Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Short Stories)

This is an unforgettable book. Several of the stories are now etched into my memory. In ways I’m comfortable with and deeply unsettled by. I read Kiernan for the first time last year.* The six novels I’ve read have all been on the spectrum of very good to masterpiece. But what it was that drew me to them was hard to pin down. Her short fiction, along with episode four the Weird Studies podcast.** helped me organize my thoughts about it.

Flannery O’Connor said, in Mystery and Manners, “...to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” She was talking about getting her “Christian concerns” across to a largely unbelieving audience. Kiernan is certainly not pushing for Christian concerns, but she does shout and draw startling figures. She uses the tools of what could be called splatterpunk or extreme horror to shock the reader into a sense of the numinous. This is as good a place as any to mention that I recommend this book only with a strong content warning. It can be brutal. Calling it torture porn would be a serious error, though there is certainly torture in many of the stories. She draws on the weird, the uncanny and the unexplained parts of human experience that once would have been described as encounters with Faery. Like the older fairy tales, these stories do not contain pat moral lessons. They do not pretend that when you delve into the subconscious (or the spiritual,or mysterious) that you will come out thinking you are a good person or that you live in a good world. They are deeply disturbing. But these shocks can get past the modern tendency to think only in scientific or economic terms and evoke a sense of awe and wildness. GK Chesterton and the Inklings were constantly trying to invoke this feeling, often as a Christian apologetic. Kiernan is not trying to push that sensation toward any ideological end (save perhaps to use it to chart depression). She just puts you in that state and forces you to sit with it.

The collection could be fairly described as literary horror. Or belonging to the weird. Several of them veer more into science fiction than I’ve encountered so far in her novels. Several could be called  Lovecraftian. Several deal with Faery. Several are in a noir mode. Several are uncharacterizable. One is the most messed up thing I’ve ever read. Nearly all of them tap into the numinous.

My favorite of the stories (I think), The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean, appeared at the heart of The Drowning Girl as a story written by the narrator. I really loved it in that context, but reading is its own really highlighted its greatness. It is the story of a young journalist interviewing the now elderly subject of a series of paintings of mermaids. It’s a perfect story. It would be equally at home in an anthology of weird or literary fiction.

Other standouts: Galapagos, which mixes weird slimy creeping horror and science fiction to incredible effect. Tidal Forces, which I can’t really describe without spoiling. The Fairy Tale of Wood Street, in which a lover is not what she seems, nor is the date movie. The Ape’s Wife, in which Ann Darrow becomes unstuck from a single timeline and tells the King Kong story from several perspectives, all hers. The Steam Dancer which is a strangely sweet steampunk story. One Tree Hill: The World as Cataclysm is a great Lovecraftian mood piece.

The Ammonite Violin is the most disturbing serial killer story (maybe most disturbing story full stop) I’ve ever encountered. Yet it has lingered with me for over a month (I read this collection over a relatively long period of time). This is not a story type I typically seek out but I can’t shake it.

This collection is decidedly not for everyone (again, a heavy content warning). But the writing is consistently good in several different modes. It deals honestly with depression, as anyone familiar with Kiernan would expect. It is truly unsettling. I’m certain I will return to many of these stories again and again.

Canon Worthy.

*Save for the odd anthologized short story. I know of at least one.
** Which didn’t mention Kiernan, just had some very good resonances.

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