Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Over the past couple of years, Kiernan has become a favorite writer. Her blend of literary modernism with a horror mood, her gen-x transgressive streak, her absolute clear eyed approach to writing about mental illness and despair, her prose, and her ability to evoke a sense of queasy wonder have made for some of my most memorable recent reads. I started out with what was then her most recent novella, Agents of Dreamland, when I heard it plugged on the Coode Street Podcast in the context of a wave of work that was reimagining Lovecraft. At the time, I said it was Lovecraftian with nods to Le Carre, Winnie the Pooh, Literary Modernism and Vonnegut (I’m excited to revisit this and see if that assessment holds up. I’ve convinced one of my book clubs to use it as its next selection.) Since then I’ve read seven more novels and a best of short story collection by her. Most of that work does carry a heavy Lovecraft influence, but her voice is her own and she is a far better prose writer. I’m always a little leary going back to the early books of a writer I’ve loved for their later work. Silk is Kiernan’s debut, and while I picked up a copy shortly after discovering her, I had been worried whether or not I would like it. An unfounded hesitation.

Silk won an award and was shortlisted for another in the first horror novel category. And yet for nearly the first half of the book there is no clear supernatural horror at all. Instead it is a trip through a very specific southern version of decadent gen-x 90’s goth bohemia. It’s equal parts drug novel, trauma novel and the rough life of its poor, marginal, often queer characters. It feels a little like Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, or a queer version of the Johnny Truant sections of House of Leaves filtered through a song written by Tom Waits and performed by The Cure. It’s a squalid and fascinating world. Niki Ky, a woman fleeing her past breaks down outside of Birmingham, and falls in with Daria, the bassist and lead singer in a three piece band called Stiff Kitten. Daria is in a fractious relationship with her guitarist. Niki and the band members get mixed up with Spyder Baxter, a mysterious goth who runs a curiosities shop and her girlfriend, Robin and hangers on. Robin convinces those hangers on to participate in a peyote ritual of her own design which results in the awakening of horrors from Spyder’s past, with consequences for all the major characters. 

Even in this debut novel, Kiernan’s prose and ability to evoke horrors both supernatural and those resulting from past trauma is fully on display. Every character has a harrowing backstory and these play out in some melodramatic ways (I mean that mostly as a compliment). Holding back on the supernatural elements until the moment they emerged was a great strategy. Without that turn, this could have been a cult classic literary drug/bohemian novel. As is, the horror elements really take it over the top, especially for a debut. If I like Kiernan’s later work more, and I do, that’s more a reflection of my level of affection for those books and not on this.

Highly Recommended with a heavy content warning.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 68/75

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