readingtrance

book reviews by Althea

Two Worlds and In Between – Caitlín R. Kiernan ****

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*** Emptiness Spoke Eloquent [1993]
Here’s the drawback of a chronological organizational scheme: it doesn’t always start with the strongest work. Kiernan admits in the notes that she feels it was overambitious. I’m also not personally partial to this sort of ‘what happened after?’ tale. This follows Dracula’s Mina through the years.

**** Two Worlds; and In Between [1994]
Two words: Gothic Zombies.
And in between: I loved the contrast here between the specificity of the details of what was happening inside the apartment, and the vagueness of the larger horrors happening outside the house. Without any direct evidence, I felt like this story was also about how junkies will drag you down with them. Like a tale from a nastier, darker, unromantic Poppy Z. Brite.

**** To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania 1889) [1994]
Inspired by a real disaster (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnstow…), a tale of an immigrant girl, gang-raped, who, in the form of a vengeful rusalka, takes down both those who assaulted her and the witness who did nothing to stop it. Powerful.

***** Tears Seven Times Salt [1994]
A truly disturbing contemporary take on ‘The Little Mermaid,’ and a compelling depiction of what it feels like to be convinced that you do not belong in your own body. The story authentically captures the feel of NYC’s underbelly, and grasps the slippery line between fantasy, self-expression and mental decline.

**** Breakfast in the House of the Rising Sun (Murder Ballad No. 1) [1995]
Showdown at the old saloon – set in a modern New Orleans gay brothel. It’s got the crude grittiness found in shows like ‘Deadwood’ – and a sense of epic tragedy. Very ‘Stagger Lee.’

**** Estate [1996]
This story gets an extra star just for featuring Bannerman’s Castle. Of course, it’s given a totally fictional history, and is referred to as ‘Silas’ Castle,’ but Pollepel island and the Hudson is still wonderfully recognizable. Themes here include the obsession of ‘collecting’ and the concept of being trapped by and among riches…

**** Rats Live on No Evil Star [1997]
An academic treats kindly the mentally ill man who lives down the hall from her, in her apartment building. But are the things he perceives actually real? The story creates the unusual perspective that the author may identify equally with both the rational academic and the obsessive visionary.

*** Salmagundi (New York City, 1981) [1998]
A journalist conducts a strange interview with a performance artist who appears to be the (daughter? former enigmatic captive?) of the industrialist referred to in ‘Estate’- Silas Desvernine.

*** Postcards from the King of Tides [1997]
Some goth kids on a road trip break down, and discover a bizarre trailer-trash sideshow which may feature Lovecraftian monsters on display.

*** Giants in the Earth [1995]
An homage to Michael Moorcock’s ‘Dancers at the End of Time.’ It’s done well – I got that it was in Moorcock’s style right away – but I’d probably have appreciated it more if I’d read any of the books in that series more recently. This is a direct prequel to ‘An Alien Heat.’

*** Zelda Fitzgerald in Ballet Attire [1995-1999]
A poem.

*** Spindleshanks (New Orleans, 1956) [2000]
Reese, suffering from writer’s block, has rented a house in New Orleans as a retreat. However, her girlfriend is more interested and jazz and nightlife. At a house party, idle playing with a Ouija board gets the guests more than they expected. Nice set-up, but a bit of an unfinished feel.

**** The Road of Pins [2001]
Almost the same format as ‘Spindleshanks.’ The narrator suffers from writer’s block; the girlfriend socializes at art galleries. At an opening, she’s introduced to the disturbing work of the artist Albert Perrault and an art critic who’s a fan. Real life seems to echo the dark fairy-tale topics of his paintings, and a lost film that may also be by the artist, or connected to his work in some way.
I find the inconclusiveness frustrating, but adding a star for the author’s remarkable ability to conjure up works of art that, although unseen and indeed, uncreated, stay with the reader…

***** Onion [2001]
What if sometimes, people glimpse another world…? It may be terrifying, alien… but that one glimpse changes you, in some deeply addictive way. This story takes the myths of Fairyland, and emphasizes all their darkness. It’s also a clear metaphor for drug addiction, but it’s done with such a deft and delicate touch that it works perfectly. It also captures my East Village, to the life.

*** In the Garden of Poisonous Flowers [2001]
Much more in the paranormal-action vein than most of these tales. A mysterious albino hitchhiker, Dancy Flammarion, who claims to speak to an angel, is picked up by a sinister trio (who may be vampires) and taken to an old house tenanted by what may be a coven of cannibal witches. It feels like the opening of a novel – and, indeed, is a prequel to Kiernan’s novel ‘Threshold’ (and, I suppose, ‘Low Red Moon,’ which I haven’t yet read.)

*** Night Story 1973 (with Poppy Z. Brite) [2001]
A prequel to Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘Lost Souls,’ introducing the reader to the character of Ghost, as a child.

*** From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6 [2002]
An entry into the Lovecraft mythos. A researcher discovers an overlooked fossil in a drawer – a fossil which may change our understanding of evolution completely – which happens to have come from Innsmouth. She takes a train to Massachusetts to investigate the locale, but her plans are obstructed by an assortment of weird characters.

*** Andromeda Among the Stones [2002]
Another Lovecraft-influenced tale, of a family whose stolen knowledge has left them guarding a portal into unknown realms… a task which will tear them apart (perhaps literally.)

** La Peau Verte [2003]
This one didn’t really do it for me. A very fractured, non-linear narrative infused with far too much silly absinthe mythos. (It’s just a liqueur, folks…) A costumed woman, hired as a party entertainer, waits in the green room, and thinks about visits to her therapist, at which she talks about her childhood, when she may or may not have murdered her sister, and may or may not have seen fairies.

**** Riding the White Bull [2003]
Sc-fi noir. (And very good). Dietrich is the (of course) alcoholic investigator. The things he’s seen have brought him to the edge. His ex-girlfriend has opted to become a cyborg. And what he’s assigned to is some kind of top-secret alien plague (with definite hints of Lovecraftian horrors) that may destroy humanity… Nice and angsty.

*** Waycross [2003]
Another Dancy Flammarion story. Here, the albino monster hunter seems to have been led into trouble by her angel. Although she slew an ancient, inhuman sorceress upon arriving at a dilapidated trailer, that witch wasn’t what she came for. And now, the being that she had intended to kill has captured her.
The ending here seemed a little too easy.

**** The Dead and the Moonstruck [2004]
Although quite literally ghoulish, this is a surprisingly sweet story. Ghouls kidnap human children, leaving changelings in their place, and teach them magic, alongside their own children. However, if a human child fails a test, the child is eaten. The Ghoul children face no such danger. Starling Jane’s best friend is a ghoul, but she’s terrified to face her next test…

***** The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles [2004]
For over seventy-five years, the young girl called Pearl by her father, has been locked in an attic by supernatural beings, hostage to her father’s forbidden alchemy. Time only runs for her when she has a visitor, an exceedingly rare occurrence. As the tale progresses, we see that her cruel fate reflects that which her father did to untold others. Lovely and truly eerie.

**** The Dry Salvages [2004]
The Worm in My Mind’s Eye [2004]
A re-read. I think I appreciated this more, the second time around. A small ground of scientists is sent to join a research team already at a remote moon. When they arrive, they discover that something has gone horribly wrong: the humans are missing or insane, and the humanoid robots are the only ones keeping the mission afloat. Told by a surviving member of the mission, looking back on the events from a distance of many years, the story explores some interesting and complex aspects of what it means to be human, with synthetic, ‘normal’ and genetically-modified characters, and no easy answers provided. It also serves up some good old-fashioned Lovecraftian horror.
‘The Worm in my Mind’s Eye’ is a coda to the story, exploring an incident which is mentioned in passing in the main story.

**** Houses Under the Sea [2004]
A journalist, after the fact, tries to make sense of how his girlfriend, a cult leader, pulled a Jim Jones and led her followers to a watery death – without giving him a clue as to her plans. But as he tries to piece hints together, he has to admit that the evidence is all in favor of something truly weird and strange…

3.52 average rounds up to 4 stars…

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