Trigger Warning: What’s in It? 

(This article was first published on Book Riot.)

Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is introduced, aptly, with a trigger warning that sounds in tone like he’s addressing children (he isn’t, of course). This book, Gaiman warns, may awaken “monsters in our cupboards” and so cause unwanted distress. The mishmash of prose and poetry assembled here are connected only very broad and subjective thread, which mostly does live up to its disturbing promise, though sometimes it fades or even disappears entirely into a disappointing muddle. For those considering whether to read the book, here’s a list (without spoilers) of what’s in it.

Making a Chair
A rather inane poem about writing books.

“The Lunar Labyrinth”
A very pale tribute to Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrinth,” which is so much more than just a suspenseful story.

“The Thing About Cassandra”
Sweet story with a twist, about made-up romances, enriched with just little twinge of nostalgia at the end.

Down to a Sunless Sea
About a woman who lost her son. Can’t be faulted for style, but while the “you” of the story stumbles out with “the rain run[ing] down [her] face like someone else’s tears,” my own eyes remained dry.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Gaiman’s award-winning novelette, rich enough to deserve a whole article on its own. For now, we shall have to be content with just a brief summary. In this story, a dwarf journeys with a guide to a cave supposedly filled with gold. There is a mythical quality to his language here, with striking images that remind one of the futility of greed and wealth, and, less obviously, of revenge.

My Last Landlady
A story dressed as a poem. Seems like it got squeezed into the wrong clothes.

Adventure Story
An apparently boring mom recalls her husband’s adventures. Meh. 

“Orange”
About aliens, told in questionnaire format. Quirky, playful and original.

“A Calendar of Tales”
An assembly of 12 tales, each written from a reply to a tweet asking people about their experiences during a particular month of the year. Interesting project, disappointing stories. The March one was especially weird. I mean, why ducks?

The Case of Death and Honey
Written as an ending to the Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes investigates the solution to eternal life from bees, and though this process wasn’t very interesting, I like how the story closes on an ambiguous note that leaves us wondering if death is really such a crime after all.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
Another tribute. This one’s better; I can sympathise with the narrator. How we love our favourite authors!

“Jerusalem”
Where we all want to go; but is it as good a land of milk and honey as we think? Jerusalem Syndrome is an intriguing phenomenon, but the story itself is unimpressive.

Click-clack the Rattlebag
Delightfully creepy.

An Invocation of Curiosity
Deserving winner of the Locus Award for Best Short Story. This strange little tale, full of potent imagery and motifs, pricked me with a curious sense of sorrow; sorrow for loss of wonder and curiosity, for buried longing, and for our timidity in invoking it in ourselves.

“And Weep, Like Alexander”
About uninventing things. An uninspired rehashing of Gaiman’s favourite theme; I didn’t care much about the lost things here.

“Nothing O’Clock”
This one seems like it’s just catering to Doctor Who fans. As a story it’s frivolous and insubstantial.

“Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”
Much more disturbing than the original tale of toads and diamonds. Overturns traditional didacticism for a grimmer, contemporised portrait of life.

The Return of the Thin White Duke
A few mawkish clichés here and there but overall a great fairy tale reflecting the journey of artist and audience. Like the king in the story we too are transformed after the tale, emerging with larger hearts, into a world both old and new.

Feminine Endings
A living statue writes a love letter to a woman. “Life imitates art,” writes Gaiman in his introduction to the story, “but clumsily, copying its movements when its not looking.” In this story it does so in way that’s sad and beautiful and just a little bit sinister.

“Observing the Formalities”
Short rant in free verse from the POV of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty.” The persona is one-dimensionally self-righteous and bitter–something I’d expect from a Disney cartoon or nursery rhyme, not a poem with any claims to seriousness.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”
One of the treasures in this collection. The tale artfully merges “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in a fresh, empowering way that would make feminists happy.

Witch Work
This poem is full of stock phrases, and some words just seem stuck for the rhyme; but the idea of a witch in a house full of clocks is interesting, and the repetition, metre and rhyme give the poem a suitably chant-like quality.

In Relig Odhráin
What’s up with all these poems? This one is about the legend of Oran of Iona, who was rumoured to have been willingly buried alive under the foundations of a chapel that Columba wanted to build.

“Black Dog”
A gratifying ghost story set as a sequel to American Gods. The ending was a bit of a cop-out but I like the suspense-building and the way feelings of guilt, fear and depression are amplified through Gaiman’s representation of the Grim.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances yields more treasures than junk. Be warned, though, before you pull the trigger: some stories are disturbing, and some would need to be read twice.

Bring Back My Baby

They were heartbreakingly lovely. Each a miniature world, round and complete, bobbing and shimmering against the drain wall. What were they? Despite her heels, Keiko knelt over the pavement. Eight of them, staring like fish eyes. She shuddered, picking them up with her kitchen forceps. People gave her odd looks–that quick, curious glance before the embarrassed head-ducking that follows at the sight of aberration. She flushed, scurrying back to the junk-jammed pocket of space they’d lived in since nuclear radiation had blown everyone west.

They’d been hounding her, more and more lately. Translucent white globules that appeared everywhere, even in her coffee; and any attempt to get rid of them just brought them back with a vengeance. One night she’d woken to that familiar metallic tang; they were all over her bed, in her mouth, between her legs. Those that had been squished oozed a red juice that wouldn’t come off. She’d had to get new sheets.

Now she just kept them in a cup, far back in the kitchen cabinet.

“Keiko.”

She jumped, cabinet door banging shut. Her husband stood by the kitchen entrance. His gaze made her flesh crawl. The forceps twisted, round and round, in her fingers.

“We need to ta–”

Her hand flew up, slamming the cabinet door, which had swung ajar.

“Hey. We were merciful. He wouldn’t’ve been happy, growing up like–”

She believed him, she did. But she felt strangely weak. No strength left, to clutch at his words. A rumbling sound had started up in the cabinet and her fingers floated up–stay shut dammit–but already they were jostling out, splatting on the floor like eggs, and in each was a shadow, something wriggling. She shrieked; she didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from that thing in front of her.

It was wailing, its hammered-in face glutted with limbs crushed by the doctor’s forceps and spliced back in perverse places, coated in red-tinged slime. Her baby flopped toward her; tiny fingers, tiny toes. He would’ve been lovely, heartbreakingly lovely. She sobbed, shaking. Sorry, Mummy’s sorry.

Her husband tried to stop her. She’d been staring at something invisible between them, and when her arm rose it was as if something had yanked it. The forceps pierced one eye, then the other. 

Eventually, he left her. Not that he minded a blind wife; he just couldn’t stand the monstrous grimace that had grown on her face, as if she had something to spit out all the time. He didn’t know why, but it made his flesh crawl, too.

(about 400 words, written in response to Laura James’ Horror Bites Challenge #6)

Kindling A Passion For Print: On the E-book vs. Print Book War

On the surface of things, liking print books makes no sense.

Recently, a friend saw my shelves and floor strewn all over with books and accused me of being a hipster. “Who buys physical books anymore?” he scoffed. And he went on to wax lyrical on the comparative merits of the Kindle, which I won’t get into here as that topic has already been covered in-depth by many. Unless you’re technologically challenged, my friend insists, or you live under a rock, there’s no good reason for a real book lover to continue buying books in print. Claims about the ‘feel’ of a physical book, often glossed over as something ‘indescribable,’ are founded on irrational sentiments such as nostalgia, which ought not to have an impact on a real book lover’s choice of book format. After all, if I really loved books, my decision would be based on practical considerations; so anything that allows me to read more often and widely would be the winner. A Kindle allows ease of travel, greater access to more books at cheaper prices, word search functions, and it isn’t even any worse for your eyes than a book-book is. So, my friend concludes, the only reason why anyone would to buy book-books is that they want to look good–whether to others or just themselves.

I must say I agree with him on the merits of the Kindle–I don’t go anywhere without mine–but I wouldn’t dismiss physical books entirely. When studying complex subjects or texts that require multiple cross-references, it helps to lay out print versions of books and essays all around me. I work on the floor, Japanese-style, so I have a whole circle of space around me for me to get a bird’s eye view of my research, draw links between different sources, and jot down notes. Mapping ideas out physically helps me remember them better than just highlighting them in an e-book. And when I want to recall something I read, in a physical book I’d remember roughly where to flip to; whereas if I can’t remember any keywords, the Kindle’s search function would be useless . Of course, the search function is also invaluable in research, so sometimes I would get both the print and electronic versions of the same text.

But I’ve always felt, vaguely, that when reading physical books my brain feels sharper, more focused, and I can concentrate for longer periods of time. With my Kindle I seem to need lots more discipline. I thought this feeling was purely psychological, so I did some quick Googling and found that it’s actually backed by evidence: apparently, a study done by researches in Norway’s Stavanger University found that readers using a Kindle fared significantly worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occured in a mystery story. In immersion, empathy and other emotional responses, though, Kindle fans would be glad to know that both Kindle and paper readers performed equally.

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My Kindle’s my workhorse but reading on it made me appreciate printed texts more.

Well, this is only one study. Would future generations fare better on Kindle if that’s what they grow up with and are used to? I don’t know, but it does help explain why reading texts the old fashioned way feels better to me, especially when it comes to non-fiction. There’s a flow to it that’s supported by the tactile feel of flipping pages, the subconscious awareness of a sheaf of paper rising and falling from one hand to another as you course through the novel. A Kindle, for all its provision of greater mobility, doesn’t have seem to allow you this same ease of travel, because its hardware remains static and its screen fragments the narrative into framed and uniform pages that seem disjointed from one another rather than parts of an organic whole.

Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of passing down physical books. I love my second-hand novels, scribbled with the annotations of strangers, some of them so old they have become ghosts, genius spirits whose names I don’t know but who share my heart and whose voices I hear whispering through these yellowed, dog-eared pages. Every print book collects in its physical form its own history of readership, and so abounds with its own mystery as it evokes in one a sense of worlds and minds beyond one’s own. It’s a vague, delicious sense of transcending space and time. An e-book is only ever yours, replicated in binary code through a multitude of devices, easily replaceable if burnt; and with the current turnover rate for electronics, I won’t be surprised if my great-grandchildren aren’t using Kindles any more.

“So,” you ask me, “should I get a Kindle?” Well, it depends on how you read. Do you devour your books, or savour them? I like to do both, so while I won’t be throwing out my Kindle any time soon, I’ll definitely still be haunting my local of bookstores and libraries, on pain of being called a hipster. Sadly, though, this pool seems to be drying up far too quickly.