Novel Excerpt: Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl

Art copyright Michael Zulli; all rights reserved.

Caitlín R. Kiernan has steadily moved beyond an early 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.

Her new novel, The Drowning Girl, is told by India Morgan Phelps — Imp to her friends — who is schizophrenic. She can no longer trust her own mind, because she is convinced that her memories have somehow betrayed her, forcing her to question her own identity. Struggling with her perception of reality, Imp must uncover the truth about an encounter with a vicious siren, or a helpless wolf that came to her as a feral girl, or neither of these things but something far, far stranger. We’re happy to be able to bring you the beginning of the novel, below. Also check out our interview with Kiernan. - The Editors


I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.

A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,” she also typed.

I also typed.

My name is India Morgan Phelps, though almost everyone I know calls me Imp. I live in Providence, Rhode Island, and when I was seventeen, my mother died in Butler Hospital, which is located at 345 Blackstone Boulevard, right next to Swan Point Cemetery, where many notable people are buried. The hospital used to be called the Butler Hospital for the Insane, but somewhere along the way “for the Insane” part was dropped. Maybe it was bad for business. Maybe the doctors or trustees or board of directors or whoever makes decisions about such things felt crazy people would rather not be put away in an insane asylum that dares to admit it’s an insane asylum, that truth in advertising is a detriment. I don’t know, but my mother, Rosemary Anne, was committed to Butler Hospital because she was insane. She died there, at the age of fifty-six, instead of dying somewhere else, because she was insane. It’s not like she didn’t know she was insane, and it’s not like I didn’t know, too, and if anyone were to ask me, dropping “for the Insane” is like dropping “burger” from Burger King, because hamburgers aren’t as healthy as salads. Or dropping “donuts” from Dunkin’ Donuts because donuts cause cavities and make you fat.

My grandmother Caroline – my mother’s mother, who was born in 1914, and lost her husband in World War II – she was also a crazy woman, but she died in her own bed in her own house down in Wakefield. No one put her away in a hospital, or tried to pretend she wasn’t crazy. Maybe people don’t notice it so much, once you get old, or only older. Caroline turned on the gas and shut all the windows and doors and went to sleep, and in her suicide note she thanked my mother and my aunts for not sending her away to a hospital for the mentally insane, where she’d have been forced to live even after she couldn’t stand it anymore. Being alive, I mean. Or being crazy. Whichever, or both.

It’s sort of ironic that my aunts are the ones who had my mother committed. I suppose my father would have done it, but he left when I was ten, and no one’s sure where he went. He left my mother because she was insane, so I like to think he didn’t live very long after he left us. When I was a girl, I used to lie awake in bed at night, imagining awful ways my father might have met his demise, all manner of just desserts for having dumped us and run away because he was too much of a coward to stick around for me and my mother. At one point, I even made a list of various unpleasant ends that may have befallen my father. I kept it in a stenographer’s pad, and I kept the pad in an old suitcase under my bed, because I didn’t want my mother to see it. “I hope my father died of venereal disease, after his dick rotted off” was at the top of the list, and was followed by lots of obvious stuff – car accidents, food poisoning, cancer – but I grew more imaginative as time went by, and the very last thing I put on the list (#316), was “I hope my father lost his mind and died alone and frightened.” I still have that notebook, but now it’s on a shelf, not hidden away in an old suitcase.

So, yeah. My mother, Rosemary Anne, died in Butler Hospital. She committed suicide in Butler Hospital, though she was on suicide watch at the time. She was in bed, in restraints, and there was a video camera in her room. But she still pulled it off. She was able to swallow her tongue and choke to death before any of the nurses or orderlies noticed what was happening. The death certificate says she died of a seizure, but I know that’s not what happened. Too many times when I visited her, she’d tell me she wanted to die, and usually I told her I’d rather she lived and get better and come home, but that I wouldn’t be angry if that’s really what she had to do, if she had to die. If there came a day or night when she just couldn’t stand it any longer. She said she was sorry, but that she was glad I understood, that she was grateful that I understood. I’d take her candy and cigarettes and books, and we’d have conversations about Anne Sexton and Diane Arbus and about Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse. I never told Rosemary’s doctors about any of these conversations. I also didn’t tell them about the day, a month before she choked on her tongue, that she gave me a letter quoting Virginia Woolf’s suicide note: “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.” I keep that thumbtacked to the wall in the room where I paint, which I guess is my studio, though I usually just think of it as the room where I paint.

I didn’t realize I was also insane, and that I’d probably always been insane, until a couple of years after Rosemary died. It’s a myth that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Many of us are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people. Still, it simply hadn’t occurred to me, that the way I saw the world meant that I had inherited “the Phelps Family Curse” (to quote my Aunt Elaine, who has a penchant for melodramatic turns of phrase). Anyway, when it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t sane, I went to see a therapist at Rhode Island Hospital. I paid her a lot of money, and we talked (mostly I talked while she listened), and the hospital did some tests. When all was said and done, the psychiatrist told me I suffered from disorganized schizophrenia, which is also called hebephrenia, for Hēbē, the Greek goddess of youth. She – the psychiatrist – didn’t tell me that last part; I looked it up myself. Hebephrenia is named after the Greek goddess of youth because it tends to manifest at puberty. I didn’t bother to point out that, if the way I thought and saw the world meant that I was schizophrenic, the crazy had started well before puberty. Anyway, later, after more tests, the diagnosis was changed to paranoid schizophrenia, which isn’t named after a Greek god, or any god that I’m aware of.

The psychiatrist, a women from Boston named Magdalene Ogilvy – a name that always puts me in mind of Edward Gorey or a P. G. Wodehouse novel – found the Phelps Family Curse very interesting, because, she said, there’s evidence to suggest that schizophrenia might be hereditary, at least in some cases. So, there you go. I’m crazy because Rosemary was crazy and had a kid, and Rosemary was crazy because my grandmother was crazy and had a kid (well, several, but only Rosemary lucked out and got the curse). I told Dr. Ogilvy the stories my grandmother used to tell about her mother’s sister, whose name was also Caroline. According to my grandmother, Caroline kept dead birds and mice in stoppered glass jars lined up on all her windowsills. She labeled each jar with a passage from the Bible. I told the psychiatrist I’d suspect that my Great Aunt Caroline might have only suffered from a keen interest in natural history, if not for the thing with the Bible verses. Then again, I said, it might have been she was trying to create a sort of concordance, correlating specific species with scripture, but Dr. Ogilvy said, no, she was likely also schizophrenic. I didn’t argue. Rarely do I feel like arguing with anyone.

So, I have my amber bottles of pills, my mostly reliable pharmacopeia of antipsychotics and sedatives, which are not half so interesting as my great aunt’s bottles of mice and sparrows. I have Risperdol, Depakene, and Valium, and so far I’ve stayed out of Butler Hospital, and I’ve only tried to kill myself. And only once. Or twice. Maybe I have the drugs to thank for this, or maybe I have my painting to thank, or maybe it’s my paintings and the fact that my girlfriend puts up with my weird shit and makes sure I take the pills and is great in the sack. Maybe my mother would have stuck around a little longer if she’d gotten laid now and then. As far as I know, no one has ever proposed sex therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia. But at least fucking doesn’t make me constipated or make my hands shake – thank you, Mr. Risperdol – or cause weight gain, fatigue, and acne – thank you so much, Mr. Depakene. I think of all my pills as male, a fact I have not yet disclosed to my psychiatrist. I have a feeling she might feel compelled to make something troublesome of it, especially since she already knows about my “how daddy should die” list.

My family’s lunacy lines up tidy as boxcars: grandmother, daughter, the daughter’s daughter, and, thrown in for good measure, the great aunt. Maybe the Curse goes even farther back than that, but I’m not much for genealogy. Whatever secrets my great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers might have harbored and taken to their graves, I’ll let them be. I’m already sort of sorry I haven’t done the same for Rosemary Anne and Caroline. But they’re too much a part of my story, and I need recourse to them to tell it. Probably, I could be writing fabricated versions of them, fictional avatars to stand in for the women they actually were, but I knew both well enough to know neither would have wanted that. I can’t tell my story, or the parts of my story that I’m going to try to tell, without also telling parts of their stories. There’s too much overlap, too many occurrences one or the other of them set in motion, intentionally or unintentionally, and there’s no point doing this thing if all I can manage is a lie.

Which is not to say every word will be factual. Only that every word will be true. Or as true as I can manage.

Here’s something I scribbled on both sides of a coffeehouse napkin a few days back: “No story has a beginning, and no story has an end. Beginnings and endings may be conceived to serve a purpose, to serve a momentary and transient intent, but they are, in their fundamental nature, arbitrary and exist solely as a convenient construct in the mind of man. Lives are messy, and when we set out to relate them, or parts of them, we cannot ever discern precise and objective moments when any given event began. All beginnings are arbitrary.”

Before I wrote that and decided it was true, I would come into this room (which isn’t the room where I paint, but the room with too many bookshelves) and sit down in front of the manual typewriter that used to be Grandmother Caroline’s. The walls of this room are a shade of blue so pale that sometimes, in bright sunlight, they seem almost white. I would sit here and stare at the blue-white walls, or out the window at the other old houses lined up neatly along Willow Street, the Victorian homes and the autumn trees and the gray sidewalks and the occasional passing automobile. I would sit here and try to settle on a place to begin this story. I would sit here in this chair for hours, and never write a single word. But now I’ve made my beginning, arbitrary though it may be, and it feels about as right as I think any beginning ever will. It seemed only fair to get the part about being crazy out up front, like a disclaimer, so if anyone ever reads this they’ll know to take it with a grain of salt.

Now, also arbitrarily, I’m going to write about the first time I saw The Drowning Girl.

For my eleventh birthday, my mother took me to the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design. I’d told her I wanted to be a painter, so that year for my birthday she bought me a set of acrylics, brushes, a wooden palette, and a couple of canvases, and she took me to the RISD Museum. And, like I said, that day was the first time I saw the painting. Today, The Drowning Girl hangs much nearer the Benefit Street entrance than it did when I was a kid. The canvas is held within an ornately carved, gilded frame — same as all the others in that part of the Museum, a small gallery devoted to 19th-Century American painters. The Drowning Girl measures about nineteen by twenty-four inches. It hangs between William Bradford’s Arctic Sunset (1874) and Winslow Homer’s On a Lee Shore (1900). The gallery’s walls are a uniform loden green, which, I think, makes the antique golden frames seem somewhat less garish than they might otherwise.

The Drowning Girl was painted in 1898 by a Boston artist named Phillip George Saltonstall. Hardly anyone’s written about Saltonstall. He tends to get lumped in with the Symbolists, though one article called him a “late American disciple of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” He rarely sold, or even showed, his paintings, and in the last year of his life burned as many as fifty in a single night. Most of the few that survive can be found scattered about New England, in private collections and art museums. Also, one hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and another in Atlanta’s High Museum. Saltonstall suffered from seizures, insomnia, and chronic depression, and he died in 1907, at the age of thirty-nine, after falling from a horse. No one I’ve read says whether or not it was an accident, that fall, but probably it was. I could say he was a suicide, but I’m biased, and it would only be speculation.

As for the painting itself, The Drowning Girl was done mostly in somber shades of green and gray (and so seems right at home hanging on those loden walls), but with a few contrasting counterpoints – muted yellows, dirty-white shimmers, regions where the greens and grays sink into blackness. It depicts a young girl, entirely naked, possibly in her early twenties, but maybe younger. She’s standing ankle deep in a forest pool almost as smooth as glass. The trees press in close behind her, and her head is turned away from us, as she glances back over her right shoulder, into the forest, towards the shadows gathered below and between those trees. Her long hair is almost the same shade of green as the water, and her skin has been rendered so that it seems paradoxically jaundiced and imbued with some inner light. She’s very near the shore, and there are ripples in the water at her feet, which I take to mean she’s only just stepped into the pool.

I typed pool, but, as it turns out, the painting was inspired by a visit Saltonstall made to the Blackstone River in southern Massachusetts during the late summer of 1894. He had family in nearby Uxbridge, including a paternal first cousin, Mary Farnum, with whom he appears to have been in love (there’s no evidence the feelings were reciprocal). There’s been some conjecture that the girl in the painting is meant to be Mary, but if that’s the case, the artist never said so, or if he did, we have no record of it. But he did say the painting began as a series of landscape studies he made at Rolling Damn (also known as Roaring Dam, built in 1886). Above the dam, the river forms a reservoir that once served the mills of the Blackstone Manufacturing Company. The water is calm and deep, in sharp contrast to the rapids below the dam, flowing between the steep granite walls of the Blackstone Gorge, which are more than eighty-feet high in some places.

The title of the painting has often seemed strange to me. After all, the girl isn’t drowning, but merely wading a little ways into the water. Still, Saltonstall has invested the painting with an undeniable sense of threat or dread. This may arise from the shadowy forest looming up behind the girl, and/or from the suggestion that something there has drawn her attention back to the trees. The snapping of a twig, maybe, or footsteps crunching in fallen leaves. Or a voice. Or almost anything else at all.

More and more, I‘ve come to understand how the story of Saltonstall and The Drowning Girl is an integral part of my story – same as Rosemary Anne and Caroline are integral to my story – even if I won’t claim that it’s truly the beginning of the things that have happened. Not in any objective sense. If I did, I’d only be begging the question. Would the start be my first sight of the painting on my eleventh birthday, or Saltonstall’s creation of it in 1898? Or might it be better to start with the dam’s construction in 1886? Instinctively, I keep looking for that sort of beginning, even though I know better. Even though I know full well I can only arrive at useless and essentially infinite regressions.

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