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.
The Moonlit Road
White the road lies under the moon,
one quarter short of full;
white the road lies under the moon
that leers like a bleached skull.
The waxen moon hangs heavy now,
still as a hanged man’s head,
lighting the way for shadows’ steps,
the dead march of the dead.
The fingerpost points pointlessly
way over the chalk down;
the gallows ghost will never move
from where they cut him down.
White the road lies under the moon
in the unquiet night;
white the ghost stands beside the road,
pale in the wan corpselight.
The Castle Perilous
The princess sat at her window,
weaving her jet-black hair,
and all the folk who saw her swore
that there was none so fair.
Down flew a raven to her sill
and croaked, “Princess, make haste:
seek out the Castle Perilous
where your true love’s held fast.”
The princess ran down from her room,
heeding her destiny,
and saddled up her roan horse
to find where he might be.
The red deer and the red fox saw
her ride by out of doors,
the golden eagle watched her pass
over the purple moors.
She rode through dire woods and glens,
day and night without pause,
and reached the Castle Perilous
whose ramparts snarled like jaws.
Inside she saw a dreadful sight,
so grim her heart’s blood froze:
the bravest man that she had seen,
fighting three ghastly foes.
Three phantoms came on every side
to assail her brave knight,
and though he slew them every day
they rose again each night.
The sorceress stood at the gate,
smiling like gleaming knives.
“Come in, my fair princess,” she said,
“where mortals try their lives.”
“Answer my riddles,” said the witch,
“before you may depart,
or my three wights will kill your man
and I will eat your heart.”
“What is the blackest thing of all?
Tell me, my pretty dove.”
“Blacker than my hair is the heart
that never has known love.”
“What is the whitest thing of all?
Tell, or I eat you whole.”
“Whitest is the white purity
of a true loving soul.”
“What is the strongest thing of all?
Answer, my fair young maid.”
“Stronger than steel is the vow
that two true loves have made.”
The witch and spectres howled and fled,
the castle fell to sand.
She stepped across the clean bare ground
and took her true love’s hand.
He set her on her roan horse
and led her home again;
and peace and plenty blessed the land
through their long loving reign.
The Witches of Berwick
King James fetched home his Danish bride
but foul winds beat them back,
so the wise King sought out the cause
that drove his fleet to wrack.
Now Geillis Duncan was a maid
and healer of some fame;
her master Seaton of Tranent
asked her whence her gift came.
He asked her most genteelly
and noted down her moans,
he asked her with the pilliwinks
that crushed her finger bones.
She told the Berwick coven’s names
who threatened the King’s life,
who danced upon the Auld Kirk Green
and sailed in a sieve.
Old Agnes Sampson was the first,
called the Wise Wife of Keith,
brought to the King at Holyrood
to be put to the proof.
They bridled her most sturdily
with spikes in cheeks and tongue,
they cropped her head and wrote down all
she blurted while she hung.
Then John Fian of Prestonpans
whose guilt was not in doubt
for he confessed all, once he had
his fingernails torn out.
They burned them all on Castlehill,
bright as a burning tree;
thus James, Defender of the Faith,
was saved from sorcery.
There lived a girl in the end row,
fairest in all the land,
and all the men from all around
came suitors for her hand.
The boss man’s son sent his own men
to bring her to his house
and swore that she would never leave
until she was his spouse.
“Take all I have away from me,
take honour, jewels and life;
take me out of all memory:
I’ll never be your wife.”
“You have one night, my pretty one:
if you and I aren’t wed
before another day is done,
you’ll see your mother dead.”
Then as she wept alone that night,
her double left her glass
and stole through halls to the son’s room
where no one saw her pass.
The son smiled as she slipped inside,
regal and unafraid,
but in a flash she seized his knife
and stabbed him with his blade.
She twisted it in his black heart
till no red blood was left;
she did not strike with her right hand,
she struck him with the left.
Then back she glided through the house
to the poor woman’s room
and took her by her good right hand
and led her smiling home.
The boss man wept over his son
and searched both high and low
but never found the murderer
whose left hand struck the blow.