I picked up Caitlin Kiernan's Low Red Moon on a whim. I had not read any of her other books, but recognized her name from reading her short stories in the Datlow/Windling anthologies. I have since come to understand that this book is somewhat of a sequel to a previous novel she has written, Threshold, though only in that these are the same characters introduced in that previous work.
No fears, dear reader: you do not need to have read Threshold to understand and enjoy Low Red Moon. It's a tale of quiet horror and growing dread, as characters reveal to us a dark, Lovecraftian underworld that creeps along the edges of our own reality.
The novel begins with a brutal and bloody murder, the first of many, but Kiernan uses the blood to paint a more deeply horrifying picture than mere gore. Here, we are introduced to the serial murderess Narcissa Snow, a seemingly delusional woman convinced that the dark forces will take her as one of their own, if only she can prove herself worthy.
Her killings have the police baffled, which leads to the initial involvement of the main protagonist, Deacon Silvey, a psychic and recovering alcoholic, who is newly married and about to become a father. He's helped the police before with gruesome serial murder cases, but he's trying to escape that; to escape the visions, and the alcohol, and his wife's vague disapproval.
Deacon's wife, Chance, is a scientist, and arguably the Scully of this tale, if I can be forgiven an overused pop-culture reference. She is a paleontologist who works and teaches at a university, and, on top of the usual difficulties associated with pregnancy, has been having hallucinations of blood. This only heightens her fear that her pregnancy is making her, at best, irrational; but as the killings continue her hallucinations grow more powerful, more difficult to shake off as unreal fantasy. Since Chance is determined to disbelieve her husband's possibly paranormal abilities, her own odd visions make her cling even harder to a scientifically based reality which is slowly crumbling away. She becomes even more uncomfortable, not only with her husband's strange ability but perhaps with her husband as a whole, as Deacon's investigations seem to take him farther and farther away from her, deep into a life he had so nearly left behind.
The story moves fast, but doesn't feel forced, skillfully weaving elements from the past of all three characters to take us to the edge of the dark abyss Nietzsche once spoke of, complete with monsters to battle. The plot is chilling and suspenseful, revealing what lurks in the shadows only enough to make the tale come together before closing the curtains. Gore, violence, mystery, and conspiracy are all elements used to excellent effect, making one wonder throughout the tale who can be trusted and who might be downright nuts. The plot is bolstered by addictively readable prose and rich descriptions, whether invoking the spice of clove cigarettes or the iron tang of an abattoir, which makes for a book exceedingly difficult to put down, with scenes impossible to forget.
Kiernan's writing is thoroughly absorbing when it comes to characters as well, causing the reader to identify with those characters on more than just a casual level. Chance's frustration is palpable as she senses her pregnancy lessening her authority as a scientist and professor. Deacon's struggle with his alcoholism leaves a particularly powerful impression; a state of nearly constant anxiety where even the smallest sip of the forbidden could bring relief. Learning of Narcissa's strange and troubling childhood does not lessen her fearsome presence, but makes her current unfathomable ways all the more disturbing and foreign, even as somewhere in the craziness we realize she is trying oh-so-hard to find her place. Kiernan lets the reader know and care about the characters in more than just the moments of the story, which makes it all the more powerful when the supernatural begins to affect their lives.
The supporting characters in the tale are also intriguing, from Deacon's old friend Sadie, to Chance's coworker Alice, to the mysterious Jane and Scarborough Pentecost. All of her characters have a depth that carry them beyond the possible archetypal roles in which they are cast, making the assigned roles all the more interesting to read.
Low Red Moon is engaging and horrifying, establishing a level of real world believability while revealing the terrors which lurk in the dark. The interconnections of the characters as uncovered throughout the novel make individual actions and reactions not only plausible but almost predestined, creating a fantastic tale that flows toward an inevitable, though not necessarily predictable, conclusion. Low Red Moon is a compulsively satisfying read.
Copyright © 2004 Erin Donahoe
Erin Donahoe currently works at a comic shop, where she relentlessly recommends Fables, Transmetropolitan, and Kingdom Come to the unwary public. She is a lawyer-artist-poet-writer, and invites you to visit her online journal. Erin's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email email@example.com.
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