Review of Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning coverI know this may be considered blasphemy in both the goth and book worlds, but I personally find Neil Gaiman’s writing to be kind of hit or miss. I absolutely loved The Graveyard Book and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and found Good Omens to be a pleasantly amusing read. And of course I’ve been quite enjoying my foray into comics with his classic Sandman series. However, my first impression of Neil Gaiman’s writing was not a great one since I felt the first of his books I picked up—American Gods—failed to live up to the hype. His latest book, a collection of short fiction titled Trigger Warning, left me feeling similarly ambivalent. Most of the stories were great, but a couple were simply bizarre, mediocre, or boring, and I really didn’t buy into his overarching theme.

I think the title and its explanation in the book’s introduction threw me off from the beginning, and it was hard to recover from there. I was so disappointed to see such an intelligent and revered author completely misunderstand and trivialize the phrase “trigger warning.” In his introduction, Neil talks about life’s “little triggers” that throw us “out of our safe sane world.” While acknowledging that they can cause flashbacks, he focuses more on the more innocuous explanation of triggers as simply things that upset us. Ultimately, he twists the conversation into one about censorship and concludes that warnings and “safe places” have no place in fiction, since reading things that take us out of our comfort zone is beneficial and helps us grow. Thus, the title of the collection is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek mockery of the concept of trigger warnings.

Except … that’s not what trigger warnings are about. “Triggers” aren’t unsettling stories that make you vaguely uncomfortable. And “trigger warnings” aren’t meant to censor anything. Rather, trigger warnings serve to warn survivors of trauma that they are about to encounter something that could trigger episodes of PTSD symptoms. These warnings are generally applied to things like graphic descriptions of physical or sexual violence or abuse. Their purpose is to allow the reader to make an informed decision about reading material that may impact their well-being, not to suppress access to information. While Gaiman certainly isn’t alone in misusing the term, as illustrated by the examples he responds to in his introduction, his decision to call this collection of weird horror-ish fiction Trigger Warning didn’t come off as subversive and edgy, but rather as ignorant and insensitive.

With that out of the way … not all of the stories were to my taste but some of them were quite enjoyable. It was fun to see Gaiman pick up the mantle of Arthur Conan Doyle with his Sherlock story “The Case of Death and Honey.” I also really enjoyed “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” a chilling tale that blends fantasy, folklore, and revenge. Despite not particularly being a fan of the Doctor Who franchise, I actually found “Nothing O’clock” to be rather compelling, and certainly in line with the tone of the show. But my favorite story by far was “Black Dog” parts one and two—which is somewhat ironic since these stories continue the tale of Shadow, the main character from American Gods. Unlike its novel-length counterpart, though, “Black Dog” was a tightly written story with a simple yet intriguing plot. It had a slight Edgar Allan Poe-esque cast to it, which may have been what endeared the story to me.

Overall, if you’re a big fan of Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning is worth checking out, but it’s certainly not his best work. While the audiobook is fun because you get to hear the stories being read in Gaiman’s own voice, I think I would recommend the print book in this case to make it easier to flip between each story and his explanations of the background behind them in the introduction.

What did you think of Trigger Warning or Neil Gaiman’s use of the term? What other Gaiman stories would you recommend to improve my impression of him? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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