Sunday, 18 September 2016

Short Story Sunday 18: Reading Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, Part One

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing since my early teens. Surprisingly, I discovered him through his novels and not his comic book work. I say it’s surprising since I fell into the world of American comics in just a couple years later. No matter, I’ve followed him across genres since I first finished American Gods and I’ll continue to read anything I come across that has his name on it. I’ve rarely been disappointed by this decision.

Sadly, as life takes it course you sometimes find yourself with a shortage of spare time. When that happens, things like picking up any new book by a favourite author don’t always happen as planned. It’s for that reason that I’m only reading Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances now. I’ll be reviewing each story and poem here as a series of post for Short Story Sunday. This is the first one of these posts.

“Making a Chair” by Neil Gaiman
Read in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015)
First appeared in print in Trigger Warning (2015), but previously appeared on the CD An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer (2011)

I’m not sure how to review poetry. I don’t know enough about their structure and the different kinds of poems to write about with any success. It’s not even a form of writing that I read a lot. I rarely even encounter poetry unless you consider music a form of poetry. I guess you easily could, but I often don’t simply because I consider it music and leave it at that. Still, the fact remains it’s not a part of my brain I utilize often. It’s nice to find a poem by an author I know and like as it encourages me to actually read it rather than skip over and move on to the good stuff (re: prose!). Gaiman mentions in his introduction to a previous collection Fragile Things that the poems included in the book are free. He reiterates that in his introduction to this book. I like free things. Sure, let’s read the poems.

Trigger Warning opens with “Making a Chair” which, you guessed it, is a poem. It’s a neat little poem, actually. It tells a story, which is my favourite kind of poem as it gives me an easy way in and I tend to understand them better. This one is appears to be straightforward, but actually plays around with some significant themes. Gaiman writes about the act of assembling a chair and weaves some other ideas into the mix.

Among them is the idea of creative process and how it’s a difficult beast to tame. Some days, inspiration is there and you spend your writing time actually writing. Other days, you’re doing something else that seems unrelated at first but later can be identified as something similar to writing. Here, the author builds a chair. It takes a couple hours and some of the warnings on the instruction sheets could also be applied to writing and even reading.

Ranking: 3 stars
It might be a little too straightforward, but my rookie poem reading skills can appreciate something like that. Especially when the story being told includes depth to go along with the simple imagery. This is by no means a throwaway tale, but doubtful that it will stay with me for more than a few hours. Still, that’s long enough to consider it a success. It also serves as a good introduction to this collection at it flirts with the themes that Gaiman alludes to with the book’s title and his introduction.

“A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman
Read in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015)
Originally published in Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe (2013), edited by J. E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett.

It delights me that writers have specific styles and pet themes that imbue their work with a certain feel or tone. When you read an author’s body of work you usually develop a sense of what to expect. With some writers its learning their formula, seeing how they depend on it more and more as their careers progress and with others its seeing their faults more clearly which each additional work. The good authors, like Gaiman, those you learn to cherish for reasons that range from the general to the personal, you develop a sense of familiarity and comfort with their work. You build expectations that are built more on style and tone than on content, yet all elements are enjoyed with each new story you read.

“A Lunar Labyrinth” is a good example of that. This reads like a Neil Gaiman story. Gaiman is particularly good at sneaking in old things, magic from an age gone by, into the familiar setting of our world. There isn’t much plot here and there doesn’t need to be any. It’s almost an artifact in the way it’s composed. The reader learns about the lunar labyrinth right along with the main character from information given to him by his tour guide. You’re completely enthralled by the labyrinth, its history, and the little mysteries surrounding it. The whole thing ends with a bit of a twist, but there is enough malice included earlier on that it’s not surprising at all. It’s not entirely welcomed either as up to that point the labyrinth seemed like a grand place to visit. Still, Gaiman is the kind of writer that doesn’t shy away from the darker truths of magical things and it was unavoidable that the labyrinth’s mystery be revealed.

Ranking: 4 stars
This is a classic Gaiman tale in the mold of one of his most important influences, fellow author Gene Wolfe. I really liked it. It’s an unusual subject but it’s presented in such a way that an entire world is created. There is some lovely imagery and I’m sure that some of the details (rosemary bushes, the moon, etc.) would likely reveal more depth to this story. Gaiman has written about old places, old people, and old magic for decades and it shows here. The only reason it’s not a 5 star story is because it’s perfectly content being a 4 star story.

“The Thing About Cassandra” by Neil Gaiman
Read in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015)
Originally published in Songs of Love and Death: All-Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love (2010), edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

I liked the idea behind this story more than the execution. In it, a young man is confronted with a made up girlfriend from his teen years. As it’s to be expected with a premise like that, things aren’t as they seem and it kind of put me on guard. The resulting effect (which I’m sure was unintended) was that it pushed me out of the story.

My initial reaction to this is that it reminds me of another Gaiman penned story, “Calliope” from Sandman issue #17 with art by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III. In that issue, a man buys Calliope, one of the Muses from Greek mythology from a retired writer. She has brought her capture (the retired owner) plenty of fame and success as a novelist. That’s exactly what her new captor wants, too. It’s quite a good issue, one that always sticks out in my mind when I think of Sandman.

I thought of “Calliope” the entire time I read “The Thing About Cassandra”. Maybe it’s because both stories deal with creation of stories and people. Maybe it’s because they both focus on a women with names from Greek Mythology. Or maybe still it’s because both stories deal with certain thematic similarities. Either way, I enjoyed both stories, but “The Thing About Cassandra” a lot less.

Ranking: 2 stars
It feels like Gaiman is exploring ideas he’s done better elsewhere but there is enough craft on display to make it enjoyable. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it doesn’t make itself memorable either.

Next week: I’m taking a little science fiction detour before getting back to Trigger Warning

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