“Houses Under the Sea,” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2003) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.12.14

“When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.

I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.”

Caitlín Kiernan’s novelette “Houses Under the Sea” (2003) introduces the Lovecraftian deep-sea mythology that later figures largely in the 2012 novel The Drowning Girl. My favorite section of the story is actually the very first, where Kiernan sets glinting shards of memory tumbling in the liquid medium of her protagonist’s memory. It’s painful, frightening, smoky, sensuous (just take the fact that the victim-villainess’ name is as outrageously rich as Jacova Angevine), with a noirish swagger later amplified by the narrator’s hard-drinking pathos, and, rather playfully, by included excerpts from the works of Angevine’s mystery-novelist father.

Technically, the story is beautifully crafted, with Kiernan’s trademark circular movement (which echoes the final image that ends up haunting the narrator – “She has drawn a circle around me”) of thought and memory carrying the reader to successive climaxes of dread. An empty warehouse with a recently painted-over floor. Undersea things – coldly, sinuously, invasively sensuous, both muscular and rotten-soft.

The role that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s deep-sea exploration plays in the story is especial fun for me given the fact that I spent several years in elementary school obsessively drawing viperfish and anglerfish, and that my dream job for a much longer time was to work at said aquarium… (It did just occur to me that a thread of my anglerfish affinity persists, in that I now study the family of bacteria that includes Photobacterium, those responsible for the luminescence of anglerfishes’ and flashlight fishes’ light organs. Shine on, you creepy diamonds.)

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Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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  1. Robert’s avatar

    I think this is a brilliant story, by far my favorite among the Lovecraft-inflected stories by Kiernan that I know (mostly from _To Charles Fort, with Love_). It is both superbly allusive but also rooted more strongly in recognizable reality than quite a few of her other tales. But it’s precisely that rootedness that gives it the Lovecraftian punch: reality turns out to be a very unreliable place. I especially loved the excerpts from the paperback novels of Jacova’s father, which suggested so much, but never added up to something like an “explanation.”

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    1. Emera’s avatar

      It is both superbly allusive but also rooted more strongly in recognizable reality than quite a few of her other tales.
      Have you read her new Lovecraftian novella, Agents of Dreamland, yet? I think it’s darkly wonderful, and effective in many of the same ways as “Houses under the Sea.” It’s got a delicious sense of place and tantalizingly convincing references to a black-and-white sci-fi film that doesn’t exist. Kiernan is so good at invented genre artifacts! I reread the excerpts from Jacova’s father’s novels after you highlighted them, and Kiernan’s enjoyment of the noir cadence and lingo is so palpable.

      I think I’ve only read one of the stories from To Charles Fort, and it wasn’t a Lovecraftian one, but I have read a few of her Lovecraftian “vignettes” that felt dreamily and almost completely dislocated from “recognizable reality” – Symbolist dreams rather than conventional narratives.

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      1. Robert’s avatar

        Thanks for the reply. Funny you should ask about _Agents of Dreamland_, since I just read it a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it very much, but for my taste the touches of fantasy (“The Signalman” and the apparently immortal Immacolata Sexton) somewhat diluted the realism that I loved in “Houses under the Sea.” I’m sure that to other tastes those aspects will heighten the effect of the story; but I grew up in the 1960s and had no Harry Potter to guide me to worlds in which the supernatural is natural. That said, I loved the Götterdämmerung sense of doom that pervaded the story, and I thought the references to the mysterious film and its echoes of “The Whisperer in Darkness” were brilliant. I liked them much more than her allusions to the Black Lagoon creature in “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6,” which made me smile rather than shudder. It’s amazing what good writers with conviction can sell: I love Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo,” and I don’t bat an eye at the preposterously stilted shouts of “Oh my burning feet of fire! Oh this height and fiery speed!” from poor Défago. But I find references to broadly shared pop culture fall flat for me. On the other hand, _invented_ pop culture (like the sci-fi film or those noir tales by Jacova’s father) works great! And you’re spot on about Kiernan’s enjoyment of the noir lingo: the excerpts are brilliant combinations of send-up and hommage to the hard-boiled noir tradition, and they add another layer of resonance to the story.

        I hate to look stupid, but I was reading _Agents of Dreamland_ pretty fast, and I was puzzled about the metal canister left behind in the hotel room with the bodies of Standish and Nightlinger. Does that mean that one of the brains didn’t make the trip? (Presumably Nightlinger’s?)

        Thanks again for the comments!

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