With a writer like Caitlín R. Kiernan, a title like The Very Best of… is begging a lot. Where’s the ferociously parodic, deconstructive urban fantasy she writes under her Kathleen Tierney nom de guerre? Where’s the Delta Green-flavoured Lovecraftian technothrillers like Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters? Where’s her comic contribution to the Sandman mythos? In any collection from such an author, there’s always bound to be, not only favourite stories, but entire sub-genres missed out. I want to put in this quote to illustrate the point, because it’s the kind of thing you so rarely get to include in a review: “Brown University’s John Hay Library has established the Caitlín R. Kiernan Papers, spanning her full career thus far and including juvenilia, consisting of twenty-three linear feet of manuscript materials, including correspondence, journals, manuscripts, and publications, circa 1970-2017, in print, electronic, and web-based formats.” Count ‘em: twenty-three linear feet. It’s a brave editor or publisher who would dare try to encapsulate every facet of an author so various, and so prolific.
What this compilation does demonstrate is that Caitlín R. Kiernan is producing the very best of contemporary dark and weird fiction, regardless of whether or not that typifies her whole range. She not only has written more than nine-tenths of her contemporaries, she has also written substantially better than nine-tenths of them. She casually throws off metaphor and imagery in passing that would make any other writer’s career. Kiernan has a word horde as rich as Smaug’s, and a voice as mesmeric.
Part of her mastery of different genres and sub-genres is her unerring ear for the idioms, idiolects, speech communities, buzzwords, shibboleths, jargon, psychobabble, technobabble, Mythobabble of each side alley and cul-de-sac of imaginative literature. Her debt to 1890s decadent literature might have helped tune her ear for distinct prosodies, but even when it’s fully on view, as in “La Peau Verte,” it isn’t anything like as overblown and cloying as Angela Carter or Poppy Z. Brite. Kiernan’s frame of stylistic reference isn’t anything like that narrow, and she doesn’t wallow in overwrought prose like many self-declared decadent authors. She tosses in quotations and references from the whole gamut of literature that you’d ache to see more often in genre fiction, yet she keeps a sinew and thrust in her writing that nails all the glitter and sparkle of her stylistic brilliance firmly to the underlying contours of her narrative. Sometimes her more experimental pieces do tax the reader’s patience – I’m no fan of the unparagraphed construction of “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” for instance – but such excesses are rare, and generally tempered by a propulsive impetus, let alone a turn of phrase, that makes her fables unputdownable. “Houses under the Sea,” does dip into the deep waters of her best-known single work, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, but that doesn’t render this collection any less a partial glimpse at best. And there’s that word again.
Kiernan has gone on record in the past to state that she’s “getting tired of telling people that I’m not a ‘horror’ writer. I’m getting tired of them not listening, or not believing.” It’s true that miscegenation and body horror are recurrent themes – steampunk prostheses, flesh sculptures, alien distortion/transcendence of normal humanity – frequently embodied in or espoused by mutated former lovers. Yet she typifies horror as “an emotion, and no one emotion will ever characterize my fiction.” She’s also said that “story bores me. Which is why critics complain it’s the weakest aspect of my work.” I don’t see any lack of story in these stories, though. I also suspect that Kiernan wouldn’t have been able to keep readers’ attention across such a huge volume of work unless she was able to keep them engaged through extended narratives with more than just jewelled individual sentences. She shares that characteristic gift of a really good short story writer of tieing off a section or a passage with a line that hooks you and leaves you gasping, aching to see what comes next. And if she has any uniformity of tonal range or register, it’s one that carries superbly well across genre after genre, from the folk horror of “A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills,” to the superb occult noir of “The Maltese Unicorn.” Not only would what she pulls off in that one story alone make another writer’s entire career, I’ve actually seen it happen.
In their introduction to The Weird, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer write that Kiernan has “become perhaps the best weird writer of her generation.” There’s only two parts to that statement I’d question: Only weird? And perhaps? Weird fiction as a genre, if it is a genre, should be grateful to be able to lay even partial or intermittent claim to her. Caitlín R. Kiernan is the fulfilment of every weird fiction pundit’s dream of a transgressive, inclusive, brutally contemporary author who brings all the territory’s sub-genres bang up to date while ditching their historical baggage – yet she effortlessly transcends such categories and limitations, just as she effortlessly transcends every genre she’s cared to touch down in. Even after successive World Fantasy Awards and Bram Stoker Awards, she’s still a writer who can’t be honoured and recognized enough. Words fail me. But they rarely if ever fail her.
This first collection from Georgina Bruce, published by Michael Kelly’s weird emporium par excellence Undertow Publications, gathers 16 short stories, including the British Fantasy Award-winning story “White Rabbit,” which comes at the tail end of the book. This House of Wounds provides Georgina Bruce with the grounding in print she deserves to complement her presence in the British fantasy and weird fiction scene. It also consolidates Undertow’s standing as the go-to house for the modern weird renaissance, because if you have authors like this on your list, you absolutely epitomize the cutting edge of the field.
This House of Wounds is simply a gorgeous book, with ravishing cover art by Catrin Welz-Stein to complement the contents. Fairy-tale motifs abound – Red Queens, sorcerous crows, Princess Beasts, Woods Kings – yet they’re frequently jump-cut past the reader in fragmented, discontinuous, subjective glimpses, like a mystic marriage of Angela Carter with J.G. Ballard. And the beauty and glitter is frequently the sparkle of streams of blood or the shine of polished bone – the wounds are there, laid bare and held open by retractors for probing and examination. This absolutely is not horror per se, but it touches on horror territory persistently. As the author has said, “I don’t think it’s possible to write about reality without encountering horror imagery and themes,” and if the collection ever touches on the British tradition of fey whimsy, it’s with an ironic, lacerating, mirror-sharded claw.
With many of the stories running at ten pages or less in the 179-page Kindle edition, there’s almost a suggestion of prose poetry, as though Rimbaud had ingested a bizarre infusion of Poe, or Kafka had taken a whiff of some Nineties Decadent opiate. That’s not just a matter of concision and density either. Georgina Bruce’s prose frequently rises to glittering pinnacles of decorative baroque flourish, without breaking off from the solid architecture underneath. “Deep and slick and fast and moving in a fluid dance, a flow of her body through trees, a flick of coal glowing within her thighs, a ribbon of flame rising and fluttering.” It’s anything but pedestrian.
For such a short and strongly characterized book, though, there’s nonetheless a great deal of variety. There’s dystopian science fiction à la Philip K. Dick (“Wake Up, Phil”), psychological horror (“The Art Lovers”), and a diversity of style from stream of consciousness to straightforward narrative. This is almost always going to be the case in a first collection, but there’s a uniformity of achievement and skill that balances the variety of styles and treatments. Georgina Bruce has gathered many points of departure in this book that she could set out from to map out different areas of her range, and it’s going to be fascinating to see which and how many she explores. For the reader, it’s going to be a fascinating and rewarding journey.
This House of Wounds is simply a must-have. You can digest it at one sitting, yet you’ll find yourself coming back to it again and again. Buy it; read it: you won’t be disappointed.
Book Review: The Three Books by Paul StJohn Mackintosh
May 25, 2018
Paul StJohn Mackintosh is one of those writers who just seems to quietly get on with the business of producing great fiction. Though he may not be a name immediately recognisable by those who enjoy genre, he is nevertheless a prolific and widely published author. With a career spanning quite a few years, he has produced shorts, novellas, and poems in a wide array of styles and venues and is also a translator and reviewer. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, then you really must rectify that; and where better to start than his most recent release, The Three Books through Black Shuck Books.
Firmly situated in the literary/quiet end of the horror pool, this novella is a subtly affecting look at a variety of themes. Some of these include the cult of celebrity, the hypnotic power many famous—and infamous—people have over others, and the often pathological and sociopathic mindset displayed by driven, gifted individuals. It is also a love letter of sorts to books, writing, and the process of creativity itself.
Beginning with our protagonist, Sophia Amory, we meet her as she is preparing to examine the legend of one Desmond Carvill, a mysterious poet, for her university post-grad assignment. Carvill has been incognito for years, and a shroud of nebulous rumour and speculation hangs over his whereabouts and activities. He is the author of two highly-acclaimed volumes of poetry, and a disappointing third which many regard as not even having been produced by his genius. Sophia’s searches and investigations throw up ever more mysterious and strange myths surrounding the poet; and then, she is suddenly offered the chance to actually meet him. In agreeing to the stringent and binding terms of a contract, she puts herself on a journey which takes her into the very heart of dark desire and creativity.
Straight off, the story is beautifully written. The prose, the clean and measured writing draws the reader in with ease. We are introduced to Sophia via a quick few paragraphs of back-story and exposition, before a number of key scenes flesh out her character. She is someone who is deeply in love with the world of fiction, a substitute for a lonely childhood. It is inevitable that an individual like her would be drawn to the charismatic figure of Carvill. There is the sense that she is searching for meaning and purpose in her literary endeavours, and in life, and is possibly prone to hanging her needs on less than stable pegs. And where Carvill is concerned, she starts to display what amounts to obsessional behaviour. No-one can dissuade her from her task; not her friends, not the dissertation committee.
Mackintosh ensures the story never veers too far from Carvill, even before he takes the stage. Right from the start, his enigmatic presence haunts and infuses the book. In fact, he doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the story. In the build up to this anticipated meeting, we follow Sophia and her amateur investigation. An investigation which uncovers far more than anyone else has ever been able. It might almost seem contrived except there is the lingering sense Sophia was meant to find this man. Not in any predestined way, but, without spoiling the latter part of the book, in that she is the type of ‘muse’ he goes for. This sense of subtle suggestion and ambiguity permeates the novella. Nothing is necessarily straightforward; there are layers and layers of meaning to be had, as long as the reader is prepared to dig a little. Beneath the skin, one might say…
For example, on the surface, the relationship between Carvill and Sophia—once they meet—might seem, at first glance, to lie in the realms of gothic romance. Erotic fantasy, only far better written than most. Yet as the finale slowly looms, and the final outcome begins to coalesce, it is clear Carvill is a predator. He is charismatic, yes, but he is also narcissistic, serving only his own needs and desires like any true psychopath. It soon becomes clear—to those readers who are sharp of eye—that Carvill is a most dangerous manipulator. Deadly, in fact. It gives the story a weighty amount of the psychological thriller. Yet it is also definitively a horror story. Perhaps this is another example of its multi-layered aspect; it can be read by a wide variety of reader who might see different things from others. And though it shifts into very dark territory towards the end—recalling the finale of the film Martyrs to similar great effect—it doesn’t feel jarring or shoehorned in. It works in context and from what has preceded it. But regardless of how it is read, it is a story which remains in the mind long after it’s finished. Yes, the themes and content could easily be examined on a far larger canvas (hopefully not one like those in the book), and there is enough here for a novel-length work. But equally, this version of the story as presented is perfect for its aims. And that, ultimately, is the hallmark of a great story; no matter how dark or unpleasant it gets, if it is well-written and conceived, the reader will always want more.
The first in Black Shuck’s Signature Novella series, it’s a fine start to the run. And as an introduction to Mackintosh’s work, it’s an excellent showcase for his obvious talents. His writing, his imagination, his ability to lay out a well-paced and intricate story in only 100 pages is a great testament to his skills. Here’s to more from this writer, and—hopefully—to longer works.
Publisher: Black Shuck Books (Great British Horror)
eBook: (108 pps)
Release Date: 9 April 2018
Steven J. Shaw, publisher of Black Shuck Books, has kindly decided to take a chance on my novella “The Three Books,” which will be appearing under his new Black Shuck Signature Novellas imprint in March 2018. I’m very proud of this one, and glad to have it in such good hands.[Top]
Egaeus Press, creator of very fine quality collectible editions, has announced my latest short story collection, The Echo of The Sea & other Strange War Stories. It’s up to their usual impeccable standard, and I couldn’t be prouder. Available for order now!
Speaks for itself, really… 🙂[Top]
My article on Lovecraft, N.K. Jemisin, and other current Lovecraftian controversies, on Greydogtales.