This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Caitlín R. Kiernan (1964 – ) is an American author who has steadily moved beyond a reputation as an heir to the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft and Southern Gothic literature to become one of the most original and audacious weird writers of her generation. In addition to her many award-winning novels and stories, Kiernan has written scientific papers that reflect her love of herpetology and paleontology, also reflected in her fiction. Perhaps more than any other writer of the past thirty years, Kiernan places the reader somewhere alien and inhabits points of view that seem both luminous and edgy. “A Redress for Andromeda” (2000) is a perfect example of Kiernan’s ability to portray the uncanny in original and terrifying ways. 101 Weird Writers is delighted to present this appreciation of Kiernan and “A Redress for Andromeda,” written by regular contributor Desirina Boskovich.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
Reading Caitlín R. Kiernan’s work is like being transported into another world that lies just adjacent to our own. That world looks familiar, and then it doesn’t. And then it does again. Which is to say, there’s something incredibly strange about her stories, but their vision is consistent and true.
Kiernan’s first novel, Silk, won the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, Threshold, received the award for Best Novel. Her fiction has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Locus Award and others. And the raw transcendence of her voice has only grown more confident and more powerful with the progression of her career. In 2009 she published The Red Tree, a metafictional horror story with an addictively compelling narrative and a chilling conclusion. Then 2012 brought us The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, an inventive and deeply moving novel that really defies description. Her short stories have been collected in several volumes including Tales of Pain and Wonder; To Charles Fort, With Love; and The Ammonite Violin & Others.
Kiernan’s work is defined by its haunting qualities. Her visions grab you and hold on tight; they don’t want to let you go. And yet, despite the staying power of these stories, there’s something slippery about them, too; as much as they hold onto you, it can be impossible to get a hold on them.
Kiernan dislikes the term “horror” to describe her fiction; she prefers “dark fantasy.” There is horror aplenty in these pages. But there is beauty, too, and a dry, biting sense of humor. There is language of sublime power and mesmerizing force. There are mysteries that defy explanation, that demand their sacred right to baffle. There is seduction, too; the sexuality that pervades her stories manifests as a primal, untamable force that connects us humans with the supernatural. And, of course, there are hauntings.
“A Redress for Andromeda” is about such a haunting. Described in its most basic terms, the story is simple. A marine biologist named Tara arrives at a battered old house by the sea, built in 1890 by a man named Machen Dandridge. It’s a crisp October evening, and she’s there for a Halloween party with a group of strangers. She’s been invited by her friend and lover Darren (the exact nature of their relationship is left somewhat ambiguous).
Her fellow partygoers are uniformly decked out in black, with ocean-themed accessories. There is a woman whose “nails are lacquered the red-brown color of kelp,” and a woman “with a conch shell tattooed on her forehead.” Ahmed Peterson, “the fat man,” is “wearing an ascot the color of a stormy summer sky” and carrying “a walking stick topped with a silver dolphin.” Tara’s sense of unease deepens, as her new acquaintances seem particularly interested in her: extremely curious, perhaps a bit pushy.
These odd conversations grow increasingly odder, until the clock strikes strange o’clock, and the party begins in earnest. A woman bangs a brass gong. Darren slips a coin into Tara’s palm. Together, the partygoers parade down a narrow staircase into a cellar — “steps that seem to have been cut directly into the native rock.” The cellar is actually an underground sea cave, where gentle waves lap against an ancient pier. The pool that fills the cavern is lit by a chartreuse glow: “the strange light is coming from the water, from the wide pool that entirely fills the cavern at the foot of the stairs…” The others in attendance, whom Tara has begun mentally referring to as “the crows,” gather around the pool “like they’ve all done this thing a hundred, hundred times before.” At the center of the pool is a jutting island of rocks, and chained to the rocks is — something. A she.
Then Tara is upstairs again. Or she’s standing in the grass under the stars. Or she’s standing at the edge of the pool and “watching the woman on the rocks, the lady of spines and scales and the squirming podia sprouting from her distended belly.” Ahmed Peterson becomes a Mock Turtle, and the woman with the conch shell tattooed on her forehead becomes a Gryphon. Darren and Tara’s new friends urge her to cast her coin upon the waters, so she can do her part to help the woman on the rocks hold back the dark forces of the sea.
It’s a simple story, at least in its sequence of events, but “A Redress for Andromeda” is anything but simple. There are layers upon layers upon layers here, challenging to untangle.
The first layer: the Lobster Quadrille. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds herself in conversation with a Gryphon and a Mock Turtle. (What is a Mock Turtle? According to Alice’s Queen of Hearts, it’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from. In John Tenniel’s illustrations, the Mock Turtle is depicted as a bizarre chimaera of calf & turtle, in the tradition of the Victorian-era soup.) Alice’s Gryphon and Mock Turtle describe the joys of the Lobster Quadrille, a rousing line dance enjoyed by sea creatures.
In “A Redress for Andromeda,” The Lobster Quadrille is first referenced in a conversation between Tara and Ahmed Peterson.
“You may not have lived much under the sea,” he says.
“No, I haven’t,” Tara confesses. “I haven’t.”
“Perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster,” he says.
She thinks about that for a moment, about brown claws boiled orange and jointed crustacean legs on china plates.
“I once tasted –” but then she stops herself, because she’s almost certain having eaten lobster is something she shouldn’t admit. “No, never,” Tara whispers, instead.
This conversation directly mirrors Alice’s interchange with the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland:
At last the Mock Turtle recovered his voice, and, with tears running down his cheeks, he went on again:
“You may not have lived much under the sea—” (“I haven’t,” said Alice)—”and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster—” (Alice began to say, “I once tasted—” but checked herself hastily, and said, “No, never”) “—so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster-Quadrille is!”
Later, as Tara’s strange experience descends deeper into strangeness, Ahmed Peterson becomes the Mock Turtle, and the woman with the conch-shell tattoo becomes the Gryphon, and they begin singing lines from the Lobster Quadrille: “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance…”
“A Redress for Andromeda” is not Kiernan’s only work that references the Lobster Quadrille. In The Drowning Girl, published twelve years later, the Lobster Quadrille factors heavily in the narrator Imp’s personal mythology. Eva Canning — a woman who may or may not be a ghost — finds Imp in a museum, and leans in close to whisper:
“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied. “There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.”
The words drip, and I wonder how much water will fit inside my ear, inside my skull. How much before it spills out into my mouth and down my throat and I drown in the gentle flow of Eva Canning’s words…
The singsong lines of this nursery rhyme hold a kind of hypnotic power for Imp. She begins reciting the poem obsessively, scribbling it in her notebook and in the margins of magazines. She seems to be repeating an incantation to ward off terror, but the words have the opposite effect. She is drowning in the depths of her own mind.
So how does this connect to “A Redress for Andromeda”?
The lines are fuzzy, but I think it’s a signaling, that this is the world of the subconscious, as filled with strangers and symbolism as Carroll’s imaginary worlds. Like Alice, and like The Drowning Girl’s Imp, Tara has descended down the rabbit-hole.
Which brings us to the story’s second layer: it’s a dream.
There’s this one detail at the beginning that might be a tip-off:
Darren told her ghosts stories, too, since a house like this has to have a few ghost stories, but she took two Xanax on the drive up from Monterey, and the stories have all run together in her head.
But the really surreal sequences don’t begin until later in the night, at the point that the party begins descending the stairs into the cellar. (Perhaps this should be read as a descent into another plane of consciousness?) After this point, a complete irrationality pervades everything that occurs.
Obviously, there’s the surreal behavior of Ahmed Peterson and the woman with the conch-shell tattoo, not to mention their transformation into characters from Alice in Wonderland. But that kind of thing happens. What’s so dreamlike is the story’s lack of spatial or temporal coherency. On the descent into the cellar, it’s made clear that the characters are in an underground, indoor space. There is stone overhead, “the uneven ceiling of the chamber.” Then, after Tara glimpses “the rocks and the thing that’s chained there,” there’s an abrupt change in scene. She’s outside. Darren is “pulling her down into the grass, the sea of grass washed beneath a harvest moon.” She’s outside — and yet she can still see the pool, the rocks, the woman. “She looks up at the moon instead of the pool.” She’s lying on the grass with Darren — and “watching the woman on the rocks.” She is simultaneously inside and outside, underground and aboveground. She’s omnipresent, the way we sometimes are in dreams. In fact, this story, with its casual bilocation, is one of the truest depictions of the dreaming world that I’ve ever encountered.
The nature of the dream is also curious. As mentioned, Tara is a marine biologist; when the evening starts to get weird, she imagines begging off with an excuse like “papers to grade or a test to write for her oceanography class.” The dream seems implausibly composed of the scenery of her subconscious, particularly when Ahmed Peterson and the woman with the conch-shell tattoo
lean in close and whisper the names of deep-sea things in her ears, a rushed and bathyplegic litany of fish and jellies, squid and the translucent larvae of shrimp and crabs.
Saccopharynx, Stylephorus, Pelagothuria, Asteronyx…
Caulophyrne, Lasiognathus, Squalogadus, Abyssobrotula.
Tara is the only marine biologist at the party — and who but a marine biologist could rattle off the Latin names of half a dozen sea creatures?
Another dreamlike aspect of the story is the intense emotional weight Tara ascribes to tossing the coin into the water. She knows what she’s supposed to do, but it takes her some time to rouse the courage to do it. She fights a battle with herself and her fears. When she does toss the coin, it seems to take “a living part of her down with it, drowning some speck of her soul.” This happens in dreams — the dreaming mind assigns powerful emotions to small tokens and odd symbols that in waking life might completely escape our notice. The emotion isn’t rational, but it’s real.
Which brings us to the story’s third layer: it’s a dream, but that doesn’t matter.
For Kiernan, the dreaming world is the real world. Dreams are full of power and truth and meaning; the waking world is dull and artificial in comparison. In dreams, battles are fought and wars are won and loves are gained and lost. In dreams, epiphanies come that change our lives.
Again and again, Kiernan’s fiction calls on dreams to say what it really means. But not in pulp fiction’s neatly packaged way. In Kiernan’s fiction, dreams are a language, the way magic is a language. It’s a primal language, though: its edges are rough, its boundaries are unenforceable, and its strangeness comes from a deep, essential place.
So, to my reading, the events of “A Redress for Andromeda” take place in a dream, but a dream that really happens, as much as anything that’s filtered through the unreliable interface of our consciousness really happens.
“A Redress for Andromeda” is the first of three stories that together form the Dandridge Cycle. It is followed by “Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea” and “Andromeda Among the Stones.” Both of these stories take place before the events of “A Redress for Andromeda.” They delve into the history of the Dandridge House, connecting it with violent events in this world and the next, and revealing the Faustian bargain that led to its haunting. If this is a dream, it is the kind of dream that encompasses the world.
But a dream is no less real than a story; and a story is very, very real.