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book review

Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning includes short stories about Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

By Neil Gaiman

William Morrow, 400 pages, $33.50

Get in Trouble

By Kelly Link

Random House, 352 pages, $29.95

Where Neil Gaiman is concerned, the line between fantasist and fanboy is staggeringly thin. Gaiman is an unabashed enthusiast, with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of science-fiction and fantasy tropes and traditions. In the introduction to Trigger Warning, his third collection of short stories, Gaiman writes about "wholeheartedly and unashamedly" loving the British television series Doctor Who since he was a three-year-old; nearly a half-century later that love turned into a job writing for the series. (The episode "The Doctor's Wife" won Gaiman a Hugo Award in 2012.)

On one level, then, Nothing O'Clock, first commissioned for an anthology marking the 50th anniversary of the series, falls into the genre of fan fiction, though Gaiman's strengths as a craftsperson are sufficient to elevate the story, and the author's giddy enthusiasm for his task proves infectious. Devotees of the show will no doubt enjoy Gaiman's playful use of series mythology, including a scene in which the Doctor disguises the interior of the TARDIS (famous for being larger on the inside than it is on the outside) to look like a cramped and bureaucratic office room.

Elsewhere, Gaiman delivers a story about Sherlock Holmes in retirement; checks in with Shadow, the protagonist of one of his previous novels, American Gods, who gets waylaid in a pub in the East Midlands of England; and riffs on fairy tales including, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

Gaiman's evident zeal for this material makes him approachable in both his work and his persona: He is an avid user of social media and frequently engages directly with his fans online. One entry in the collection, A Calendar of Tales, consists of 12 vignettes created out of suggestions sent to the author by followers on Twitter.

His approachability provides a feeling of comfort and ease, but this sense of complacency seems a bit incongruous in a volume entitled Trigger Warning. In his introduction, Gaiman explains the origins of the term, initially used online to "warn people of links to images or ideas that could upset them and trigger flashbacks or anxiety or terror." When extended offline, to the realm of cultural products such as books, Gaiman writes that "What we read as adults should be read … with no warnings or alerts beyond, perhaps: Enter at your own risk."

Fair enough, but the book's title and introduction – coupled with the word "disturbances" in the subtitle – place something of a false expectation in readers' heads. This will be a collection of stories that will unsettle, chill or frighten. Though certain stories do have an uncanny aspect, and serve to elicit shivers (The Thing About Cassandra and Click-Clack the Rattlebag are two notable examples), the collection as a whole is less creepy than consoling: a suite of stories by a veteran tale-teller who is deeply invested in his material, but will not go out of his way to offer readers anything terribly shocking or unfamiliar.

Which sets the book immediately apart from Get in Trouble, Kelly Link's third collection of stories. Like Gaiman, Link traffics in the general realm of genre fiction, with a specific affinity for speculative fiction and fairy tales, but unlike the stories in Trigger Warning, the nine pieces in Link's new collection feel distinct from any set standard or storytelling tradition. These stories are odd and discomfiting, full of jagged edges and blind corners. (Gaiman has declared himself a fan of Link's work, calling her "probably the best short-story writer currently out there" and suggesting that she "should be declared a national treasure.")

The best of these stories allow the author's idiosyncratic sensibility to pierce through the veil of an emotionally engaging narrative, as in Secret Identity, a decidedly of-the-moment love story that follows a 15-year-old girl who travels from her home in Iowa to New York to meet the 34-year-old man she has been involved with online. The twist is that the object of the girl's affection doesn't know that she is a wan teenager; she has been passing herself off as her 32-year-old divorced sister.

Link is adept at investigating the notion of what a "secret identity" might mean in the anonymous world of online hookups, and to her credit she does not make the older online paramour into a creepy stalker, presenting him instead as a lonely man who is truly enamoured with the woman he has only met virtually. There is a villain of sorts – complete with the comic-book name Conrad Linthor – but even he does not cleave to stereotypical notions of venality. And the conceit of placing the online partners in the physical setting of a hotel that is hosting simultaneous gatherings of cosplay superheroes and dentists is inspired.

If the rest of the collection never quite reaches the lofty heights set by Secret Identity, there are nonetheless stories of abiding interest, including The New Boyfriend, which finds narrative propulsion in the confluence of our obsession with technology and a rampant consumerist mentality, and The Summer People, featuring a girl who acts as a caretaker for a neighbouring house, which is occupied by a cabal of shadowy tenants. (In a glancing nod to one of Gaiman's mutual interests, The Summer People includes a TARDIS-like tent that "folds up no bigger than a kerchief" but on the inside is the size of "a cottage with two brass beds and a chifferobe to hang your things up in.")

Other stories – I Can See Right Through You, Valley of the Girls and Light, for instance – often seem willfully obscure, as though the author takes great pleasure in leaving her reader stranded in a vague, unfamiliar landscape. Signposts – Hollywood movies, the Pyramids, a dangerous hurricane – appear at intervals, only to flicker and fade like mirages, leaving the reader wondering what they are all meant to add up to. The infestation of iguanas that accompanies the storm at the end of Light may have biblical resonance; then again, perhaps it does not.

The cascading series of doubling motifs in that tale increases the feeling of eeriness, and recalls Edgar Allan Poe, one of the progenitors of the modern short story. Link does not wear her influences on her sleeve in the manner of Gaiman; they are more often submerged and hinted at. It is left to the reader to navigate the ever-shifting landscape of Link's sensibility, and to decide whether to surrender, or give up in frustration.

Steven W. Beattie is Quill & Quire's reviews editor and writes regularly about short stories for The Globe and Mail.