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Two Worlds And In Between cover

Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea cover

These two volumes comprise the collected short stories—it needs to be noted—and not quite the complete; there are stories, especially from her early collections, which have not yet made it into what Caitlín R. Kiernan intends to be a representative canon of her work, one that gives us a sense of her career as a work in progress. Someone will one day analyze textual changes and which stories she now excludes—Kiernan is clearly a writer for whom work is never finished but only abandoned. Several stories here—particularly in the first collection—she subsequently cannibalized for her novels; "Les Fleurs Empoisonnées," for example, includes elements that found their way into Daughter Of Hounds as well as her Dancy Flammarion comics (the three series of Alabaster). These two collections are arranged chronologically, but also with the intention of demonstrating Kiernan's evolution as a writer both in her subject matter and in her methodology of expression.

Kiernan has explicitly rejected being described as a writer of genre horror, though her material—ghouls, underwater creatures, violent death, and universal annihilation—is very much a selection from the darker end of fantasy tropes. She is also a writer whose characters are unlikely to make it out of the quite vestigial plots they inhabit in one piece or with their sanity intact—she specifically rejects plot as an important element in story, vastly preferring to work with character and mood. She is happier with the build-up to an epiphany and its depressed aftermath than she is with explained truths about the universe—a lot of these stories avoid telling us what it was that her protagonists learned, just that it was very bad news indeed. I alone am escaped to tell you, her narrators say to us, but you are really better off not knowing what it is I can tell you about. The story of interstellar exploration in The Dry Salvages is one for telling which the narrator will be murdered by the state and which earlier explorers tried to drive from their minds by drugs or self-mutilation.

Though Kiernan only rarely writes science fiction, when she does it shares the same sense of the desolate places as her dark fantasies; the alien mineworkings in The Dry Salvages are typically on a planet where the air is unbreathable and what invertebrate life it ever produces is now extinct. Her urban landscapes are dangerous bars, apartments where nothing works, streets that are not only mean but filled with garbage and badly lit; the countryside is full of sinister lonely trees; the seashore at once stony and scourged by bad weather. Kiernan shares with M. John Harrison a sense that all is for the worst in this nearly worst of all possible worlds—worst would at least be vaguely glamorous.

There has always been, in both the fictions and cinematic visions of dark fantasy and horror, a competition between what we can call the Lovecraft or Barker strain, where our head is held tightly and we are made to look clearly at the almost unimaginably vile and bizarre, and the M.R. James or Val Lewton strain, in which we only catch an impression of what even the protagonist never sees quite clearly enough to be blasted. Kiernan's weird fiction draws on both though she has shifted more and more to the more impressionistic and less direct form—but one of the many ways in which she gets to have her cake and eat it is by throwing into doubt any sense whatever of authoritative perception. Much of the best of her more recent fiction trades in alternative texts and variant realities—"The Ape's Wife," for example, is not a retelling of Ann Darrow's relationship with King Kong so much as a free-floating rhapsody on directions in which that story might have gone more or less badly. "The Prayer of Ninety Cats" is not a retelling of the legend of Elizabeth Bathory so much as a story about watching a rare film in a vividly evoked unpleasant cinema and thinking about rumoured variant versions, with cut sequences; it's a story of the nightmare that viewing movies as thick contingent texts might become if there is no possibility of knowing for certain what story we are being told.

These are fictions which refuse most of the standard consolations of fantasy—protagonists are unlikely even to survive let alone commit acts of heroism. And even the measures of heroism that Kiernan allows are small victories won at a cost so total that we have to question their worth—the heroine of "Andromeda Among the Stones" takes the role of protector that has hideously and pointlessly changed her brother and is subjected to an even worse metamorphosis. The near immortal intelligence operative of the recent Black Helicopters is lied to more totally than is normal in the post-Deighton/le Carré spy fiction and people cannot even be bothered to be polite about it or turn up on time for the passing of information; worse, we see from a bleak future of collapse that nothing she does in an elaborate charade of assassination and mutant mind power projects is of any real importance whatsoever. Dancy is the tool of an avenging angel—who rarely shows up and leaves her to do its dirty work. The most a ghoul changeling can hope for is to pass its exams and not get eaten. A casual acquaintance caught up in the Lovecraftian homage "Pickman's Other Model (1929)" can only hope that the cleanup of people who know those things we are not meant to know will pass him by.

Kiernan is far bleaker than most writers partly because she takes the long view—she knows that this is a universe dominated by entropy and extinction and that human stupidity is helping universal death along. One of the reasons—it sometimes seems—why she sets so much of her work in the present or the past is that there probably is not much in the way of a future; the universe is a fool-killer to those beings who wreck their own nest. Lovecraftian beings can do nothing to us that we are not doing to ourselves anyway. And that is without the contingent personal tragedies that might strike us at any time . . .

What consolations are there in this vividly evoked bleak world? Moments of sexual fulfilment; the celebration of art and ecstasy; a revelling in metamorphosis for its own sake, changing towards the rich and strange, and sloughing off what is mundane and second-rate. Kiernan's slow progress from conventional elements and standard tropes, however well done, to meditation on what story is and what it is for and why we seek it out is one of the most radical things that is going on in the fiction of the fantastic right now. What is remarkable is that she was not content with accomplished dark fantasy narratives like Daughter of Hounds and has moved on to novels like The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl with their public examination of personal trauma and their inventive post-modern exploration of text and authoritativeness. She is one of the most serious artists working in our field today and these two collections are arranged to, as our infant school arithmetic teachers used to say, show us her workings.

Roz Kaveney is a novelist, poet and critic resident in London. Among her publications are Reading the Vampire Slayer, Dialectic of the Flesh, the Rhapsody of Blood sequence, and Tiny Pieces of Skull.

Roz Kaveney is a novelist, poet and critic resident in London. Among her publications are Reading the Vampire Slayer, Dialectic of the Flesh, the Rhapsody of Blood sequence, and Tiny Pieces of Skull.
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