Scattered through this story collection, from the mouths of various protagonists, Caitlín R. Kiernan seems to speak:
I seem to have forgotten how to think or relate events in a linear fashion, without a lot of switchbacks and digressions and meandering. “Just write,” he said. (“Galápagos”)
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 man. (“Bradbury Weather”)
The value of these stories relies in their insistence that blank spaces still exist in the map. … There are things worse than blank spaces on maps. There are moments when certitude becomes the greatest enemy of sanity. (“Tidal Forces”)
Still, having read all the wonderful, strange, horrid, lovely stories in this volume, I would not trust any of her narrators to be reliable enough, or sure enough of themselves, to tell me their author’s intent. Stories told in the first person, which make up the majority of the collection, give Kiernan a powerful tool to avoid telling too much, placing the perspective of the narrator outside the events or, more often, sufficiently disturbed or confused by what is happening that she—or, occasionally, he—is unable to tell the story directly. Even when the story is not first person, though, there is significant opportunity for elision or distraction via the use of “chapterising” and placing components out of linear order.
The result is that this can be an exhausting collection to read. Almost every story asks for close attention, for serious and thoughtful engagement with the text. They start and end in strange places; they are confusing; they strive for mood over plot, feeling over revelation. But they reward that necessary close attention. Perhaps they don’t explain themselves, but there is often a purpose that can be sensed, a satisfaction found in puzzling something out of the material presented. There are lovely turns of phrase, powerful images, and beautiful sentences. There are exacting descriptions which indicate that, when something is vague, it is because Kiernan wishes it to remain so. Sometimes there is even a sense of relief in the ending—even if this is simply that the grimmest thing hasn’t happened.
“Galápagos” is a typical example. It begins with the line, “Whenever I wake up screaming,” and ends with: “sometimes, when I’m very lucky, dreamless sleep.” In between, the first-person narrator, Merrick, gives us good reason to understand why her nights are filled with nightmares. Her girlfriend, Amery, was part of a mission to the outer solar system. The crew seemed to die and the ship headed back to Mars, calling out to Merrick. She is the only one permitted to board, but she won’t—or can’t—share what she learns. What we eventually discover is that Amery herself and the ship as a whole have become a hotbed of evolution—a scene that Merrick describes in some detail but can still barely describe.
Indeed, barely describing what has occurred or been seen is a repeated technique through the book. In “One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)” (which, as it happens, starts with the line, “I am dreaming. Or I am awake. I’ve long since ceased to care”), the narrator says of her strange interlocutor, “I’ve never looked at her, and I know I never will.” And yet, we also get incredibly precise descriptions of sounds—“I take one step forward, and a charred section of root crunches beneath the soles of my hiking boots”—and scents—“even after eleven years, the top of the hill smells of smoke, ash, charcoal, and cinders—all those odors we mean when we say ‘I can smell fire’.” But none of her questions are answered, despite sex with that creature (or a dream thereof), and she takes the only sensible path and leaves the place regardless.
“A Season of Broken Dolls,” meanwhile, could be summarised as “disliking an art exhibit;” but the art in question is so exquisitely awful that I wanted to close my eyes even as I read the words. I suspect I may have skipped some paragraphs of body horror. This reader can’t truly tell you what the exhibit was, but I can say that the story’s narrator confronted the awful stitching together of living people, chose to stare and to absorb the vision, accepting and recognising her own responses to what she was witnessing, and her empathy with the art and the artist.
These uncanny, disordered narratives are leavened with more direct, linear stories. That linearity is rarely quite complete, and does not necessarily make the overall shape more complete or the content less disturbing. “Bradbury Weather” is set on a Mars which men cannot visit and in which the protagonist tries to catch up with her ex-lover. Does she seek Sailor’s forgiveness? Is she following Sailor to her doom? Given the other stories in the volume, the latter seems likely—but the story is careful not to reveal the shape of that doom too soon.
Not all the stories here have doom-laden endings, however. Some are chopped off, leaving few clues to the final outcome. Some suggest the return, the existence, of normality. Take “The Steam Dancer (1896)”—yes, the date is part of the title; Kiernan is often quite precise about when a story is set. This one creates a steampunk world very quickly. The protagonist is named Missouri Banks and she is an exotic dancer—more than usually exotic. Her husband has built her steam-powered limbs to replace those which she lost before he rescued her from certain death. She is loved and cherished. This most simply reads as a story of domestic satisfaction—a reminder that there is a lot worse than living a quiet life, even if it is a lot less exciting. (Although accepting the simplest reading of a Kiernan story may well be a mistake.)
For me, the lightest moment in the collection is “The Maltese Unicorn,” which provides a glorious pastiche. It still has darkness, but there is a capricious, hard-boiled humour, a sense of the author at play with the text, rather than toying with the reader. It is the story of a unicorn horn turned into a dildo, a magical implement of great power which has been rediscovered in the 1930s. Our first-person narrator gives us the full noir schtick as she tells how she came into contact with the object, the sex magic that was done upon her, and what she had to do to settle with the most dangerous beings in the New York underworld—beings who have come from the netherworld.
Besides playing with noir, Kiernan uses tropes from across the genre map. There is a temptation to use the term “horror,” but these stories are chilling, dark, thoughtful— rather than splatter or gore. Indeed, the effect is quite often present even in stories that can best be described as SF or as fairy stories. “La Peau Verte” and “A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills” make original, wondrous use of the idea of fairyland, for example—though they are as bitter as the absinthe that shapes the first of these and, in itself, represents forbidden fruit, the loosening of control, the accessing of unexpected desire.
Most of the stories turn on a relationship within a couple—and most of these couples are women. It seems slightly odd to draw attention to this as the stories themselves never even brush up against the idea that there is something special or different about homosexual relationships. Nevertheless, it is a point worth making that many of the stories could have been similar if the central relationship had been heteronormative. That choosing differently may not have occurred to the author, and that providing examples in this text of gay life, still feels like an act of visibility.
It is interesting that the sequencing of the stories roughly follows their copyright order—and that reading the volume in order shows some themes and tropes appear, repeat, and disappear. There is a phase during which someone in each story has green eyes, for example. Elsewhere, the elements of traditional fairy stories are present in several early stories and then return towards the end of the volume. Two stories centre on watching films—each describes the smell of an old cinema in very similar ways—whilst a third provides alternative endings for King Kong.
With 250 stories to Kiernan’s name, it is impossible for this reader to tell how representative these are of her fiction career of nearly thirty years. Indeed, even within this collection I have named fewer than half the available stories, but I hold each of them close—except the ones I want to forget, and those seem to hold on to me.