting out their urges on society.

Gaiman purports that the things which shock or disturb are the things that most make us think and grow. With that in mind, it does appear at times he is making a particular effort to disturb the reader.  

Such is the case in “Down to a Sunless Sea,” in which an old woman wears a bone from her dead son as a necklace and in the end reveals a terrible secret.

“Orange,” written completely in questionnaire form, is a cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion. While many of the answers will elicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinister tone, and readers will be longing for Gaiman to fill in the gaps.

“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” begins innocuously enough with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s little brother for the first time. The brother takes an immediate liking to the boyfriend and asks to be told a story—specifically, a click-clack the rattlebag story. As the story unfolds, the boyfriend learns all about the click-clack rattlebag, whose ending will leave even adults checking under the bed at night.

Gaiman lets loose his fanboy side in “The Case of Death and Honey,” which follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the reason he took up beekeeping.

“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday. It is written with such sadness and eloquence that one can’t help but mourn the loss of things forgotten.  

Finally, “Nothing O’Clock” delves into the world of Doctor Who. Gaiman has written two episodes of the popular television show and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.” ★ ★ ★ ★



Gaiman’s most recent book for children, Hansel and Gretel (Toon Graphics, 2004) takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things. “If you are protected from dark things,” he said at the book’s release, “then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up...It is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.”

Gaiman preserves one of the more controversial elements of the classic Brothers Grimm version—the mother. At some point in the mid-19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to stepmother. Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.

Gaiman’s witch is also more sinister. Rather than a deranged caricature, perhaps not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children, in Gaiman’s version, the witch is a bitter, dragged-down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor. Initially, the black-and-white ink sketches appear haphazard and non-cohesive. Upon further inspection, however, the reader sees the subtle features of the main characters as they are lost in the forest or as Hansel sits in jail awaiting his execution. Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread. Patches of white are used sparsely until the final Happily Ever After where the white fills nearly the entire page, deftly filling the reader with a sense of joy and victory.

Though perhaps not recommended bedtime reading, at least not for the easily frightened, Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel will easily become new favorites for fans, young and old, of Gaiman's work. ★ ★ ★ ★

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