Friday, 4 November 2011

Book Review | Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Volume I)

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Caitlin R. Kiernan's short fiction was first published in 1995. Over the intervening decade and a half, she has proven not only one of dark fantasy and science fiction's most prolific and versatile authors, but, to quote Ramsey Campbell, "One of the most accomplished writers in the field, and very possibly the most lyrical." S. T. Joshi has written, "Kiernan's witchery of words creates a mesmerizing effect that we haven't seen since the days of Lovecraft and Bradbury."

Two Worlds and In Between presents a stunning retrospective of the first ten years of her work, a compilation of more than two hundred thousand words of short fiction, including many of her most acclaimed stories, as well as some of the author's personal favorites, several previously uncollected, hard-to-find pieces, and her sf novella, The Dry Salvages, and a rare collaboration with Poppy Z. Brite.

Destined to become the definitive look at the early development of Kiernan's work, Two Worlds and In Between is a must for fans and collectors alike, as well as an unprecedented introduction to an author who, over the course of her career, has earned the praise of such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Charles De Lint, and Clive Barker.


I can recall recommending no author so often as I have recommended Caitlin R. Kiernan. To friends and friendly readers and friends with friendly readers of their own... to all those folks with a hankering for something different – something unlike anything else – I have commonly promised the world of her work, to which, I think, there is no better introduction than Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Volume 1), and no worse.

A retrospective collection of her short fiction from the period of 1993 through 2004, Two Worlds and In Between gathers together some 26 tales – including several novelettes and novellas, not a few award-winners, and a career-best collaboration with absentee NOLA novelist Poppy Z. Brite – from one of dark fantasy and science fiction’s most accomplished yet least acknowledged authors. Many will find it an indispensable edition: coming in at just shy of 600 pages, it is an exclusive and beautifully presented behemoth of a book destined to become a collector’s item all too soon, in the mode of all of Kiernan’s earlier assemblages. But the value of Two Worlds and In Between as an object is of course roundly dwarfed by its worth as an artistic endeavour, for as a chronicle of the incremental progress of an author whose work was stunning from word one – in Silk, if not before, so long ago – it is crucial.

Other readers, however, may find Two Worlds and In Between less rather than more than the sum of its many and various parts, because this, like George R. R. Martin’s Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective before it, is a retrospective in not just name but also nature: a compilation demonstrating the development of the work of a particular author or artist over a given interval in terms of time. Even auteurs, after all, begin as amateurs, and inasmuch as the lattermost moments of Two Worlds and In Between portray Kiernan approaching the pinnacle of her powers – at her most mature, restrained and refined – there are also those moments (and rather a proliferation of them in the collection’s first third) which represent the author’s prodigious body of work in largely less flattering light. For instance in ‘Emptiness Spoke Eloquent,’ the dubious Dracula fan-fic this retrospective inevitably begins with, as in the attention-seeking non-starter ‘Salmagundi (New York City, 1981)’ and the dry run that is ‘Breakfast in the House of the Rising Sun’ – of which the author notes that “I was just beginning to find my voice here, my first voice, which would serve me well for a few years.” (p.99) – there is in evidence a certain awkwardness indicative of Kiernan’s initial inexperience. However sophisticated and ineffably artful her first few conjurations might seem on the surface, indeed however many times she might tweak or rework or overhaul these ultimately amateurish early efforts – Kiernan being stringently of the opinion that an author’s work is never truly done (see p.572) – sometimes beneath the black there is only more black; layer upon layer of lustrous look-at-me prose evidently its own reward, or if not, only overwrought:

And then the bones do break apart, a silent tear or slit in the side facing him, jagged mouth or vagina; thick liquid squirting out, dark and syrupy gouts like a punctured carotid, and two or three people sitting right up front move back a little, wiping at their clothes or faces or hair with fingers reluctant to touch the substance, yet curious to know, disgusted and excited by disgust. The howl is fading now, growing distant or imploding, and it leaves behind a dull-heart thump-thump-thump that’s more metal than flesh, steam-hammer pound in air raped into stillness, into vacuum, by sound. (p.129)

There is an ostentatiousness to a fair few of Kiernan’s first fictions I dare say some readers are like to find practically repellent: an eye and an ear for details untold in other stories – often for good reason, because here they are ever a mire for already fitful narratives to fall afoul of – and a resolute determination to endear itself to those readers with panda eyes and a penchant for torture porn. Navels are needless to say gazed, and the self is routinely indulged and oft-congratulated, yet even during this first period, this least period with which Two Worlds and In Between can but start, there are moments of exquisite beauty, too. From the final unfurling of a fallen angel’s ripped and ragged wings in ‘Estate’ – the first of Kiernan’s shorts to make the year’s best anthologies, and easily the most memorable of all these early doors cracked open to other worlds and times – to the suitably unsettling if comparatively crude Lovecraftian homage of ‘Postcards From the King of Tides,’ the author gives voice to a strain of pained but wondrous dark fantasy to which there are in this day and age few, if any, equivalents.

This beauty, though, is only an intermittent murmur, there and then gone in the first phase of Two Worlds and In Between. And one senses that Kiernan is herself cognisant of the missteps she made as her career was coming together. Cutting if abrupt afterwords affixed to each tale, whether wholly retold or no, tend to delve into the good, the bad and the ugly without distinction; an lop-sided imbalance between the 150 pages of this retrospective concerned with stories composed between 1993 and 1999 and the 400-some sides devoted to those published from 2000 to 2004 seems particularly revealing – and results in several odd or otherwise notable omissions, among them early favourites ‘Persephone’ and ‘A Story for Edward Gorey.’ Most telling of all the author’s allowances as to the questionable quality of her initial endeavours is an admission buried in the publication history appending Two Worlds and In Between, wherein Kiernan notes that:

[...] the text for each of these stories, as it appears in this collection, will differ, often significantly, from the originally published texts. In some cases, stories were revised for each reprinting (and some have been reprinted numerous times). No story is ever finished. There’s only the moment when I force myself to stop and provisionally type THE END. (p.572)

Though these revisions seems somewhat at odds with the implicit purpose of a retrospective –misrepresentations, I would go so far as to suggest – the copious edits Kiernan confesses to making to these stories on this and those other occasions they have been canonised have in the majority of cases resulted in texts more tolerable and tasteful than they may have been before. Rendered as they are in Two Worlds and In Between – absent, then, a tiresome tendency towards tortured prose, some clumsy dialogue and contrived character development – these tales are at times as representative of Kiernan’s inimitable talents today as they are of her necessarily less practiced craft circa yesteryear.

Not a moment too soon, in truth, we leave the noisome 90s behind to transition into the second and markedly more remarkable phase of this collection, wherein this idea about the essential arbitrariness of “THE END,” as Kiernan puts it, come fully to the fore. Many of the stories in this far larger part of Two Worlds and In Between touch on this periodic motif, whether merely by ending at what appears an arbitrary point – though appearances are indubitably deceiving – or by incorporating, as in The Dry Salvages, the aforementioned methodology into the very characters or components of a given fiction. In ‘Spindleshanks (New Orleans, 1956),’ ‘The Road of Pins,’ ‘Onion’ and on, the ends the reader expects prove elusive: these stories seem poised to continue beyond the point that Kiernan calls a halt, but that, perhaps, is the point, for far more discomfiting than a full-frontal of some unspeakable evil is the sinister shade of “the figure of a woman in the middle distance, lean and twisted as the blighted limbs of the trees… looking apprehensively over her shoulder at something the artist has only hinted at, shadows of shadows crouched menacingly at the lower edge of the canvas.” (p.192) This pointed refusal to pay off on one’s expectations – to give form and voice and weakness in turn to the ghastly, ghostly grotesqueries prowling around and around the periphery of these untold texts – to do anything other than Kiernan does, or does not, would be to do these nightmares and the imaginations with which we would behold them a dreadful disservice.

In the short fiction of Caitlin R. Kiernan, as documented in the second part of Two Worlds and In Between, “There are no answers. There is no truth. There are only terrible questions containing ever more terrible questions, an infinite regression of improbably unlikelihoods leading nowhere at all.” (p.530) But if nowhere is not a place, strictly speaking, then it is certainly a feeling – an anxious, creeping, crawling sense of wrongness or unease – and there are few authors better positioned to evoke its inconceivable image than Kiernan. Nevertheless, her patent-pending habit of stopping short of a complete narrative – even a single cohesive fragment of narrative – has in the past and will continue to rub some readers, and some critics, the wrong way. And some of Kiernan’s shorts are unquestionably more satisfactory in that incomparable fashion of hers than others. ‘Spindleshanks (New Orleans 1956),’ say, simply stops, leaving one feeling more cheated than is usual, particularly given the momentous promise of the spectre raised just moments before it is rudely interrupted. In ‘Houses Beneath the Sea,’ on the other hand – a left-behind lover’s yearning elegy to the leader of a suicide circle with designs on the abyssal plain, and the last (and the most recent) of the stories brought together in this extensive retrospective – Kiernan’s repudiation of the end is substantially more meaningful, in that though the precise character of “that darkness spread out before and behind and around us” (p.471) is never entirely exposed, there is at least the suggestion of thematic and narrative closure. And that, I think, is enough. Your mileage may vary.

Now the best of Aunt Beast (for so she is known) will of course be of immeasurable appeal to those subscribers to the cult of Caitlin R. Kiernan – a no-brainer buy that will see this limited edition sold out in short order, I’m sure – but Two Worlds and In Between could and should reach far further than the outer reaches of that inner circle, because at its best, how truly, madly, deeply, darkly marvelous this fiction is; what perfect poisonous flowers these fragile fragments are! Yet in the years she’s been a published author, there is no question that Caitlin R. Kiernan has had her moments – good and bad – as even I have had mine with her work.

I am, it follows, in two minds about Two Worlds and In Between, but I would wager the compromise lies somewhere between these two minds: thus, this double-disc greatest hits is in the end – if not “THE END”, for it is to be followed in 2014 by a second, no doubt superior volume – a magnificent, malevolent, momentarily middling thing. And what with its sequential arrangement, Two Worlds and In Between does not put its surest foot forward first; it graduates, come to that, from worst to best instead of the reverse. But that is the nature of the chronological compilation, and I would not hesitate to recommend the essential second part of this collection to any and all comers, whether they be die-hard Kiernan devotees or only the passing curious. That it comes complete with a selection of lesser texts – though do not mistake me: there are highlights even amongst these – should be no reason at all not to seek out this fairly faithful and endlessly fascinating retrospective of the work of an author whose finest fiction dwells in the impossible space betwixt the deep blue sea and the dark black sky. 


Two Worlds and In Between:
The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Volume I)

US Publication: November 2011, Subterranean Press

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