Backstories Creative Process Discussion of writing style Review of anthology Review of Fantasy Reviews of short stories

Don’t say you weren’t warned – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning

On April 28, 2022, Neil Gaiman started doing again what all writers do when they make a living as a published author: book tours. He started in the unpronounceable Schenectady, NY, USA, and by May 26th, two days from now, he will have visited 19 cities and ended up in Pittsburgh, PA. He says it’s the first time that he has done a book tour since COVID. Right now, he is very much moving forward with his public activities, which means he will:

“…get out there every night, read stories and poems and suchlike, answer questions and generally try to interact with a living, breathing audience. I’m a bit nervous, to be honest. Still, the idea of interacting with living, breathing human beings seems wonderful.”

– Neil Gaiman on his website

Aw! Ain’t that a nice thing to say about human beings!

My new favourite author

I have also learned over the past few days that he has been this good as an author since, well, always. In terms of quality, his writing has remained superlative for decades.

I have been having a bit of a Neil Gaiman Revival in my reading habits. I confess that, since the death of Terry Pratchett, I have been looking for a replacement author, someone who writes as intriguingly, wittily and expertly as he does (did). I took Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass, and was glad I did, because that led me to rediscover him as an author. The last writing of Gaiman that I had read and that I had not found particularly likeable, was Good Omens, which he had co-authored with Pratchett.

Back then, I had not found that the combination of writing styles worked well – neither had it worked well when Pratchett co-authored The Long Earth Science Fiction book series with Stephen Baxter. But then, you can analyze Pratchett’s writing word by word and confirm that yes, he wrote according to a formula. He stuck to that formula, and it worked. It was predictable, and funny, and charming, and also – of course – satirical. But it did not work so well in combination with other authors, though copying his style would be possible.

I recently re-read Good Omens, and now I can see where it is Pratchett, and where it is Gaiman’s input. The reasons I can see that now, is because I went and bought some books by Gaiman – and I can say that I have now discovered my new Most Favourite Fantasy Author: Neil Gaiman.

Trigger Warning – Short Fictions and Disturbances

He no longer teaches at Bard College, NY, but if he had I would’ve lived with the cost and signed up just to be in his classes. Yesterday I finished Trigger Warning, a collection of his short and slightly longer writings. The stories were published from as long ago as 2004, to 2015, when the anthology first came out in hard cover. Looking back at his writing, I was seriously impressed. It shows that he is a master of a wide range of forms and techniques, doing all of them equally well, including – surprise! – poetry. I had no idea. And it’s excellent poetry too, really well written.

Trigger WarningShort Fictions and Disturbances, by Neil Gaiman – Mass market paperback edition (First William Morrow mass market printing: January 2021; first William Morris paperback printing: Oct. 2015; first William Morris hardcover printing: February 2015; copyright 2015 by Neil Gaiman, cover artwork by very famous artist Robert McGinnis, 339 pages)

Every story starts differently

There are 24 stories in the pocket-sized mass market paperback, and what’s fascinating is that not one of them is from the perspective or the starting point that you’d expect.

Orange, for example, is presented as the recorded responses of a witness of a crime to questions from an investigator. But you only read the answers, not the questions. You have to deduce the questions yourself. You can work out the whole plot and all the implications from clues in the cleverly written answers of the witness. With short stories, all the elements of long fiction must be there, but compacted. For him to take those elements, such as the story arc or the narrator, and turn them on their heads, and still produce an unputdownable but understandable story, demonstrates a very high level of skill.

The Return of the Thin White Duke

Another example is the story, The Return of the Thin White Duke: It starts off as a fairytale, told from the perspective of the “Duke”, ruler of a Dukedom, who is a thoroughly jaundiced, bored, and uncaring monarch. The Duke needs a challenge, something to make him care, not something to give him a moral lesson. So he jumps on his steed and goes off to save a damsel in distress:

“The Duke clambered onto the battle-steed’s back, the cold metal yielding as live flesh between his thighs, and he urged it forward. A leap and it was racing through the froth and flux of Underspace: together they were tumbling through the madness between the worlds.”

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman, p. 233, The Return of the Thin White Duke

And from the use of that word, “Underspace”, it is clear that this is no longer the world of fairytales, it is now something else. Then Gaiman twists the convention on its head and turns the storyline into an abstract, time-shifting adventure, which ends up in a bar, sometime before 1975, which is when David Bowie took on the stage persona of “The Thin White Duke”:

“He pressed on. He suspected he had once been wearing armor, but he felt the damp mist on is face, and on his neck, and he shivered in his thin coat against the cold night air.”

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman, p. 240, The Return of the Thin White Duke
David Bowie as The Thin White Duke

When I found out about whom this story is, I realized that Gaiman had given David Bowie a rather fitting aura of mystery. (Bowie died in 2016, after this story had been published.)

Revealing the backstories

This collection has another feature that makes it outstanding: In the Introduction, Gaiman explains how and why he came to write the stories, why he used such unexpected approaches, and where his inspiration came from.

He writes that the reader can first read all the stories and then come back to the explanations, or vice versa. I came back to the explanations afterwards. Regarding The Return of the Thin White Duke, Gaiman writes:

“The title is a quote from a David Bowie song, and the story began, some years ago, with a fashion magazine asking the remarkable Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano to do some fashion drawings of Bowie and his wife, Iman. Mr. Amano asked if I would like to write a story to accompany them.

I wrote the first half of a story, with plans to conclude it in the next issue of the magazine. But the magazine lost interest before they had published the first part, and the story was forgotten.

For this anthology I thought it would be an adventure to finish it, and find out what was going to happen, and where it was all heading. If I had known once (I must have known once), I still found myself reading the story like a stranger, and walking alone into the mist to learn where it was going.”

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman, pp. xxxv – xxxvi, Introduction

Ha. I bet that nameless magazine publisher felt quite regretful after 2004, when Gaiman wrote the first part of the story, when they realized that they could have had an original piece of writing by a very famous author.

Yoshitaka Amano’s drawings of David Bowie and Iman (Source:, retrieved May 24, 2022). Amano is probably best known in gaming circles as the original character designer and illustrator for the older Final Fantasy games.

I can see, particularly in the middle and right-hand images, above, the elements that Gaiman included in the short story – the damsel, the romance, the mist, the dragon, the guitar as a weapon, and Bowie as a skinny, pale man/Duke.

Comes with a trigger warning

This is just one of the intriguing stories and backstories in the collection. They are all great, and scary. That’s the meaning of the title, Trigger Warning. The stories contain elements that will suddenly rise up and terrify the reader, and “…what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead”. (Trigger Warning, p. xi, Introduction, 1. The Little Triggers)

There is something frightening for everyone in these stories, so be warned – as Gaiman states up front.

The backstories are entertaining by themselves, particularly this one:

“Jonathan Strahan is a nice man and good editor. He lives in Perth, Western Australia. I have a bad habit of breaking his heart by writing something for an anthology he is editing and then taking it away. I always try and mend his broken heart by writing something else, though. This is one of those something elses.”

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman, pp. xxxv – xxiii, Introduction, Orange

There: now you have a new abstract noun: a something elses.

Gaiman’s writing style

What I learned from reading this, is that Gaiman is a completely different writer from Pratchett or anyone else that I’ve read. If I can generalize: his narrative approaches are unusual, his ideas are unconventional, he writing does not conform strictly to genres, and he expresses himself in a subtle yet clear way. He even uses punctuation in a minimalistic way. He does not write over-the-top descriptions. He does not do overt humour.

His ideas seem to sneak up on you rather obliquely and then stay in your mind like…a curious and vexing apparition that lurks in the corner of your lounge.

Recommendation – read!

I recommend that you give yourself a treat and read this – you will be amazed at how he turns a random idea into inspiration and into a story – and it is just so much fun to read and so quick. You can gobble up bite-sized mouthfuls, one tale at a time.

His bibliography is, of course, diverse and enormous, and Trigger Warning is the seventh anthology of his writing. The others are:

Angels and Visitations (DreamHaven, 1993)
Smoke and Mirrors (William Morrow and Company, 1998)
Fragile Things (William Morrow and Company, 20068)
M is for Magic (HarperCollins, 20073)
Who Killed Amanda Palmer (Eight Foot, 2009)
A Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff (Borderlands Press, 2011)

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