Some writers cannot help themselves. Some writers, by the sheer complexity and reach of their imaginations will always be somewhat unclassifiable. For this reason, it’s their view of the world we value, not the category in which a publisher places them. These are the writers who create what they find to be perfectly normal, only to be told it is strange. Such writers I value the most, for they are sui generis. Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of these writers, and in The Ammonite Violin & Others she goes to very strange places, indeed. In effect, she has created a collection that positions supernatural elements of myth and folktale in a place far more primal than even their original context. In a radical move that no doubt came to her as naturally as a dolphin takes to swimming, Kiernan has managed, through texture and point of view, to show us the reality of these monstrous archetypes.
Angela Carter in a collection like The Bloody Chamber reclaimed iconic stories for feminism, but still used her lush prose in a stylized way that mimicked the flatness of tales, which are generally two-dimensional compared to short stories. Kiernan has accomplished something much more subversive — hers is a kind of dirty, modern lyricism. Like many of the Decadents, her prose is, yes, lush, but it’s also muscular, allows for psychologically three-dimensional portraits of her characters, and has the flexibility to be blunt, even shocking. Mermaids, selkies, vampires, and fairies all make appearances in this collection. However, the method of description and storytelling creates a sheer physicality and alien quality to the context for these creatures that both humanizes them — in the sense of making them real, if not always understandable — and makes it impossible to see them — so often the case when writers describe “monsters” — as just people in disguise or as caricatures we can dismiss because they exist solely for our passing frisson of unease or terror.
Part of this authenticity — part of the reason I find them disturbing — comes from the simple fact that the people in these stories don’t really survive their encounter with the monstrous. Whether in, among others, “Madonna Littoralis” or the two “Metamorphosis” stories, this inability to survive can be literal or figurative, or both — and it occurs because the supernatural isn’t so much something terrifying in Kiernan’s view — it can be, but that’s not the true point. The supernatural to Kiernan is also something beautiful and unknowable in intent, and often wedded to the natural world. In a sense, trying to know something unknowable will always destroy the seeker.
In almost all of these stories, too, the characters seem to encounter the supernatural as part of a need for connection, even if the thing they connect with is Other and will be the death of them. And, once the connection is made, the implications of that passing over, are never what they might have seemed to be before the crossing. For example, the powerful, controlled yet intensely interior narrative “The Cryomancer’s Daughter (Murder Ballad No. 3)” burns with its description of an obsessed, unequal relationship: “…she reaches out and brushes frozen fingertips across the space between my shoulder blades. I gasp, and at least it is me gasping, an honest gasp at the pain and cold flowing out of her and into me.” That there is often a graphic sexual component to these stories shouldn’t come as a surprise — it supports this idea of trying to connect, even if the connection can turn from erotic to grotesque, the two elements co-mingling until it’s not always clear which is which.
Kiernan also discards the typical plots that you see in fantasy or supernatural fiction. There are few twists here, little action in the conventional sense. Such artifice would form a barrier to getting at truths about the relationships in these stories, some of which form intricate snapshots of dysfunction and the attempt to communicate (underscoring that even in normal human relationships, we are all encased in our separate skulls and, ultimately, unknowable).
This focus contributes to the sense that we’re reading something new here, even though these stories fit comfortably within Kiernan’s overall oeuvre — something that is unrelenting in peeling away layers of falsehood in an attempt to get somewhere real. It’s not just the characters but readers who receive what seem like true glimpses of what it might be like to encounter the inexplicable, with all blinders off, stripped of any niceties. I won’t lie — Kiernan’s approach can be brutal at times, the true fodder for nightmares, but it’s also brave and true.
“Untitled 23” exemplifies these qualities, with its depiction of a faerie girl mistreated by the Faerie Queen. She’s trapped by the Queen when she chases a lizard — “verdant, iridian, gazing out at me with crimson eyes” — through the forest and becomes a slave, and then even less than that.
The descriptions in this story, which serve to underscore the themes, are devastatingly brilliant. The Queen is “fashioned of some viscous, shapeless substance that is not quite flesh, but always there is the dim impression of leathery wings, as of some immense bat, and wherever the Queen brushes against the girl, there is the sensation of touching or being touched by matted fur and the blasted bark of dying, lightning-struck trees.” The girl sits on a “black bed far below the forest floor,” while the “Queen of Decay moves across her like the eclipse of the sun,” surrounded by “mirrors hung on bits of root and bone and the fishhook mandibles of beetles.”
Here, then, is the true terrible unknowableness of that which is often sanitized or only brought forward for our amusement, revealed as terrible because we cannot truly fathom it. Even more important, perhaps, is the sense that this is all part of the natural cycle from the Faerie Queen’s point of view, as much as the pattern of the seasons, and that the natural world around us is a deeply alien place, even though we try so hard to control it. Thus, it’s appropriate that the story ends with the lizard that led the girl to her fate. The lizard is the real main character in “Untitled 23,” the secret sharer: that which we forever chase without realizing the depths of what we chase. It’s a stunner of a story, and it’s one that only Kiernan could have written.
Throughout The Ammonite Violin & Others, these moments proliferate, mixed with moments of pure horror — “It’s loose in the room with us,” “I cannot look away” — that always serve to support something beyond just unsettling us. These stories are, ultimately, driven by deeply human, deeply humane, deeply secret moments.
In the first story in The Ammonite Violin & Others the beleaguered narrator tells the reader, “There are things that are born into darkness and live their entire lives in darkness, in deep places, and they’ve learned to make whatever light they need. It sprouts from them, lanterns of flesh to dot the abyss like bare bulbs strung on electrical cords, and I wish I could make my own light at the bottom of the walls of the earth.”
Caitlin R. Kiernan creates her own light in this remarkable collection, and shines it on dark places. In doing so, she gives us gritty, lyrical, horrible, beautiful truths.
This short essay first appeared as the introduction to Kiernan’s collection and was reprinted in VanderMeer’s nonfiction collection Monstrous Creatures.