Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, Caitlín R. Kiernan’s eighth collection of short fiction, is subtitled 25 Tales of Weird Romance. At first glance, that seems rather contradictory. Kiernan's introduction changes Weird Romance to Weird Erotica, but, while that is more descriptive of the stories collected, it doesn’t seem much simpler. Weird, as defined by Lovecraft a century or so back, could be summed up as a kind of horror that attains its effect by forcing the characters (and the reader) to confront their own cosmic insignificance. Erotica, needless to say, does not generally begin with the premise of man's terrible irrelevance.
Kiernan does not define the Weird differently. "Fear of the unknown" (p. 12) is among the first of her goals, and Lovecraft's name is often mentioned in her introduction, his ideas in her stories. But fear of the unknown is not her final goal. For her, there is fear here, yes, but that fear is one that is "equal parts pleasure and awe" (p. 9). The true mission statement for the collection comes at the introduction's end: "Desire without boundaries" (p. 12). These are stories of immense forces greater than man—and our desire for them. These are stories of us struggling to overcome our infinitesimal humanity and to escape our solitary shells.
Before we examine that, though, we should turn to Kiernan's major difference from Lovecraft. Kiernan's Weird is as monolithic and devastating as his, but her characters are infinitely more human. We are no longer in the realm of reclusive scholars whose only form of human interaction is epistolary. In "Pickman's Other Model (1929)," Kiernan faces Lovecraft's characters and creations directly. Her narrator is well aware of Pickman, a fictional artist of Lovecraft's creation: "Of the portion of Richard Pickmnan's oeuvre that I'd seen for myself, I'd not once found any testament to an interest in the female form" (p. 263). But the story strays from orthodox Lovecraftianism, and one of its inciting incidents is the discovery of striking nudes of Pickman's creation. This is Weird rife with sexuality and human desire. It is Weird that not only engages intellectually with the unknown but opens the floodgates of emotion and sensation and engages with it on every level. Keeping our focus on that description of Pickman/Lovecraft's work, it is also worth pointing out that this is Weird that is not afraid of female characters, nor of depicting friendships and romances between them.
All of the varied characters that Kiernan creates step into the darkness, and they do it by choice. As the nameless creatures below the city tell the main character of "Subterraneus," "Nothing which will be done here is done without your acquiescence" (p. 45). What is done is grotesque. In the story's final paragraph, the main character is slit open and drained of blood. But it is desired, as the fates of each of these characters are, on some vital level, desired. Of course, her fate and the desire that led her to it were partially wrought by the brutal life that she led: "a life that never could have led her anywhere but here, below the streets, and then below all that lies below the streets" (p. 46). The reader, likely if not certainly, has been spared a life full of such utter darkness and depredations. It's tempting, therefore, to distance ourselves from these characters, to consider them unfortunate victims of circumstance but in no way universal. Kiernan knows we might do this, but she does not think we will. As she says of the perverse desires contained here in her introduction, they are "for more than are willing to admit" (p. 12).
Some of those desires, and the fates that result from them, are physical. They are painful, even torturous. Many went far past what I can conceive of as a desire. "Concerning Attrition and Severance" depicts a woman granted ten cuts with a razor upon the flesh of another woman while a crowd watches (admittedly, the metaphysics of the story are rather more complex than that; the women may not just be women and so forth, but that is really outside the frame of what I mean to discuss with the piece, so I'll just use "woman" with a qualifier). Kiernan says: "We do not need to note the screams, nor describe their specific attributes. Her screams are a given" (p. 88), and so it is clear that it is not the pain that draws us here. But the shared, twisted desire between the torturer and the tortured was too bloodstained and painful for me to latch onto. Another story, "Beatification," depicts a woman subjected to and blessed with a breed of sexually focused and ritualistic surgery at the hands of a eunuch. The mutilations are described exclusively in terms of rapturous pleasure, which served to make them even more overwhelming and sickening than they might have been otherwise. I will admit I had to emotionally disengage almost entirely to finish the piece.
Other stories focus on emotional or intellectual desires, and those were immeasurably more effective for me. Some were even stunning in their power. "I Am the Abyss, and I Am the Light" is the collection's foray into science fiction, a genre that Kiernan is not unfamiliar with. The main character begins with the single but seemingly insurmountable obstacle of isolation: "being alone is unbearable," she tells us (p. 150). Hers is a human loneliness, but it is not one that can be solved by simple human contact, for human contact is never enough. As she tells her doctor: "We are each in our own perfectly transparent bubble. . . . We cannot ever fully know one another. In my thoughts, I am alone, Doctor, isolated, and so are you" (pp. 151-2). But this is the SFnal future, and, even if Kiernan's rendition of it is not shiny and utopian, it does hold darker promises. The protagonist agrees to be part of a scientific experiment, a merging with a truly alien consciousness. Kiernan powerfully evokes her physiological and psychological destruction—and her refashioning into something bizarre and "unfettered by the jail of individuality" (p. 157).
The soul of the desire that Kiernan evokes, though, may be best and most simply stated in "The Thousand-and-Third Tale of Scheherazade." The narrator is the slave and whore of a changeling, subjected to innumerable degradations, and yet, as he says: "It's not such an awful price to pay . . . not for the privilege of knowing, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that there are still such wonders among us" (p. 206). That need and calculation, that breaking the boundaries of isolating and suffocating humanity no matter the cost, lies at the core of many of the stories here and all of my favorites of them.
Though Kiernan’s style is rich, its individual elements are carefully crafted. Her details are precise, both when describing cities and when describing experiences at the edge of human endurance. She is capable of simple and yet disturbing turns of phrase, such as "Money talks, and meat listens and eagerly responds" (p. 47). Her stories are also filled with bizarre images that lie somewhere between tender and cruel:
You have always loved my nose, or so you’ve frequently professed. When I complain that it is too big or poorly shaped, you have threatened to cut it off and keep it in a tiny wooden box, lined in claret velvet. If I do not appreciate it, you have said, then I should not be permitted to wear so fine a nose, and you would protect it from my scorn. (p. 134)
Many of Kiernan's strengths and weaknesses can be seen in one of the collection's most striking but also flawed pieces, "Rappaccini's Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)." After paid sex with an elderly couple, the narrator's twin is poisoned. The narrator finds a letter stating that any attempts to prove the couple's guilt would be futile. He swears vengeance. His method? He gradually introduces poisons into his body over a long period of time, building up his tolerance, swamping his flesh with toxins until he is himself a creature crippled by but subsisting upon poisons, a creature that would be death to approach—or to fuck. In the story's climax, he again has sex with the couple, and they die on either side of him as he, too, passes away.
Turning the last page of that tale, I found myself picking apart a dozen holes in the plot. The narrator says that his self-poisoning "gave him some hope, however expensive it might prove, of avenging the murder of his brother" (p. 99). But the whole poisoning plan relies on him keeping extensive tabs on the couple and, at the end, getting close enough to have sex with them. At that point, it seems that a gun (or, if he must keep matters somewhat poetic, a syringe) would be a far more effective and less self-injurious means of vengeance. Besides which, one would think that the letter itself would be sufficiently damning evidence to quite easily prove the couple's guilt.
For all of that, I was left reeling from the story's power. Kiernan marries narrative momentum (no matter how iffy its distal causes) to the most surreal images and situations. Her descriptions of the poison's effects and the narrator's determination through it are riveting. Lost in toxic delusions, the narrator debates mythology and morality with a satyr. He concocts elaborate rationalizations and justifications to propel himself onwards and admits, as he does so, that they are concocted, melding the seductive power of crystalline prose to the admission of irrationality.
Best of all, for the purposes of the collection as a whole, the bizarre power of "Rappaccini's Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)" is more indicative of Kiernan's general work than the lopsided plotting. Kiernan is not speculative fiction's tightest plotter, but she is usually capable of constructing competent narratives. On occasion, she even pokes fun at genre conventions or her own motifs, such as when the main character of "The Collector of Bones" asks a prostitute she has brought home if he thinks she will prove to be a killer. Meanwhile, Kiernan's skills at the strange and gripping are in evidence in almost every piece here.
"Rappaccini's Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)" also excels at the final element of Kiernan's work I would like to discuss, the omnipresent tension between the unknown and the erudite. Kiernan's work is filled with allusions. Rappaccini is, of course, a throwback to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of a girl turned poisonous, "Rappaccini's Daughter," while the poisoning itself is tied to stories about Alexander the Great and Greek mythology. Elsewhere in the collection we have quotations or discussions of Lewis Carroll, Lovecraft, Ligotti, James Joyce, William Blake, Shakespeare, Milton, early film history, and far more. The unknown itself, however, transcends such easy comparisons. In fact, it is often nameless. Names, or the lack thereof, come up often in these stories. "What need have they of names?" (p. 42) Kiernan asks of the creatures in "Subterraneus," and elsewhere the need to name and the futility of that need are addressed more clearly still: "Humanity often seeks, through nomenclature, to subjugate that which it fears" (p. 81). Needless to say, in Kiernan's fiction, humanity fails at that endeavor.
The distance between the extensive knowledge that Kiernan and her characters bring to the table and the unknown, so incomprehensible as to be nameless, soon becomes a distinction between the world and our attempts to satisfy our desires within it and what lies beyond the world and beyond any attempts at easy understanding. As Sonya Taaffe puts it in her afterword, "Knowledge is a hole in the world into which her characters fall, not because early film history or classical literature or planetary science are valueless disciplines, but because they cannot pertain to the place where words run out" (p. 321). Earlier, in "Pickman's Other Model (1929)," the narrator comes to exactly that realization. Erudition, rationality, and argumentation are effective tools for describing the everyday world and for dancing around greater truths. But, when he forces himself to stop obfuscating and dive into the heart of his experience, he recognizes that he must "lay these dubious, slipshod attempts at scholarship aside" (p. 275).
Kiernan's writing is filled with all sorts of juicy things to discuss, filled with wonderful metaphors and references and ideas. More than that, though, it is filled with images and vast desires that must be read to be understood at all. Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart is a collection unlike anything I’ve ever read from another's pen. Not all of it is effective. Some pieces will likely leave you cold or even revolted. But others may get far deeper under your skin than you thought possible.