Caitlín R. Kiernan: Prose-Poet of the Lost
The Contemporary Era
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
In my estimation, the one writer who has, over the past twenty years, risen to canonical status in weird fiction is Caitlín R. Kiernan (b. 1964). Born in Ireland, she came to the United States as a child, settling in Alabama. She studied palaeontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at the University of Colorado, and she has written a number of scientific papers on the subject. After working with Neil Gaiman on the comic book series The Dreaming (1996—2001), she began writing novels and tales in earnest. She dislikes being labelled a “horror writer,” and her work is weird in the fullest and richest sense of the term, fusing the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror and also drawing upon the heritage of cosmic weird fiction, notably Lovecraft, Machen, and Blackwood.
In many ways her best work remains in the short story, even though (like Ramsey Campbell) she is obliged to write novels to bring in revenue. It is telling that her short story collections—from Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000; rev. ed. 2008) to The Ammonite Violin (2010)—are published by small presses (chiefly Subterranean Press), while her nine novels are published by Penguin (under the Roc imprint). It is one more indication of the pervasive and ingrained prejudice of commercial publishers against short story collections.
There are two distinguishing features of Kiernan’s work. The first is a prose style of wondrous luminosity. When you come upon the prose of Caitlín R. Kiernan, all you can do is gasp in amazement. I pick a passage almost at random from The Ammonite Violin:
“And then,” she says, as though she still imagines that I’ve somehow never heard this story before, “the demons tried to carry the looking glass all the way up to Heaven, that they might even mock the angels.” But it shattered, I cut in, trying to sound sober, and she smiles a vitreous sort of smile for me. I catch a glimpse of her uneven bluish teeth, set like mismatched pegs of lazulite into gums the colour of a stormy autumn sky. (63)
Purely on the level of prose, Kiernan already ranks with the most distinctive stylists of our field—Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Thomas Ligotti. With Ligotti’s regrettable retreat into fictional silence, hers is now the most recognisable voice in weird fiction. No one is ever likely to mistake a sentence by Kiernan for a sentence by any other writer.
The other distinguishing feature of Kiernan’s work, both on the level of technique and on the levels of theme, imagery, and motif, is its inextricable fusion of science and artistry. She has mastered what might be called geological horror. Consider “To This Water” (1996). This story tells the tale of the Johnstown flood of 1889, suggesting that it may have been supernaturally caused by the rape of a young girl. This fusion of the cosmic and the personal is also a keynote of Kiernan’s work. It features an intense focus on the shifting and at times contradictory emotions of her characters, and their ability or inability to deal with domestic, social, and sexual—particularly sexual—traumas. Her stories are littered with the refuse of our society—the aimless teenagers, the abused whores, the vicious but vulnerable drug dealers whose fliftings at the fringes of middle-class life we so fervently strive to ignore.
Kiernan’s tales do, however, at times fail to cohere as narratives and can descend into mere vignettes or prose-poems that appear to have little focus or direction. There is never a wasted word; the prose is always throbbing with vitality and pathos; but too often the stories don’t seem to go anywhere, and end arbitrarily and inconclusively. Among the full-fledged narratives, “To This Water” and, preeminently, “In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)” (2000) stand head and shoulders above the rest. The latter is a masterwork of subtle cosmicism, telling of what my lie in a water-filled pit as the water lines of Birmingham are being built. There are the dimmest echoes of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” but the loving character descriptions—both of the grizzled workmen and of the young professor, Henry S. Matthews, investigating the site—as well as the gradual accretion of horrific details are pure Kiernan.
Kiernan’s gift for language can gloss over a number of elements that, in a weaker writer, might be seen as flaws. It is, for example, surprising how many of the stories in The Ammonite Violin deal with venerable tropes that have dominated weird fiction for centuries. “In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” is, as its title suggests, about the resurrection of the dead—but it is told in the first person, by a woman so resurrected, and so Kiernan is able to portray with heart-rending pathos the shifting emotions of the woman as she undergoes the experience. Perhaps, indeed, she did not wish to be resurrected at all? The line “I cross one way for you, and I return as another’s experiment, the vessel of another’s inquisition” (194) would certainly indicate so.
A number of stories rather quaintly treat the mermaid theme, but even this hoary topos is rendered distinctive by novelty of approach. How does a mermaid, having been skinned and therefore become approximately human, seek to buy back her own skin from a curio dealer? You can find out in “For One Who Has Lost Herself.” “Metamorphosis B” is told from the point of view of a woman who professes to be the daughter of a mermaid and the sea captain who raped her. “Madonna Littoralis,” insofar as I can make sense of the plot, is about lesbian sex with a mermaid. Sexual desire, indeed, looms large in this book, and its performance and ramifications—chiefly lesbian or gay, but occasionally heterosexual, as a kind of novel diversion—are rendered as achingly beautiful by the alchemy of Kiernan’s prose. This fusion of sex and the supernatural can also revivify otherwise stale themes, as in “Orpheus at Mount Pangaeum” and “Ode to Edvard Munch,” both of which feature heterosexual sex with a female vampire.
Kiernan’s acclaimed first novel, Silk (1998), features her customary cast of twentysomethings—drifters, struggling rock musicians, and so forth. The focus of the narrative is Spyder Baxter, who runs a shop, Weird Trappings. After some of her friends conduct a ritual involving peyote in the basement of her house, the legs of some immense spider appear to poke out of the trapdoor leading to the basement. One by one, these friends die hideously—one of them has his throat slit by spiderwebs. Eventually we learn that, when she was a child, Spyder was locked in the basement with her crazed father, who had collected hundreds of black widow spiders; they bit him and he died, but they did not bite Spyder. Are they in fact protecting her by killing her friends? Perhaps not: at the end of the novel she is found wrapped in an immense cocoon.
Several characters from Silk return in Threshold (2001), but the focus here is on Chance Matthews, who has moved back into her family home in Birmingham, Alabama, after the death of her grandparents. In a sense the novel is an expansion of “In the Water Works,” for we are here dealing with the possibility that an immense monster is dwelling under a mountain near the city—one that, apparently, her grandfather had found when the water works tunnel was dug in 1888. Still more of these characters appear in Low Red Moon (2003) and Murder of Angels (2004).
One of Kiernan’s most challenging novels is Daughter of Hounds (2007), which appear to use Lovecraft’s concept of ghouls—cited in “Pickman’s Model” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath—as a springboard. Around this time Kiernan moved to Providence, R.I., so her absorption of the Lovecraft influence was perhaps natural. But Daughter of Hounds is a curiously mixed bag: in tone it wavers from dreamlike fantasy to hard-boiled crime, and its overall thrust—in which a young woman named Soldier discovers that she is a changeling raised by ghouls—remains unclear.
Far and away the most impressive of Kiernan’s novels is The Red Tree (2009). It concerns a writer named Sarah Crowe (already dead by suicide as the novel opens) who has written a book (really a series of diary entries written over a roughly two-month period) entitled The Red Tree. Within this text, Sarah transcribes portions of a fragmentary treatise written by a professor named Charles L. Harvey entitled … The Red Tree. Clearly, this is a novel about layers.
Harvey’s incomplete typescript reveals his obsession with the red oak (Quercus rubra) at the farmhouse where Sarah herself is now staying as a renter. Harvey committed suicide by hanging himself from the red tree. What kind of sinister power does that tree have? In the course of the narrative we learn that its evil effects stretch back centuries, perhaps millennia. This part of the narrative, evoking a centuries-old evil lurking in the wilderness, is a plot that Lovecraft could, and should, have written.
Those seeking a neat resolution to the overall scenario—either to the supernatural manifestation that is the red tree or to the lives and fates of the protagonists—are likely to be disappointed. The Red Tree is supremely rewarding not merely for its moments of terror, but for its ineffably sensitive display of the complexity of human emotions. It is a kind of “Heart of Darkness” for our time—an exploration of both the sinister darkness of the foreboding rural landscape and of the inscrutable darkness of the human heart.
Caitlín R. Kiernan is in the prime of her career, and it will be fascinating to see what new directions she leads herself and her readers. She has already produced a corpus of work as impressive as that of any weird writer now writing, and she is one of the very few writers in this field who one can confidently say will be read by future generations.