“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This is one of a handful of unfamiliar stories in the cumbersomely titled Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume 1 from Subterranean Press. Sadly, this gorgeous, leather-bound tome is already sold out and will not be reprinted. However, if you want to read this particular story, you can still find it in the multi-author anthology Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, where it was originally published, and which is slated for a Titan Books reissue in October of this year.
“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” could serve as the type specimen of a certain kind of Kiernan Story. There are a fair number of them that involve a scientist, usually a paleontologist, discovering fossil evidence of impossible, Lovecraftian creatures. After some incautious investigation, the protagonist is usually killed, or at least severely menaced, by sinister forces out to suppress the truth, or by the living relations of the fossil critter itself. “Valentia” from To Charles Fort with Love leaps to mind as an example, but there are others. Indeed, one could argue that Kiernan’s breakout novel Threshold adheres to this basic premise. “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” is superior in that it takes elements from this basic plot, but resolves them in a way that is more reasonable, though much more melancholy, than usual.
The scientist in question in today’s story is Lacey Morrow, a grad student or newly minted paleontologist to judge by her age, and the fossil in question is a clawed amphibious hand dredged up from the sea off the coast of–you guessed it–Innsmouth. Weirdly, Kiernan conflates Lovecraft’s fish-people with the Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 Universal monster flick of the same name. Though I can see the similarity, the Creature is something of joke around my house, and this added bit of myth-melding lowered the tone of the story.
“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” is brightened–for me at least–by the presence of Dr. Solomon Monalisa, the mysterious fringe scientist alluded to in dire terms in one of my favorite Kiernan stories, “Onion.” Despite his fearsome rep, and despite killing three people in cold blood (well, two people and a thing) in this story Monalisa seems sympathetic, almost cuddly. It’s a surprise, but a welcome one.
Overall, I’d say this story earns it’s ‘best of’ status. It’s not perfect, but it is perhaps the best executed story of this type that Kiernan has written.