Paul StJohn Mackintosh

Writing * Poetry * Dark Fiction * Weird * Fantastic * Horror * Fantasy * Science Fiction * Literature

Category: Reviews

A review of The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan

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.

A review of This House of Wounds, by Georgina Bruce

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.

 

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My Lovecraft eZine review of Ramsey Campbell’s The Way of the Worm

The Way of the Worm

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My review of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha on RPGnet

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha

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My review of the Delta Green Handler’s Guide on RPGnet

Delta Green Handler’s Guide

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My article on revisionist Lovecraftian fiction in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Revising Lovecraft: The Mutant Mythos

 

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My latest article in Los Angeles Review of Books: Reviewing Shadows and Tall Trees 7

Foreshadowing the Weird: “Shadows and Tall Trees 7”

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A review of The Secret of Ventriloquism, by Jon Padgett

The influence of Thomas Ligotti stalks large across contemporary North American horror and dark fiction, as Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft once did and mostly still do. Jon Padgett is not slow to acknowledge his debt “to my friend and mentor, Thomas Ligotti, without whom this book would not exist.” Given that tribute, and the book’s focus on ventriloquist’s dummies, straight from the same toybox as Ligotti’s favourite emblems of puppets and dolls, a reader could be forgiven expecting a pastiche of Ligottiesque themes, like the Yog-sothothery that made so many careers in the immediate wake of the Lovecraftian revival. But how wrong they would be.

For one thing, The Secret of Ventriloquism contains exquisitely calculated prose chiseled sharply enough to cut off any suspicion of second-hand knockoffs. As an opener, for instance, “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” is a short, simple, chilling parody of the kind of induction you might encounter in any tacky wellness session, retooled to evoke icy metaphysical sickness. “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown” is the kind of boy’s own story that Stephen King could be proud of – finishing with one of the best five-word endings I’ve read in recent horror fiction. “The Indoor Swamp” is a sort of ghost-train horror ride guide that, once again, picks up all kinds of nightmarish existential dimensions along the way. And for another thing, as all that should suggest, Padgett has many more than one string to his bow, or manner to his mummery. There’s quite enough variety of tone, setting, and focus here to surprise and disconcert any reader, and leave preconceived expectations flopping and gasping in the cold black mud of Padgett’s imagination.

Despite the variety, there’s also some conspicuous continuity between stories, especially those directly concerning “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” which itself is a one-act play towards the end of the book. “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” and “The Infusorium” both deal with the same theme, but in utterly different ways – the latter a sometimes brutal noirish ride through Padgett’s iconic hell-on-earth of Dunnstown. Then there are the awful origami dreams of, well, “Origami Dreams,” the grotesque affliction of “Organ Void,” the cold songs of Thin Mountain, and so on. And on. On far enough to outdistance any conceivable accusation of derivative work. Padgett is a chilling master in his own right. You’d be a dummy not to read him…

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A review of The Rib From Which I Remake the World, by Ed Kurtz, ChiZine Publications

Noirish horror veteran Ed Kurtz‘s The Rib From Which I Remake the World rolls into town with one of the best titles of the year, and with all the barnstorming sawdust vigour of the travelling circus that provides its prologue. And the town it rolls into is Litchfield, Alabama, one hot wartime summer, when a “hygiene picture” as salubrious as any travelling medicine show sets up shop in the local fleapit cinema to entertain and instruct the handful of undrafted citizens, and, as it turns out, to do far more for, and to, them. House detective of the town’s only (halfway) decent hotel, George “Jojo” Walker, soon finds himself dealing with inexplicable happenings and dark secrets, which disinter his own dark secrets, and things get murkier and more unhinged from there on.

At this point, you might definitely be thinking Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes,  but that’s an illusion that in due course is due to be snatched away like a magician’s cheap trick – and that’s as much of a spoiler as you’re going to get. Nothing is as it seems. What makes the story is the steady, relentless build that takes the narrative into new and completely unexpected territory, and the excellent, polished prose, segueing from Alabama drawl to Jacobean dialogue without missing a beat. As well as a terrifically ingenious and disorienting rationale for the whole awful situation, which makes for a hell of a reveal towards the end. And Kurtz has a great gift for characters, from the sympathetic and wounded to the sheerly evil.

The Rib From Which I Remake the World is the kind of book you can imagine entertaining the hell out of any supermarket-checkout King fan, while still managing to impress connoisseurs of horror and the modern weird renaissance. That’s quite a balancing act to pull off, and Kurtz does it without too much concession or condescension to either audience. ChiZine has also done a fine job on the production values and the artwork. Sadly it’s debuting too late for the summer reading list, but I can see this one on many bookshelves and favourites lists in the years to come. Recommended.

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A review of Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 3, edited by Simon Strantzas

 

The third volume of Undertow PublicationsYear’s Best Weird Fiction series comes lavishly garnished with expectations – and it doesn’t disappoint. For one thing, there’s plenty of meat: 19 stories, with, as Michael Kelly notes in his foreword, “almost no overlap with the other ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies.” For another, it’s edited by Simon Strantzas, “a dear friend, a great writer, and a sharp and inquisitive critic,” as Kelly says, and “an important voice in the horror and weird fiction communities.” With a new guest editor and “differing perspectives and ideas on what constitutes weird fiction” each time, each new YBWF has its work cut out to justify Kelly’s claim that “I believe this to be a vital and important annual volume.” As it turns out, though, no problem.

One of the distinguishing marks of Strantzas’s editorial policy for YBWF3 appears to be propulsive, front-loaded stories that roar off the starting grid. Example: “Abigail Gardner née Cuzak was sitting on the bathroom floor, thinking about the relationship that mice in mazes have with death, when a many-splendored light shot down from the stars like a touch of divine Providence,” the opening line from “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” by Nadia Bulkin. It’s also a policy that has a lot to do with straight horror – poor Abigail, for instance, ends up having a far more personal taste of the relationship of mice in mazes with death than she or the reader would have wished, and Lynda E. Rucker’s poignant, chilling “The Seventh Wave” is probably best not read by parents of young children. In his introduction, Strantzas defends the position “that Horror and Weird are really the same,” even though weird tales “don’t need to have vampires, or werewolves, or psycho killers or possessed children or any of the familiar trappings,” and in fact next to none of the stories in this volume do.

Missing monsters and myths notwithstanding, Strantzas’s horrid weird is evidently in deep ongoing dialogue with its entire tradition. Robert Aickman, for instance, may be long dead, but his hitherto unpublished “The Strangers” gets into this collection because it surfaced recently in Tartarus Press’s collection with the same title of Aickman’s uncollected stories. “Seaside Town” by Brian Evenson featured previously in Undertow’s Aickman tribute anthology Aickman’s Heirs, and Aickman’s shade also looms in Robert Shearman’s subtly disturbing tale of pedophilia (or is it?), “Blood,” and “The Rooms Are High” by Reggie Oliver. Ramsey Campbell, meanwhile, appears as one of “those most affected by the boom” in horror fiction in the 1970s” with “Fetched,” a suitably ghastly tale of cold snobbish English disdain shading over into something much worse. That strong British leaning is confirmed by D.P. Watt’s “Honey Moon,” and Marian Womack’s tale of a post-ecpocalypse Cambridge, “Orange Dogs,” and you couldn’t imagine a more British title than “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” by Genevieve Valentine. I don’t think that’s bias, though – rather, I’m proud to say, it probably stems from the quality of the stories themselves. Fears of too much Brit in the mix, though, are dispelled with authority by tales like “The Devil Under the Maison Blue” by Michael Wehunt or Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Rangel.” And still the weird goes deeper…

All I’ve written might suggest a certain sameness in these stories: there isn’t. They’re strongly individualized, very distinct in tone, and they pass the Linger Test, staying in the mind when other tales have been forgotten. There’s one or two stories which will probably tweak my sensibility as touchstones for the entire genre, and it’s hard to imagine how critics or readers could properly evaluate the current renaissance in weird fiction without reading them, and this volume. Indispensable.

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