Archive for Caitlin R. Kiernan

‘Houses Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis is another story from Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One by way of Thrillers 2.  It’s also the last story I needed to read from Two Worlds.  After this, I promise to move on to something a little less obscure and a bit more cheerful.  Like our previous Kiernan story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ became a point of inspiration for a more readily available novel.  This story, along with ‘The Road of Pins,’ forms the backbone of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl.  If this review intrigues you, the novel covers similar territory in much the same style.

Like many classic horror stories, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is framed as a found document.  The nameless, genderless, first person narrator is a reporter, ostensibly writing an insider’s account of his or her involvement with a cult calling itself The Open Door of Night and it’s leader, a disgraced academic named Jacova Angevine.  Public interest in the cult, and the obvious slipping of the narrator’s sanity, began with the mass suicide of the entire membership.  Jacova Angevine led them into the sea, out toward the deep-water canyons of Monterey Bay, to drown themselves.

The Novel by Caitlin Kiernan‘Houses Under the Sea’ consists of eight numbered sections, or scenes.  Within theses sections, the narrator is apt to bounce backward and forward from the past to the present in a way that suggests a disordered mind.  Despite that impression, this really a tightly crafted piece of writing, revealing just enough in any given scene to build both anticipation and unease.  My favorite bit is a scene in which the narrator watches a video cassette of raw footage from a camera mounted on an ROV piloted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) along the bay floor.  The narrator has watched this footage a number of times, and is clearly terrified by it.  Eventually, the ROV is sideswiped by something unseen and knocked into a deep trench.  Miles beneath the sea, far below the depth of human survivability, the malfunctioning camera glimpses what can only be a symbol carved into a giant rock.  All of which may sound a bit silly in summary, but when combined with the narrator’s sweaty nail-biting, it comes across as quite sinister.

If you’re seeing shades of H.P. Lovecraft here, you’re not wrong.  Other aspects of the story make this connection even more apparent.  Kiernan’s genius lies in giving an HPL premise a more modern scientific backdrop and a contemporary seeming cult.  Keirnan herself was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and she knows how to give her fiction an academic veneer.  Other sections of the story discuss popular and scholarly books published about The Open Door of Night as well as hack novels written by Angevine’s father, complete with citation information, and all of them just as fictional as the story itself.

Like a Lovecraft story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ suggests much more than it reveals.  If you prefer definitive endings, let me again suggest The Drowning Girl, which offers more in the way of traditional closure.  As for ‘Houses,’ even the fate of its narrator is left open to interpretation.  All of its carefully constructed scenes lead the reader toward an unsettling truth, but once that truth has been realized, both narrator and reader are left with nowhere to go.  We know too much, and we are out of options.  To me at least, this is the very essence of horror.

Dave Hurwitz

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2013 by davehurwitz
A big dude in robes and a crown holds a big coin.

Four of Pentacles:
Radiant Rider Waite Deck

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.

Is that a violin or a tentacle?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.

Dave Hurwitz

Good News for CRK Fans

Posted in Random Weirdness with tags , , on January 13, 2013 by davehurwitz

Just a short one today…

I don’t normally post a straight plug for anything, but having just written about a Caitlin R. Kiernan story, I thought I’d pass this along.  Subterranean Press, Kiernan’s publisher of choice for story collections, has just announced The Ape-Wife and Other Stories.  Based on the publisher’s description, this looks like a collection of regular stories–or as regular as CRK gets–as opposed to another compilation of Sirenia Digest erotica.  I must confess that I’m heartened by this.  As dedicated as I am to reading all of CRK’s work, I find some of her weird smut a bit of a slog. Regardless, I’m looking forward to this new collection.  The Ape Wife and Other Stories is slated to appear this July.  Kiernan’s Sub Press books usually sell out before publication, so if you’re interested, you need to order ASAP.

Dave Hurwitz

“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis 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.

InnsmouthThe 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.

Dave Hurwitz

The Rot Also Recommends…

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , on July 5, 2012 by davehurwitz

A novella by the illustrator Richard A. KirkThe Lost Machine by Richard A. Kirk

If you recognize Kirk’s name at all, you probably know him as the talented and successful illustrator of a number of creepy books.  He has provided the art for many of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s titles from Subterranean Press, as well as for authors like Clive Barker and China Mieville.  Kirk’s style suites Kiernan’s work particularly well.  His drawings often include natural forms–puff balls, fungi, extinct giant insects–as well as broken bits of machinery and repurposed detritus.  Kirk renders all of this in clean lines and subtle shadings that border on the hyper-real.

The Lost Machine is Kirk’s first foray into fiction writing, and I’ll confess that I bought the novella mostly for the illustrations.  Then I read it, and found myself pleasantly surprised.  Kirk’s visual clarity and flair for arresting images are just as present in his writing as they are in his artwork.  With a few phrases, Kirk can suggest what would, in the hands of another writer, be chapters of back story.  Check out his description of a rather unusual shoreline, as an example:

“Lumsden Moss and Irridis stood on the Sea of Steps, looking down through the haze at the sea.  Hundreds of limestone steps descended into the water and beyond.  On either side, the steps stretched away for miles, interrupted only by the gargantuan engine houses that moved the cable cars between the top of the stairs and sea level.  It was a calm day and the steps, worn from over a thousand years of use, echoed the undulations of the sea.”

We never learn who carved these steps or why, nor do I think we need to.  What amazes me is how this simple paragraph suggests decades of effort and toil, the crowning achievement of a vanished society, the meaning of which has now been lost.  Rather like European man’s first view of a pyramid, only less explicable.

I don’t want spoil the story for anyone, so I’ll confine myself to saying that the The Lost Machine is a quest of sorts, played out across a civilization that was once greater than our own, but which has succumbed to an ecological catastrophe.  It’s a quick, entertaining, and thought provoking read.  And the illustrations are fantastic.

Dave Hurwitz

Buy The Lost Machine directly from the author here.

Book Review: The Drowning Girl

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2012 by davehurwitz

The New Novel by Caitlin KiernanIn 2009’s The Red Tree, Caitlin R. Kiernan gave us something we’d never seen from her before, a first-person ‘found manuscript’ detailing the protagonist’s slow descent into madness. Red Tree is a complexly structured novel—there is a ‘found manuscript’ within the found manuscript of the novel itself, for example—shot through with unsettling bits of Rhode Island folklore. The story ends with Kiernan’s signature lack of concrete resolution. As I wrote in a September 2009 review, “In the end, what the reader gets is not so much a narrative as a bouquet of dark hints, strange moods, and suggestions of the intolerable…. Not only is the evil in The Red Tree not vanquished, it is never clearly defined.” Kiernan’s latest work, The Drowning Girl, bears a superficial resemblance to The Red Tree. While it is also a first person document from a compromised protagonist, The Drowning Girl is more ambitious, more heavily stylized, but ultimately more conventional than its predecessor.

India Morgan Phelps—a.k.a. Imp—is a madwoman, a paranoid schizophrenic making a tenuous living as a landscape painter and art store clerk, maintaining her precarious sanity with therapy and medication. Almost simultaneously, two women enter her life, the patient M to F transsexual, Abalyn Armitage, and the manipulative Eva Canning. When the book opens, Imp is alone once more. Abalyn has been driven away and Eva is simply gone. The book itself is Imp’s attempt to record these relationships and their inevitable collision. Complicating matters is Imp’s unreliable memory, which contains two versions of her first meeting with Eva Canning and how that lead to her break-up with Abalyn. As Imp herself makes clear, only one of these versions can be real.

In each version of the story, Imp equates Eva with a figure from local folklore. In one memory, Imp identifies Eva with Perishable Shippen, the ghost of a murdered girl that haunts the Blackstone River, pulling unwary bathers to their doom. In the other, Imp sees her as the wandering spirit of the last wolf in Connecticut, a wolf in the shape of a girl. Each version of Eva is also associated with work of a different artist. ‘Mermaid’ Eva may be the source of inspiration for the final, unnerving works of turn of the century painter Phillip George Saltonstall, while ‘Werewolf’ Eva may have played model and muse to the transgressive Albert Perrault. Both men are dead, both in accidents that might not have been accidents.

Reading The Drowning Girl is even more challenging than all of this would suggest. Part of the difficulty arises from the haphazard way in which Imp records these two possible pasts. Events are related in no discernible order, the two versions of the story shuffled together like incompatible decks of cards. In addition, Imp is clearly not keen to write about certain things. Her ‘manuscript’ is rife with digressions and semi-relevant tangents. And then there is Imp’s madness. At a certain point, the ‘past’ being described in the manuscript collides with the ‘present’ of its writing, and the impact sends Imp sliding down into paranoid fantasy. Though this section of the novel is thankfully brief, the stylistic devices Kiernan uses to depict Imp’s descent left me doubting my own sanity….

A Note from the Reviewer:

There were, at minimum, two more paragraphs to this review. At least, I think there were. It’s hard to be sure. I wrote this piece in early May. Before I could get it posted to the blog, my hard-drive died. It took a long time to get my computer up and running again. When I finally did, I discovered that the flash drive containing backups of my documents held only a partial version of the review. To be frank, it’s been so long since the original composition of this piece that I no longer remember how it was supposed to end. I’ve tried to recreate it from scratch, but it just didn’t happen. I’m left wondering if I ever really finished it at all.

Suffice it to say that one of Imp’s twin realities gathers strength and probability, forcing Imp to confront the event that split her world in two. Readers familiar with Kiernan’s themes and obsessions will not find it difficult to guess what this event is, especially if they have read the pair of short stories on which this book is based. As I said above, for all the wild experimentalism of its execution, The Drowning Girl is, at bottom, strangely conventional.

The Drowning Girl is not an easy read. It is Literature with a Capital L.  Readers looking for a spooky beach book had best inquire elsewhere. Those who hunger for something rather more substantial, and who are willing to put in the requisite effort, will find much to reward them in these seemingly disjointed pages.

As for this review, I think I shall leave it unfinished. The novel is all about uncertainty, after all. The treachery of memory, and the blind spots in our brains we inflict upon ourselves, for the sake of our sanity and survival. In the end, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Kiernan’s achievement than this.

Dave Hurwitz