As I was planning this column, I began thinking about the concept of fairy tales – not fairy tales in the Hollywood Disney sense, but rather fairy tales as a learning tool, an instruction that the good guys do not always win. With that in mind, I chose two recent books by Neil Gaiman, whom I consider a master at telling modern fairy tales.
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman is the third collection of the author’s short fiction.
The titular concept stems from the phrase which is often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material. Gaiman developed the idea after seeing numerous uses of the phrase online. He wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it should be. Finally, he decided he should be the one to do it first.
Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works. Trigger Warning, however, 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 forward: “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.”
Gaiman’s collection starts out simply enough in “Making a Chair”. In the 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 warnings a chair does. “Do not use as a stool or stepladder. Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”
In many ways, the story comes across as a mockery of the idea of trigger warnings. Gaiman subscribes to the Aristotle way of thinking. Aristotle believed that seeing horrors committed on stage would allow people to experience those horrors and the feelings they evoke in a safe environment and would keep them from acting out their urges on society. Gaiman takes a similar approach. He purports that the things which shock or disturb, are the things which most make us think and grow. With that in mind, it does appear at times that Gaiman 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 brilliant cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion. While many of the answers will illicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinisterness to the 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 little boy 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 rattle bag and the reader is left with an ending that will leave even the adults checking under the bed at night.
Gaiman also lets loose his fanboy side. “The Case of Death and Honey” follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the true reason Holmes took up bee-keeping in his retirement. “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday. It is a poignant tale of loss, and Gaiman writes it 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 is well known for having written two episodes of Doctor Who and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.”
Hansel and Gretel, Gaiman’s most recent book for children, makes a fine companion piece to Trigger Warning. A re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things, stating “…if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.” He then adds “…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.”
One notable change in Gaiman’s version from the more recent editions is that Gaiman takes care to preserve one of the more controversial elements of the Grimm Brother’s version: the mother. At some point in the mid 19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to step-mother. Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.
Gaiman’s witch is also a more sinister character than later tellings. In the modern tellings the witch comes across as a deranged caricature – a demented hag who perhaps is not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children. In Gaiman’s version, the witch is instead simply a bitter, dragged down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.
Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor of the fairy tale. 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 waiting his execution. Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread in the reader. 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.