I first encountered the words “trigger warning” in the No Sleep sub-reddit. Just two words, four syllables, and yet it hit my curiosity. What, exactly, does trigger warning mean? TRIGGER WARNING. It sounded so ominous and striking (in all dark, terrifying ways possible). Instead of consulting Google to find out its meaning, I went ahead and read the No Sleep stories that contained the Trigger Warning label on them. When I did so, I soon grasped the meaning of it, if only out of context. Disturbing. Dark. Twisted. Terrifying. Those stories were darkness and gray clouds, sinister smiles and outright cruelty. I continued to read anyway, although I skipped some stories that were too uncomfortable for me.
I came across those words again no more than a few years back, this time in the form of a book written by Neil Gaiman. I bought it, of course. No questions asked. And once I was done reading the book, there were no regrets in my buying decision. No regrets, only moments of unease, of feeling unsettled and uncomfortable as I voraciously ate up each story in “Trigger Warning.”
Today, I have picked four short stories that jumped out of the pages and clawed and gnawed at me. They’re stories of humans and non-humans, of quests and deaths, of truths and lies. They’re the kind of stories that stick with you, the scenes replaying in your mind, resurrecting discomfort long after you have put down the book.
“My Last Landlady”
Told in the form of a poem, each verse builds up and escalates like a punch in the gut as the landlady’s secret is revealed.
The tone is conversational, casual. It starts out so seemingly innocent but then the narration builds up, tenses, and then finally leaps out with the horrifying truth.
This is a short and quick read, but it definitely doesn’t fall short on the twisted-and-disturbed factor.
“Click-clack the Rattlebag”
Ominous. That’s the word that comes to mind with this story. There are no names here. Not the narrator, not even the child or the once-mentioned girlfriend. But there is the house: on the edge of town, very big and old. The kind you expect to creak and groan even with the lightest of footsteps.
The kitchen, where we first find the narrator, is warm and cozy. Most importantly, there is light there. Other parts of the house don’t. As the narrator goes up to the second floor with the child (but not without asking the little boy, “Shall I leave a note for your sister, telling her where we are?”), a scary story is being told: There is a creature who turns your insides to mush and sips it from your eyes. The little boy was the one doing all the storytelling here. As they both reach the next floor, the story takes a terrible and surprising turn.
“Nothing O’ Clock”
This is a “Doctor Who” mini-story where Amy and The Doctor take on masked villains, hell bent on taking over the world. These masked villains show up at the Browning family’s house, urging them to sell their house at a blindingly high price. This sets the chain of events in motion.
The masked villains wreak havoc and confusion as they eventually buy all of the houses and establishments. It is up to Amy and The Doctor to stop them. It is no easy task, as it involves going against Time while outsmarting those power-hungry villains.
This is creepy because can you imagine people wearing animal masks showing up randomly at your front door? Even worse, you soon learn that you have nowhere else to go because all the houses and hotels and other establishments have been bought by them. Don’t let me get started on the scene where the little Browning girl went back to their house to get her diary. (I won’t, so as not to give away the ending.)
This story is just plain spooky and creepy.
Another Shadow Moon story, brimming with the strange and supernatural. It’s been three years since his wife’s sudden death and we find him in a pub somewhere in England’s countryside. Here, we are introduced to the local lore about Black Shuck, the “fairy dog” who wanders a certain road. But it’s not Black Shuck who made this story unsettling. Instead, it’s the passed down tale about sacrificing children and animals when an establishment is built.
We also meet Moira and Ollie in this story, a friendly couple who offer to take Shadow in for the night. (Bad rainy weather, you see.) Then there’s Cassie Burglass, a dark-haired woman who has taken an interest in Shadow.
There is madness and murder in this particular story. I think what makes “Black Dog” creepy and disturbing is this: There is truth to the story that a man, when his logic is overpowered by his emotions, can possible commit such a terrible act. It’s the same kind of horror we see or hear about in the news, past beyond the world of fiction. And that’s always terrifying.
Short stories are the best, more so when it’s horror. What short horror stories have you enjoyed and yet creeped you out? I would love to hear some recommendations.
(You can read my blog post on another book brimming with short horror stories, Stephen King’s “Night Shift.”)