Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One)

One of the pleasures of reading widely is that you can achieve enough distance from an author's work to make you forget how brilliant it is, so that when you return to that author, the rediscovery is almost as powerful as the initial encounter. Caitlín R. Kiernan is such a talent, and her latest collection, Two Worlds and In Between, is ideal both for discovery and rediscovery. It's a "best-of" volume spanning 1993-2004, and like all great retrospectives it demonstrates at once the range of which its author is capable and the recurring themes, images, and stylistic features that make her work distinctive. At about 200,000 words and nearly 600 pages, it's a generous selection, including 25 short stories and novelettes and a long novella, each followed by a brief author's note on its genesis or its place in Kiernan's oeuvre. But enough of facts and generalities: on to the stories.
Lucy has been at the window again, her sharp nails tap-tapping on the glass, scratching out there in the rain like an animal begging to be let in. Poor Lucy, alone in the storm. Mina reaches to ring for the nurse, stops halfway, forcing herself to believe that all she's hearing is the rasping limbs of the crape myrtle, whipped by the wind, winter-bare twigs scritching like fingernails on the rain-slick glass. She forces her hand back down onto the warm blanket. And she knows well enough that this simple action says so much. Retreat, pulling back from the cold risks; windows kept shut against night and chill and the thunder.
The tricky thing about retrospectives is that they're usually arranged chronologically, putting the weakest work in front. Kiernan herself observes of two of the first three stories in the collection that they seem to her more ambitious than successful. But the ambitions themselves are enough to make these stories basically satisfying, especially given Kiernan's style, which even in her earliest work lacks any hint of awkwardness and has the darkly propulsive intensity that has become one of her hallmarks. The prose has been touched up over the years, but a look back at the original versions shows that this was only a honing of already-polished language.

"Emptiness Spoke Eloquent," quoted above, follows the long decline of Mina Murray in the aftermath of Dracula, and by interweaving her personal tragedies into the sweep of the century (world war, influenza, interwar Paris, war again, psychoanalysis in 1950s Manhattan), impresses even as it fails to compel on an emotional level. "To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania 1889)" has a few extraordinary evocations of a storm, but likewise lacks the psychological force that would be necessary to guide the reader through its careful tangles of prose.

But with the very next story, "Tears Seven Times Salt," that force arrives, and is instantly overwhelming. This story was recently chosen for the mammoth Century's Best Horror Fiction, and its invocation of displacement, dissatisfaction with identity, despair easily earns the distinction. The great genius of Kiernan's early writing is its depiction of the lives of outsiders and isolates; as Neil Gaiman put it, she is "the poet and bard of the wasted and the lost." Addicts, prostitutes, blocked artists, those who can't or don't want to find a place in what is sometimes called the adult world: Kiernan's gift is to write about them so sympathetically that even those who dismiss them as lazy or twisted can be made to understand how their lives feel, how the "unnatural" becomes the only natural thing.
Three very small rooms and each of them filled with his books and newspapers, his files and clippings and folders. The things he has written directly on the walls with Magic Marker because there wasn't time to find a sheet of paper before he forgot. Mountains of magazines slumped like glossy landslides to bury silverfish and roaches, Fate and Fortean Times, journals for modern alchemists and cryptozoological societies and ufology cults. Exactly 1,348 index cards thumbtacked or stapled to plaster the fragile, drained color of dirty eggshells and coffee-ground stains. Testaments uncorrelated, data uncollated, and someday the concordance and cross-reference alone will be a hundred thousand pages long.
That's from "Rats Live on No Evil Star," a portrait of something like schizophrenia, of pattern-making and the desperate search for truth, and the portrait of eccentricity, the evocation of a decayed yet strangely attractive place, are found throughout these early pieces. The settings, from the heat of a New Orleans summer to the chill solitude of a millionaire's estate on the Hudson, are as vividly captured as the flawed, obsessive, volative characters who populate them. But there's more at work than human yearning and despair; these are, after all, fantasy stories, dark and disturbing ones. Kiernan's supernaturalism, enhanced by her knowledge of geology and paleontology, of things so ancient or unrecognizable that to the common imagination they might as well be monsters, is, in its very different way, as reserved and elusive as that of the classic ghost story; it's unsurprising that the producer who wanted to turn the marvelous "Onion" into a screenplay should have mistaken it for only the first half of a story. Her work may not offer the expected answers, but as Kiernan writes, "one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions," and it is the awe brought on by the inscrutability of the phenomena she writes about that gives them their staying power. Without answers, there are only the images, which tap into the terror that comes when our fragile sense of order is disrupted.
But Frank didn't run away, and when he pressed his face to the crack in the wall, he could see that the fields stretched away for miles and miles, crimson meadows beneath a sky the yellow-green of an old bruise. The white trees that writhed and rustled in the choking, spicy breeze, and far, far away, the black enormous thing striding slowly through the grass on bandy, stilt-long legs.
As Kiernan's style develops over the course of the collection, another gift becomes evident, a mastery of narrative structure comparable to H. P. Lovecraft's. Stories told out of chronological order, further flashbacks within those disordered sections, dreams that echo the unrevealed past or foreshadow the future, excerpts from books whose banality is belied by the reader's knowledge of their true significance: Kiernan has mastered every device, gradually pulling back the curtain to reveal as much as she's ever going to. Small masterpieces like "Andromeda Among the Stones" and "La Peau Verte" use this non-linearity to great effect, building up to their defining moments so that those moments have the grandeur, the terrible and long-lasting reverb, for readers that they do for the characters.  Eventually Kiernan begins to experiment with the first-person point-of-view, which she had long resisted, and the narrator's struggle with ordering events, with describing the indescribable and focusing on the horrific, further increases the brilliant structural complexity out of which fleeting and sinister knowledge emerges. For readers expecting the straightforward, the double whammy of elaborate structure and elusive meaning will be frustrating, but for those who prefer carefully-orchestrated and suggestive cosmic dread, there are few greater pleasures.

I wish I could convey what makes each of the stories in this collection excellent, but I don't know how to do so without bogging down in plot summary, which is beside the point. So let me mention only a few favorites. "The Road of Pins," a werewolf story except that it isn't one at all, in which profound unease grows out of the work of a contemporary artist, a mysterious film, and the writer's block and fragile romance of the protagonist. "The Dead and the Moonstruck," which shows the unexpected ease with which Kiernan's decidedly adult vision can be adapted for a satisfying young-adult story. I especially admired the few science fiction stories mixed in with the fantasy. Science fiction allows the weirdness that exists in the shadows of Kiernan's fantasies to emerge into the light and define her universe, which makes the element of cosmic terror all the more potent. In "Riding the White Bull" and "The Dry Salvages," the aliens are truly alien, but they're only a part of the strangeness of space-- vast, dangerous, beautiful-- and human society itself has or might become a nightmare scenario.

I give up. That paragraph feels hopelessly false, exactly what I might say about half a dozen writers I admire, nothing specific to Kiernan's talent. All I can think to do is quote more, the stopgap of throwing out the author's words when my own prove insufficient. And in the end, it's perhaps the way an author uses words that matters most. Themes, motifs, structural devices: they're common coin, accessible to anyone, but the flow of sentences is nearly impossible to imitate.
And all the world goes white, a suffocating white where there is no sky and no earth, nothing to divide the one from the other, and the Arctic wind shrieks in her ears, and snow stings her bare skin. Not the top of the world, but somewhere very near it, a rocky scrap of land spanning a freezing sea, connecting continents in a far-off time of glaciers. Dancy wants to shut her eyes. Then, at least, there would only be black, not this appalling, endless white, and she thinks about going to sleep, drifting down to someplace farther inside herself, the final still point in this implosion, down beyond the cold. But she knows that would mean death, in this place, this when, some mute instinct to keep her moving, answering to her empty belly when she only wants to be still.
A simple paragraph in some ways, picked more or less at random, but what I respond to in Caitlín R. Kiernan's fiction is there as much as it is anywhere else. It's not representative of her style-- no one paragraph could be-- but it has a compelling rhythm, captures the sense of being tossed into the deep end, somewhere you can't catch your breath, can only hold it in as you navigate the marvelous, malevolent landscape while looking for the way out. An easy experience? No. Never crude, Kiernan's work is nonetheless raw, likely to upset certain readers in ways they aren't looking for. But anything worth reading is going to upset someone, and if you want fiction that juxtaposes emotional frailty with the magnitude of the universe, fantasy that leads you someplace else and makes that place as real as here and now, Kiernan should be at the very top of your reading list.

1 comment:

  1. All I've read of Kiernan is her Sandman work, which has left me cold. "Escape Artist," a prose tale in The Book of Dreams caused me to skim, though admittedly I may have not been in the mood to appreciate the slow build that moody horror requires. (I kinda bounced off that whole book.) Her work scripting The Dreaming, though, took good ideas and good characters (Matthew the Raven!) and made not a thing out of them.