Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006) E

Date read: 8.31.09
Read from: Personal collection, via Subterranean Press
Reviewer: Emera

Alabaster collects five works of Kiernan’s short fiction, all centered on her character Dancy Flammarion, first introduced in her novel Threshold. (Note that I’d never read any of Kiernan’s work before this, so this collection clearly stands well on its own, both as introduction to Dancy as a character and to Kiernan’s work in general.) Dancy is an orphaned, albino girl who seeks out and kills monsters on the command of a terrifying angel. Each of the stories records her encounter with one of the monsters that the angel sends her to find, and peels back a layer of Dancy’s past and psyche, to reveal how deeply damaged and used she is.

To say that Dancy is a tragic character doesn’t even come close. Each of the monsters she meets, though technically monstrous so far as it comes to killing people in horrible ways and so on, is far more self-aware than is Dancy – and thus, in a certain sense, more fully human. Likewise, they can see her situation far more clearly than she ever does. Ultimately, what the stories show the reader is that Dancy is a monster of another kind: a crippled soul who will never truly understand who she is, what she does, or why she does it, and will never be loved by another being, human or otherwise. I would like to think that she’s not irredeemable, but at least within these stories, she’s hopelessly lost and severed from humanity, and sustained only by her faith in an angel that the reader soon realizes has no interest in her as an individual and is, of course, yet another kind of monster in an endless and highly relative bestiary.

(As a side note, a lot of what I’ve been reading lately has been having great synergy – it was particularly rewarding, for example, to read this alongside the Bean/Shadows series, since they both deal with children who have been molded and used by others.)

To talk about the actual stories: Kiernan is a brilliant stylist, very darkly enchanting. She has a knack for running sentences together with strange, quietly startling syntax, and her descriptions are extremely memorable, slipping easily from the swamps and weedy cinderblocks of the good old Southern Gothic to the liquidly, sinisterly dreamlike. Actually, the experience of reading Kiernan’s stories feels much like being caught in a nightmare: they have that slow-motion pull of events, the elasticity of time. I can see why the description of her as a writer of horror is contentious, because I think she really does work more in dark, psychological fantasy than in horror.

Pictorial interlude!

Shamelessly reposting an image just to show again how beautiful the cover is – art by Ted Naifeh, who also provides a number of appropriately jagged and atmospheric black-and-white interior illustrations.

The basic construction of each of the stories was much the same, which was a downside in that they occasionally threaten indistinguishability. I considered the vignette “Alabaster” the weakest in the collection for this reason, as it largely retreads psychological ground already covered in the other stories. The moment of the monster’s death is, pointedly, almost never the story’s actual climax, with much of the story focusing instead on atmosphere and Dancy’s psychological experience as she travels to and from the site of her kill. Kiernan does intercut perspectives and play with chronology to maintain narrative tension. But if you’re a plot-driven reader, this might not be the collection for you, and even I found my attention drifting at times, particularly during the novella “Bainbridge.” “Bainbridge” features an explanation for the presence of Dancy’s angel in her life (and hence I imagine will be welcome to those who’ve been following Dancy since Threshold), weaving together three plotlines: one of Dancy herself, one of her mother as a young girl, and one set in an alternate world. Unfortunately, though I was intrigued by the teeming mythology of the latter, I also found its narrative overlong, and the dialogue trite. So while the storytelling was more ambitious in scale, I’d consider “Bainbridge” less effective as a whole.

My favorites were “Les Fleurs Empoisonées” (previously published as an individual chapbook under the title In the Garden of Poisonous Flowers), which, so far as the Dancy stories go, is rather more of a romp, featuring as it does a ghoulish sisterhood of Sapphic Southern belles with a taste for fine cooking and human autopsies; and “Waycross,” which I found the darkest and most moving of the stories, since one of the monsters whom Dancy encounters compels her to take a journey through her own past and inner landscape. It’s beautifully executed, and made me feel more deeply than ever for Dancy.

Overall, the collection as a whole is much more than the sum of its parts. I found the portrait of both Dancy and her world deeply thoughtful, moving, and haunting (I feel like I can’t say “haunting” enough times about this book). Dancy’s world is one of those that you by no means would want to live in, yet is nonetheless so vivid and compelling that you can’t help but wish you could visit for a few hours.

Try Kiernan if you like Poppy Z. Brite (especially if you, like I, were guiltily obsessed with Lost Souls as a teenager and are looking to graduate), Neil Gaiman, Lovecraft, Cameron Rogers’ The Music of Razors

Go to:
Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Red Tree (2009) [E]

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  1. kakaner’s avatar

    Wow

    I can’t emphasized how intrigued I am… I’ve been hearing a lot about Kiernan, and I love starting off with short stories. You just HAD to mention dark-psychological-twisted-angels-monsters-tragedy. That’s basically a dark fantasy fangirl lustbox right there.

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    I remember you compared it to The Music of Razors when I first sent you the SubPress listing, and it really is comparable in terms of style and subject matter.

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