To enter the world of Caitlin R. Kiernan is to enter a world where dreams become nightmares, nightmares become reality, and transformation—horrible, beautiful, or sometimes both—is a constant.
Kiernan was a Nebula Award nominee for her novel The Drowning Girl, but she is most prolific in short fiction. Those looking to explore her work in brevity will be well-served by The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, a new collection that cherry picks from her voluminous body of stories published between 2003 and 2017. Each of them stands alone, but there are thematic links throughout, and a common preferences for eschewing easy answers in favor of eerie ambiguity.
“No story has a beginning, and no story has an end. Beginnings and endings may be conceived to serve a purpose, to serve a momentary and transient intent, but they are, in their truer nature, arbitrary and exist solely as a construct of the mind of men.” So says a fictitious monk in “Bradbury Weather,” which harkens back to Ray Bradbury’s stories about Mars.
The style of the stories is chiefly stream-of-consciousness with a single narrator, and though I’d hesitate to classify them as horror, some of them are certainly horrific. Some are fantasy, some are science fiction. One isn’t any of those things.
The collection opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones,” whose narrator, in describing her family’s life in a home constructed above a portal to somewhere decidedly Other, is uncertain what is real and what might be a symptom of the madness of the world around her. It sets the tone nicely for the rest of the book, beginning with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft: “I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering.”
It’s a statement that might apply to any number of the stories in this collection that connect the vastness of the sea with an unknowable other world; the sea reappears in five other stories: “Houses Under the Sea,” “The Ammonite Violin,” “Fish Bride,” “Mermaid of the Concrete Oceans,” and Tidal Force.” It is never quite an enemy—more as an unknowable force—though sometimes it is personified, as by the lover of the narrator of “Houses Under the Sea,” who cannot decide if their lover was the leader of a cult that committed mass suicide via drowning or… something else.
Earth, another unknowable entity, is far less benevolent, leading girls into wells or under rocks and subjecting them to a transformation that destroys their essential self. The girl fairy of “A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills” is devoured by just such a force.
The more science fictional stories also truck in indelible images to haunt your imagination. There is art made from human bodies in “A Season of Broken Dolls.” In “Bradbury Weather,” a woman searches for the lover who has gone in search of a new religion and taken the mark that will trigger a transformation, though of what sort is not exactly clear until the end. The narrator finds it horrific. But does her lover agree? Perhaps she’s now a part of something greater, something forever.
The astronaut narrator of “Galapagos” is also attempting to save a doomed lover after the lover’s spaceship passes through a mysterious cloud. The astronaut finds her lover, but not in the same form or, indeed, any form she recognizes. She’s told to leave, and she survives, but at the cost of her sanity. But again, it’s unclear: is the transformation that horrific, or is it only horrific because the narrator deems it so?
Some of the stories are a bit more grounded in the familiar. “Ape’s Wife” is the story of the many realities of Ann Darrow, the woman who fascinates King Kong. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats,” is about Elizabeth Bathory, mass murderer, witch, and subject of a movie that haunts the person at the center of the tale.
The stories favor narratives that are anything but linear; the narrators often double back on themselves, a technique that further immerses the reader in their world.
“I am dreaming. Or I am awake. I’ve long since ceased to care, as I’ve long since ceased to believe it matters which. Dreaming or awake, my perceptions of the hill and the tree and what little remains of the house on the hill are the same.” — from “One Tree Hill (The World at Cataclysm)”
The last story, “Fairy Tale of Wood Street,” is one of the most straightforward: a woman realizes her lesbian lover has a tail, and wanders through the rest of her day, wondering if she’s only imagined it. When the truth of the lover is revealed, this time there’s acceptance; the narrator realizes she known this person for much of her life as a friend, even if she is something more of magic than humanity.
Though these stories are ambiguous, I won’t be: as the title suggests, this is a terrific collection from one of the best writers of her generation.
The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan is available now.
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