‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This is another story from Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One from Subterranean Press. It was originally published in Thrillers 2, an anthology title from Cemetery Dance Publications. Unfortunately, both of these fine books are now out of print. Given their limited printings and high production values, both are liable to be a bit pricey on the secondary market. While I’m trying not to review things that will be hard for you–the reader–to get at, I also really want to finish up this Kiernan collection. If this review intrigues you, I suggest that you roll on ever to your favorite bookseller and purchase the mass market paperback of Daughter of Hounds, a Kiernan novel that has it’s roots in this particular story, and one of my personal favorites as well. Beyond that, apologies, and I’ll try not to do it again.
As long as I’m in a conciliatory mood, I may as well mention something else. Attentive readers will have noticed that I have not quite delivered on my new year’s resolution to review one short story per week, having allowed myself to get sidetracked by a novel and–more recently–a film. Since variety is supposed to be the spice of life, I am hereby revising my resolution. For all of 2013, I promise to review something each week. On any given week, that something will probably be a short story, but may be something else. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even throw in a post that isn’t a review every now and then. But you will hear from me every week. That much I promise. Now that that’s settled, on with the show.
‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ takes place in the attic of a large yellow house on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The yellow house–a recurring location in a number of Kiernan books and stories–is a real building in Providence that also inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale ‘The Shunned House.’ In the Kiernan version, the upper floors of the residence are occupied by sliver-eyed vampires, while the basement and associated caverns are the home of the ghul, a race of corpse-eating, wolf-like bipeds that may be werewolves, or possibly aliens. Both are served by the Children of the Cuckoo, infants stolen from unwary parents and raised by the monsters.
Pearl is a prisoner in the attic of the house on Benefit Street. Pearl is still a child, though she has been kept in the attic for seventy-five years. Time stops, you see, whenever the trap door leading into the attic from the main house is closed, which is most of the time. We meet Pearl on one of the rare occasions when that door is opened, this time by a boy named Airdrie, a know-it-all Child of the Cuckoo. Airdrie has been sent to deliver food and toys, but unwisely sets out to explore the attic.
The growing conflict between Pearl and Airdrie is punctuated by several seemingly unrelated vignettes. One features a Confederate deserter dying of his wounds in the wilderness of Knox County, Tennessee. Another deals with a man whose shabby apartment is surrounded by an impenetrable fog. Another is a rather nice science fiction chase scene. Many of these micro-narratives end in death. All contain suffering of one kind or another. All of them hint that these events have occurred before and will occur again.
The meaning of these narratives–and the reason behind Pearl’s imprisonment–becomes clear when Airdrie discovers the prized possessions of Pearl’s father, who is referred to only as The Alchemist. A circle of curio cabinets deep within the attic holds what looks to be an enormous collection of snow-globes. Upon closer examination, they turn out to contain the stolen moments described above. In each of the thousands of spheres trapped people sufferer an endless repetition of the worst hours of their lives–hours of pain and fear that should have ceased–unfolding forever.
This is a very accomplished story, one that can be read and appreciated without any previous experience of either Kiernan or Lovecraft. As with many of Kiernan’s better tales, ‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ leaves a melancholy aftertaste, one that can linger for several days. To me, the story’s most ingenious detail is the fact that creatures we would consider evil have taken it upon themselves to punish The Alchemist by imprisoning Pearl. It’s a shocking suggestion, the notion that there are some crimes that even monsters won’t countenance, and that they are committed by human beings.