Interview: Caitlín R. Kiernan on Weird Fiction

"Deep time is critical..."

Caitlín R. Kiernan (1964 –  ) is 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.

Her latest novel, The Drowning Girl, is yet another masterpiece from this iconic author.   As Peter Straub has written, “With The Drowning Girl, [the author] moves firmly into the new vanguard, still being formed, of our best and most artful authors of the gothic and fantastic.” You can read part of chapter one elsewhere on, as well as a story we posted a few months ago. I was happy to interview Kiernan recently about “the weird.”

*** What writers were your introduction to the “weird”, whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something even stranger?

Kiernan: If we go back to the truly formative influences, let’s say when I was a child, a preteen, a teenager, I’ll say Bram Stoker, Lovecraft, Poe, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, Harlan Ellison, Lewis Carroll, Le Fanu, and really this list is too long to be meaningful. I fell in love with weird fiction, as I use the term, at a very early age – certainly by First Grade – and voraciously sought out everything I could find at public and school libraries. I didn’t really have access to bookshops, as we either lived in places without them, or I simply didn’t have the money to spend on books. Later, in college, I discovered a wealth of other authors who’ve had a very great influence: Angela Carter, Machen, Blackwood, Baudelaire, Wilde, William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dunsany, and gods, these lists are so inclusive they’re truly meaningless. I read lists like this from other authors and, usually my response is, “Who didn’t fucking influence you!” There were many visual artists as well, the Symbolists, the Impressionists, Harry Clarke, Beardsley, Doré, Giger, Arthur Rackham, etcetera and etcetera, and a lot of musicians.

WFR: Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? Can you give a sense of your childhood as it relates to your writing?

Kiernan: Yes, it was. My mother was a great fan of it. My stepfather, he didn’t read, so with him it was a moot point. But it was my mum who first read me Poe and Dracula. She was always encouraging me to read, and both of us, our tastes ran towards the weird and macabre. My childhood as it relates to my writing? I don’t know. I began writing my first stories by Second Grade – all pastiches of other authors. I know the books and stories got me through a lot of the hellish, tumultuous years – there were a lot of those – because I could escape into those other worlds. In this way, they were a profound comfort, as was my passion for paleontology, geology, and herpetology. I’d walk around in the woods or through old rock quarries telling myself stories aloud, stories I never wrote down. They were my stories, to keep me company. I never had a lot of friends as a child, so, often, those secret stories became my friends.

WFR: Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and “the gothic,” and does it matter to you as either a writer or reader?

Kiernan: My loathing for the label “horror,” I think that’s well known among my readers and my detractors alike. It’s not that there are not strong elements of horror present in a lot of my writing. It’s that horror never predominates those works. You may as well call it psychological fiction or awe fiction. I don’t think of horror as a genre. I think of it – to paraphrase Doug Winter – as an emotion, and no one emotion will ever characterize my fiction. Horror is an emotion, and it’s an – increasingly unsuccessful – marketing category. But this is a tangent. Back to your question. I have no problem with my fiction being called weird. It almost always is, in that it departs from what most people view as the reality. Consensus reality. Some of my work, sure, it’s Gothic, probably both the “terror” and “horror” Gothic, as the movement is often divided. I become very frustrated, by the way, when the Gothic is confused with the goth scene. early on, my writing was influenced by both, but I’ve drifted far, far away from the latter. I often write Gothic fiction – The Red Tree, for example. I haven’t written goth literature in, I don’t know, maybe fifteen years, though occasionally a reviewer will characterize me as a “goth author.” as if I’m still doing what I did in Silk and Tales of Pain and Wonder. This isn’t hostility towards the goth scene. Not at all. I’ve just gone elsewhere artistically. Now, does any of this matter to me as a reader? No, not really. What most matters to me is that an author can write, not how they’re categorized. It matters to me that Mark Z. Danielewski, Kathe Koja, and China Miéville are brilliant, not where you find them in a bookshop. I will say I don’t read much of anything marketed as genre horror.

WFR: What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction generally? The scare? Catharsis? Something else?

Kiernan: I don’t think I could ever speak to any general appeal. I’m not a psychologist. I would imagine different people come to these forms of fiction for very many different reasons. It’s the way my mind works. I look at the world, and I see it weird. But maybe other people are looking for something like a good LSD or psilocybin trip. Maybe they’re just trying to expand their mind, or this shit’s just fun for them to read. I couldn’t say. I’m not an authority on the intentions of readers, and I sort of think no one is that species of authority.

WFR: Clearly, Lovecraft was an early influence on you, but I’m curious if there’s something you got from Lovecraft that you don’t see mentioned much in discussions of his work — some aspect of his fiction?

Kiernan: I feel like too many people are obsessed with Lovecraft’s monsters, tentacles and polyps and shuggoths. Whatever. Frankly, I think they’re missing the point. At least, I can say they’re missing the part that has played the greatest influence on me, and those elements would be the importance of atmosphere, the found manuscript as a narrative device, and his appreciation of what paleontologists and geologists call deep time. Deep time is critical to his cosmicism, the existential shock a reader brings away from his stories. Our smallness and insignificance in the universe at large. In all possible universes. Within the concept of infinity. No one and nothing cares for us. No one’s watching out for us. Too me, that’s Lovecraft. But I’m not sure a lot of good reviewers miss that in what I’m doing. I’ve seen it mentioned fairly frequently.

WFR: What influences do you think readers might be surprised by?

Kiernan: Oh, boy. Where to begin. How about the music of R. E. M.? Huge influence. John Steinbeck. Internet porn. The films of the Cohen Brothers. The poetry of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. This all comes back to people wanting to peg me as this or that, as someone they can identify or easily market. I’m not sorry to disappoint them. I think one of my jobs is to disappoint those people. You know, I probably wouldn’t have said that in 1998, when Silk was released, and I saw it as something I’d written for a particular audience. But writers evolve, grow, move on, or they’re lousy fucking writers.

WFR: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?

Kiernan: Sometimes because the author refuses to take what they’re doing seriously. Then again, sometimes satire is brilliant. Just not usually. Usually it’s little more than smart-ass failures at irony. “Lovecraftian” fiction is especially afflicted by this blight. Peter Straub has called my work “high serious,” and he’s spot on, I think so your satire better have a purpose and your sense of humor best be razor sharp. But other reasons, failure to establish atmosphere and sense of place, poor characterization, unfamiliarity with the subject matter, shitty writing, and, you know, these are pretty much the reasons any fiction might fail for me. If I have any special expectation of weird fiction I guess they would be that the work should challenge my sense of reality – and that’s asking a lot, as my sense of reality is so fluid and cockeyed. Show me something I won’t see walking down the street, or through a forest, or swimming in the sea, but…leave me with the suspicion I could be very mistaken about what I might encounter. Instill in me that sense of a cosmos hopelessly beyond my ability to comprehend.

WFR:  Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?

Kiernan: No, no, no. I’m not even sure what “too weird” would mean. I loved films like Lynch’s Inland Empire and von Trier’s Anti-Christ. The formatting in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, so many people whine about that, but it’s fucking genius. Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, Thomas Ligotti, Michael Cisco, Wilum Pugmire, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, bands like Current 93 and performers like Diamanda Galás. Oh, Grace Krilanovich’s recent novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, fucking brilliant. Painters like Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński. All these, I see or hear “That just too strange, too weird, they lost me.” And it’s not like I’m trying, like I’m standing up waving my arms shouting, “Hey look how weird and cool and cutting edge and avant-garde I am.” This is just an aesthetic with overwhelming appeal for me.

WFR: Is the “reveal” of the other-worldly element in a supernatural story the toughest part for the writer to get right? How do you know how much to reveal and how much to hold back?

Kiernan: The “reveal” is something I do my best to avoid. I’ve always felt that way, but it’s something I find myself increasingly wanting to avoid. Lots of people were baffled at the end of The Red Tree, and they will be at most of The Drowning Girl. Short stories like “Onion,” “Standing Water,” “The Long Hall on the Top Floor,” lots of them. Over and over, I get the “But what happened?” people, and I think it causes me actual physical pain that they’ve so missed the point. Most of the time – and this is the truth – I don’t know what happened! I don’t want to know what happened! As I’ve said again and again, one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions. In his afterword to To Charles Fort, With Love, Ramsey Campbell said there’s “a certain inexplicability” about my stories. I was so pleased with that. What is weird fiction but a journey into the unknown, and if you make the unknown known, why bother? If you want to know what’s going on, read Agatha Christie. Or a science textbook. “What happened?” is absolute anathema to weird fiction.

WFR: How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?

Kiernan: Not so often as it once did. There were things from my childhood, and then there was this bizarre spate of experiences in the 1990s and the early years of the last decade, all this strange shit kept happening to me. I wrote about a lot of it in a chapbook, A Little Damned Book of Days, but then those experiences trickled off and stopped. Well, for the most part. before I wrote The Red Tree, I did find this gigantic oak in the woods near Exeter, Rhode Island, and there was all this stuff strewn around the base. Empty liquor bottles, dolls, porcelain figurines, all sorts of things, and it put this chill in me that grew into the novel. But, still, that’s not as weird as the time I saw blood fall from the sky, or what I saw off the shore of Crane Beach in Massachusetts. Or a UFO sighting my partner and I had in broad daylight in Atlanta, along with dozens of other people. It seems like those sorts of things just don’t happen to me much anymore. I think most people never believed those stories, anyway, so it’s probably for the best.

WFR: What’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?

Kiernan: This is an impossible question to answer. Completely impossible, so for now I will say David Lynch’s Inland Empire and pretend that’s a suitable answer.

WFR: Finally, if you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?

Kiernan: Again, lots of those. I’ll name two, Lord Dunsany. I have the impression no one reads Dunsany anymore. They have no idea how great an influence he had on Lovecraft and Tolkien. They have no idea what strange and wondrous tales a spun in collections like The Gods of Pegāna. I’d also name Manly Wade Wellman. I’m fortunate to have the complete five-volume set of Wellman that was issued a while back. One thing he did brilliantly was capture the weirdness of the Appalachians. I spent a lot of my childhood in the Appalachian foothills, and he nailed it. Wellman’s Silver John stories were a direct influence on my own Dancy Flammarion tales, which should be obvious, but no one’s ever pointed it out. I take this to mean people do not read Wellman. Ah, and also Ovid. Does it get weirder than Metamorphoses?

9 replies to “Interview: Caitlín R. Kiernan on Weird Fiction

  1. Great interview – Kiernan’s characters inhabit a milieu we rarely see in fiction, much less ‘genre’ fiction. Queer, POC, creative, differently-abled. They’re not always likeable characters, but they are real and make the psychic landscapes they encounter all the more real. I almost view the stories in The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl as character studies as much as I do as ‘weird tales.’ I’m at the beginning of DG, and sense a Tiptree nomination in Kiernan’s future.

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  3. I totally agree, Craig. She is one of my favorite, favorite writers because her work shows progression and she isn’t content to stick with just one thing.

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  5. Thanks, Jeff! Terrific interview with a terrific writer. Kiernan is an inspiration — fearless, wildly gifted and so damn smart.

  6. i’ll happily join in the chorus: fine interview, fabulous writer!

    it’s interesting though, to me, the progression of work/evolution of the author — i just tried (badly) to say this on another blog as well — i know what you mean and i understand how important it must be to the writer concerned, but like many readers, i’ve come across the books in a fairly random order and hell if i haven’t enjoyed the lot! 

    every damn one has something that i respond to as a reader and i would hate to have to pick between say The Red Tree or Threshold or Murder of Angels.

    this would be equally true (and more obvious) of most authors on my bookshelf, say Burroughs or Chandler or Dunsany (good call by Kiernan) or Phil Dick.

    i suppose though it has to to do with strength of authorial voice — because (like Kiernan) all the above writers actually created very wide ranging sets of works that are nonetheless stamped with their own personality. 

    anyway, i am itching to read The Drowning Girl and again, kudos on a great interview :)

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