CAITLIN R. KIERNAN WALKS THE PLANK
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s writing is incendiary, lush, and often Decadent in outlook. I’ve only just starting reading her work in the last year, but I’ve been blown away by the way in which she partakes of both traditional and cutting-edge approaches. As Publishers Weekly has noted about her most recent story collection:
Kiernan ranks as one of today's finest practitioners of 'the art of disquiet,' as Ramsey Campbell notes in his perspicacious afterword to this remarkable collection. Her enigmatic short stories are written in lyrical prose that sweeps the reader completely into strange dark worlds where characters choose to embrace madness over the mundane and nightmares offer guidance as well as fear.
Now Subterranean Press is set to publish Alabaster in September, with a stunning cover by Ted Naifeh. You have to go to the site and check out the full cover by clicking on it—the front cover here doesn’t do it full justice. It’s amazing. Even more importantly, you have to order it soon, because I have a feeling it’s going to sell out pre-pub.
So what’s Alabaster about?
An albino girl wanders the sun-scorched backroads of a south Georgia summer, following the bidding of an angel or perhaps only voices in her head, searching out and slaying ancient monsters who have hidden themselves away in the lonely places of the world. Caitlín R. Kiernan first introduced Dancy in the pages of her award-winning second novel, Threshold (2001), then went on to write several more short stories and a novella about this unlikely heroine, each a piece of what has become an epic dark fantasy narrative. Alabaster finally collects all these tales into one volume, illustrated by Ted Naifeh (Gloomcookie, How Loathsome, Courtney Crumrin, Polly and the Pirates, etc.).
It’s one of the disheartening things about reading for the World Fantasy Awards that my focus is constrained to works from 2005, so I haven’t read Alabaster yet, but I’ve peeked here and there and the writing is exceptional.
One short note about Kiernan’s introduction to her last collection, To Charles Fort, With Love. In that introduction, she recounts a search in 2004 for Innsmouth Harbor (of Lovecraft fame) that leads her and a friend to Crane Beach, whereupon they have an unsettling encounter:
“Do you see that?” she asked, sounding a little anxious…It took me a moment to see what she was pointing at. The water was almost the same steely grey-blue as the sky, blurring the horizon, misleading the eye. But then I saw it.
She might well have kept it to herself.
There was something standing in the shallow water not far from shore…It looked like a man, a very tall man standing waist-deep in the water, only its skin was a greenish black and gave the impression of being iridescent…The skin seemed very smooth, and I could make out no sign of clothing. Its head was bald, and its hands seemed disproportionately large…It was too far away to make out much about a face, but I could see its mouth, which seemed to be constantly opening and closing. The interior of the mouth appeared to be whitish. Its jaw was square and broad, and there may have been something like a short beard or goatee on its chin…After five minutes or so, it turned around, turning its back on us, and appeared to stare up at the sky…And then the dark figure slipped beneath the water and was gone. We waited another five minutes, maybe, but it never reappeared…I have considered the possibility that what we saw that afternoon might only have been a scuba diver in a wet suit. But there was no sign of a mask or air tanks, or even a snorkel, for that matter…Did we share a hallucination, Kathryn and I? Were our imaginations so whetted with thoughts of Lovecraft’s amphibious hybrids and my own ghoulish half-breeds...that we saw nothing more than what some part of our minds expected to see?
It’s probably best that I come clean about this event now, since I was involved so intimately and yet remotely. A confluence of events led to my being in that area, in the water off of Crane Beach, at that time. Not least of which was wanting to finally meet Kiernan. I had just completed an appearance at a convention in the area and was staying with writer friends (who wish to remain nameless). It was they who suggested, since I had a love of scuba diving and jet skis, that I go out on the water that day. They also suggested the route I wound up taking, since they knew Kiernan and knew she and her friend might be in the area. They, too, insisted I use their custom-made scuba suit—perhaps the most final of all the mistakes I made. (Looking back, I cannot help but think there was a bit of malice in their many suggestions.)
By the time Kiernan and Kathryn appeared on the shore in the distance, my jet ski had malfunctioned and was sinking beneath the water. My scuba tanks, mask, and mouth piece were strapped to it. I stood on top of the jet ski as it found a comfortable resting distance beneath the waves (it was not content to just sink to the bottom all at once). I shouted toward the two of them: “Help! Help! My jet ski is sinking!” I waved my arms a bit, even if this may have been a mistake given the rather bizarre Creature from the Black Lagoon customization of the scuba suit. If my mouth was constantly moving, it was because I was trying get their attention.
I certainly don’t recall looking up at the sky, unless perhaps in exasperation at the non-reaction—even the sense of recoiling from me—I received from the two on the shore. Meanwhile, the jet ski continued to settle and I was left with no choice but to “disappear” as Kiernan puts it, because I had to dive down below to extricate my scuba gear from the jet ski before it was too late. I then spent a depressing thirty minutes finding my way to shore—by which time the two people I’d glimpsed on shore had themselves “disappeared.” It wasn’t until I read Kiernan’s introduction that I knew for certain that it had been her that day.
I must admit to being a little hurt by the descriptions in Kiernan’s account. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been called an “amphibious hybrid.” Although I would like to apologize for startling the two of them.
In any event, Kiernan was nice enough to answer my questions via email early in April, and here are her answers…
CAITLIN R. KIERNAN WALKS THE PLANK
Why should readers pick up your new book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Well, I need the money.
Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
Generally, my books are a rowdy, disreputable lot. A sorrier bunch of miscreants, malcontents, and layabouts you’re not likely to find. I freely admit this. However, I think I’ve done a very admirable job of training them not to drool in the laps of readers. And they’re almost never rude to Scientologists. Almost.
Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
I did once read on someone’s blog--I can’t recall just whose--that having read To Charles Fort, With Love and Low Red Moon had quite entirely cured them of a nasty bout of toenail fungus and any desire to lurk about dark alleyways. Also, Silk can be credited with having aggravated quite a few cases of arachnophobia, and I’ve gotten many nice letters from spiders thanking me for this.
Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
I suppose that would vary from book to book. Well, actually, truthfully, I tend to think that kids are generally much better equipped to deal with dark fantasy than most of their parents. Lately, it seems they have a little better grasp on that which is “real” and that which isn’t. Children would never have elected George W. Bush, for example. Children would have elected someone more qualified, like Spongebob Squarepants or Albus Dumbledore. A cartoon sponge or dead wizard beats a living, breathing jackass any day. Kids know this. I don’t really imagine an eight- to twelve-year-old being especially horrified at my books. Many of them enjoy Britney Spears, after all. I’ve never written anything half so disquieting as Britney Spears.
Why don't you write more about cute stuff?
Well, I have frequently mentioned Sanrio. And Dr. Seuss. And muppets. And cannibalism. And ghouls. And unfathomable eldritch horrors lurking in cosmic gulfs, awaiting the day when the stars are right again, that they might finally escape their sunken prisons of cyclopean, non-Euclidean cities and rain fire and curried sheep intestines upon the world. And I think I’ve written about kittens. And dragons. Dragons are cute, aren’t they?
If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
At this point, I suspect I’m unfit for just about everything but writing. But I might try piracy, the old-fashioned skull and crossbones sort. Or I could have a go at psychic criminology. Or I might become an evangelist. That’s the neat thing about being an evangelist. No prior experience is necessary and no one seems to care if you have a seamy past. A seamy past actually seems to be a plus. It’s something that hiphop artists and evangelists have in common, or so I’m told.