Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning: An Overview

I’m going to write an overview, not a review, of Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. I don’t particularly feel like evaluating it yet, for one thing, and I think a description will be enough anyhow. What I will provide is maybe a brief description of the content followed by a quotation from each section. That should be enough to hook you into buying the book, hopefully, or to put you off of it forever. Either is fine. For my part, while I’d read a little bit of Gaiman before, this book is the one that made me a real fan. I’m reading American Gods for the first time now because of it.

Trigger Warning is a collection of twenty-four short stories preceded by an introduction in which Gaiman talks about his own stories. He warns you what he’s going to do ahead of time, and suggests that you think about how you want to learn about the stories before reading the rest of the introduction. You could read straight through, skip it, or come back afterwards, he suggests. I read the book cover to cover, introduction through the stories, and I didn’t feel that reading the introduction ruined the stories for me. I think that if I were to read the book again, I might just skip the introduction and then read each section of it immediately after reading the story.

Favorite quotation from the introduction? Gaiman’s description of how he met his wife: “I first spent time with the woman who would become my wife because she wanted to make a book of photographs of herself dead, to accompany her album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? She had been taking photographs of herself dead since she was eighteen. She wrote to me and pointed out that nobody was going to buy a book of photos of a dead woman who wasn’t even actually dead, but perhaps if I wrote some captions they might” (xxxii).

You can listen to the album on YouTube if you want:

I’m listening to this album as I write this post.

The quotation above is from Gaiman’s introduction to the story “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale.” Many of Gaiman’s stories are in fact fairy tales, but this one is about a daughter abandoned to her stepmother and stepsister who cares for everything that she encounters, so that when she gets home, jewels fall from her mouth when she is slapped by her stepmother. This story stood out to me because it ends by quoting from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

  1. “Making a Chair”: free verse poem about making a chair, which then compares chair making to writing. “Making a book is a little like making a chair. / Perhaps it ought to come with warnings, / like the chair instructions.”

2. “A Lunar Labyrinth”: “‘When the moon waned, they walked the lunar labyrinth with love,’ said my guide. ‘As it waxed, they walked it with desire, not with love. Do I have to explain the difference to you? The sheep and the goats?'”

3. “The Thing about Cassandra”: “The thing about Cassandra is this: I’d made her up.” Don’t worry. This quotation doesn’t give anything away.

4. “Down to a Sunless Sea”: “But instead you stumble out from under the canvas awning, and the water of the rain runs down your face like someone else’s tears.” The title alludes to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”

5. “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…”: “I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. . . I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.”

6. “My Last Landlady”: Another free-verse narrative poem. “We stand so still. / Why must we stand so still?” Gaiman’s poetry is readable, but as poetry, not as impressive as his fiction. It’s not at all bad. The form doesn’t seem necessary to the narrative most of the time, however — I’m not sure why he didn’t just write these in prose. He does answer this question in the introduction, of course, and his answer is that “this is the form in which the story came to me.” I won’t argue with that, but I don’t think the form contributes much to the narrative in the case of his poems.

7. “Adventure Story”: “Yes. No. Hang on. So what were these people? And pterodactyls have been extinct for fifty million years.”
“If you say so, dear. Your father never really talked about it.”

8.”Orange (Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire.) EYES ONLY.” I have to say that this story is perhaps my favorite, or at least certainly one of the top two or three. It’s a series of numbered answers to questions that the reader doesn’t see:

25) That she was glowing.
26) A sort of pulsating orange.

9. “A Calendar of Tales”: This story delivers on its title by providing a different short story for every month of the year. It has within it what is probably my new favorite love story, “October Tale”: “‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m good. No wishes. How’s the tea?'”

10. “The Case of Death and Honey”: A new Sherlock Holmes story that is very consistent with the Holmes canon, acts as a sort of midrash for the Holmes canon by describing the beginning of Holmes’s beekeeping years, and pays homage to the enduring nature of the character of Sherlock Holmes. “I am only alive when I perceive a challenge.”

11. “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”: “All I have left is the space in my mind where you used to be.”

12. “Jerusalem”: This story is a tribute to William Blake. It’s about a couple named Delores and (nice touch) Morrison who are visiting Jerusalem, and Delores has a bit of a breakdown. Morrison finds her on the street preaching. “‘Everything is love,’ she was telling the people. ‘Everything is Jerusalem. God is love. Jerusalem is love.'”

13. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”: “I would have pulled away then, if I could; but small, firm fingers pulled me forward, unrelentingly, into the dark.”

14. “An Invocation of Incuriosity”: “‘I want to go back to the beginning,’ he said. ‘When it started. I want to stand there in the light of the universe waking to itself, the dawn of everything.'”

15. “And Weep, Like Alexander”: “‘The trouble is,’ he said, ‘with the Wispamuzak gone, that’s it. I’m done. It’s all been uninvented. There are no more horizons left to undiscover, no more mountains left to unclimb.” This story is an amusing dig at smartphones in general and Apple in particular.

16. “Nothing O’Clock”: It’s a Dr. Who episode, and it made me want to watch Dr. Who again, which I did, with my son, who is now a fan:

“Were you always like this?”
“Like what?”
“A madman. With a time machine.”
“Oh, no. It took ages until I got the time machine.”

17. “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”: Discussed above.

18. “The Return of the Thin White Duke”: David Bowie tribute story. “I’d rather write a something song than rule the world.”

19. “Feminine Endings”: A love letter from a statue. “I dream of dragons.”

20. “Observing the Formalities”: Another narrative poem. “It could be argued that I should not have turned up uninvited.”

21. “The Sleeper and the Spindle”: Very much another fairy tale, as you should tell from the title. “It’s always the same with your kind. You need youth and you need beauty. You used your own up so long ago, and now you find ever-more-complex ways of obtaining them. And you always want power.”

22. “Witch Work”: Another poem, this one using standard four-line, cross-rhymed stanzas. “She sold me a storm when my anger was strong / And my hate filled the world with volcanoes and laughter.”

23. “In Relig Odhråin“: Also a poem, based on a true story. Think Browning poem about monks. “(God is not what you imagine. Nor is Hell and nor is Heaven).”

24. “Black Dog”: A continuation of American Gods in which Shadow Moon is in England en route to London. When he arrives in London, Gaiman seems to imply, that will be the beginning of the next novel. “I don’t know why you can look at me and see the real me, or why I can talk to you when I find it so hard to talk to other people. But I can. And you know, you seem all normal and quiet on the surface, but you are so much weirder than I am. And I’m extremely f– weird.”  

My favorite stories: the Dr. Who and Sherlock riffs, the questionnaire, and the love story.

Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at for details.

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