Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This is the second time I”ve read The Drowning Girl, my first reread among the eight Kiernan books I’ve read. Her hallmark is mashing any and all genres, primarily the dark, bleak ones, into unique works of art. The strongest influence (evident across all the work I’ve read) is Lovecraft. But she’s also seems to be heavily influenced by the Modernists in some books, the Postmodernists in others, Lewis Carrol, William Blake, Herman Melville, 40’s noir, Le Carre, the splatterpunk subgenre of horror and so on. I’m sure I’m missing a lot. She focuses less on plot than on mood, prose, and aesthetics, though she plots well given that stance. Her prose is consistently excellent. Her work often veers closer to erotica than my taste and comfort usually allow for. She is incredibly upfront about depression and mental illness; often uncomfortably so (one of the things I most love about her work). Hers is a dark vision of the world. People are cruel, but every once in a while people can be good as well. She does not flinch from portraying incredibly gruesome acts. It’s a world where depression wins sometimes. I have to offer so many content warnings to various people when discussing her work, that it seems like I’m waving people off. I’m not, unless one of the content warnings lands for you. But she is the author among my favorites who unsettles me most and who I have the hardest time figuring out to whom to recommend her. But she is solidly among my favorites. Her books and their atmosphere

This book wrecked me this time through. It is narrated in the first person from the perspective of India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, an artist who suffers from severe mental illness. She meets a woman on the side of the road, Eva Canning, who in one telling of the story (and there are at least three here) is a mermaid or siren; in another she is a werewolf; in the third she is a victim of a suicide cult that worshiped a sea goddess. In all versions, Eva wrecks Imp’s relationship with her girlfriend. Things spin out of control from there.

Hauntings, the appearance of ghosts and other apparitions are presented as possibly (probably?) being memes in the Dawkins sense of the word; ideas that propagate themselves almost like earworms or songs that get stuck in your head (one of the best explanations of the word meme used in this sense I’ve heard). In the world of the story certain types of mental illness can make people more susceptible to these memes. There is a distinction drawn between the factual and the true. Finally Kiernan uses a quantum metaphor makes it possible that the various versions of the story, drawn from myth, memes themselves, can all be true; particle and wave. This is a horror novel about a woman assaulted by a werewolf, lured by a siren and who, while suffering from mental illness, has enough awareness to realize that she doesn’t know exactly what is happening, all of those narratives are possible. The prose plays into that structure as well. When Imp goes off her meds, the prose gets much more jumpy and deliberately disjointed. This is a perfectly structured novel.

And it is incredibly entertaining and affecting. My own anxiety and depression have never reached the heights of the narrator here, but I have experienced enough of it that this resonated very strongly. I appreciate that it ends as hopefully as a story this dark can. It doesn’t flinch, but it offers a path. You get the sense that Kinbote wrote Pale Fire almost as a suicide note; The Drowning Girl is more in the vein of Walker Percy’s idea of an ex-suicide. Someone who has stared down the barrel, knows that’s an option and chooses to keep going, at least for now.

It’s a legitimately great novel.


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