dark fantasy

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.13.2013
Book from: Personal collection

The Water Mirror, by Kai Meyer: two pale-faced girls, one blonde and one brunette, are poled in a gondola down a grey-green Venetian canal

“In Venice, magic is not unusual. Merle is apprenticed to a magic mirror maker, and Serafin – a boy who was once a master thief – works for a weaver of magic cloth. Merle and Serafin are used to the mermaids who live in the canals of the city — beautiful creatures with hideous mouths that split their faces from ear to ear.

But Venice is under siege by the Egyptian Empire; its terrifying mummy warriors and flying sunbarks are waiting to strike. All that protects the Venetians is the Flowing Queen. Nobody knows who or what she is – only that her power flows through the canals and keeps the Egyptians at bay. When Merle and Serafin overhear a plot to capture the Flowing Queen, they are catapulted into desperate danger. They must do everything they can to rescue the Queen and save the city – even if it means getting help from the Ancient Traitor himself.”

Disappointing. I glommed onto this while bookshopping with Kakaner when I saw the cover art (by Jonathan Weiner), and couldn’t put it back on the shelf. This could have been a very nice dark-fantasy YA morsel – fast-paced, with a motley cast and an alternate Venice satisfyingly redolent of wartime paranoia and esoteric secrets whispered in clammy alleyways.

Unfortunately, the setting proved to be more interesting and memorable than the perfunctorily developed characters, and the prose is often awkwardly juvenile, e.g.,

“Merle appeared to be spellbound by the disgusting appearance of the fiery figure.”

Note that this is written from Merle’s perspective, so it makes no sense that she should “appear” to be spellbound. Of course it’s hard to say whether choices like these are original to the (German) text, or due to the translator, but there are also occasional outbreaks of ridiculousness that are more easily attributed to the translator, as when a mermaid’s skeleton is described as resembling a “supergigantic fish bone.” SUPERGIGANTIC. Boo, translator. This makes me curious about the editorial process for works in translation.

In any case, good brain candy if you’re one for intriguing world-building, but I didn’t find too much else of substance to enjoy. I’m still thinking about framing the cover art, though! That mermaid, boy o boy.

Go to:

Kai Meyer: bio and works reviewed

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It took me a while to realize that both of these things were happening, so I hope other dark-fiction aficionados will find this helpful as well: there are two new online professional magazines for horror and dark fantasy either launched or launching this year.

One is Nightmare Magazine, founded this spring as a sister publication to Lightspeed/Fantasy, and likewise edited by John Joseph Adams.

The other is The Dark (that link has yet to go live, so here’s their Facebook page as well), currently set to debut in early October of this year, and with an editorial staff including Clarkesworld‘s Sean Wallace. Excited to see both of these venues grow.

– E


I went on a mini-binge of podcasts and radio shows this past spring while finishing up some bookbinding projects; here are readings of three dark tales that I particularly enjoyed back then.


Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well” (1996)
Listen online: Act 2 of This American Life episode The Cruelty of Children

Wells again, this time as a metaphor for the infinitely strange distance from which children can regard adult suffering. Perfectly chilling, and a perfectly paced reading.

In a “Lottery”ish turn, the original broadcast did not explicitly state that the story was fiction, leading to outraged calls from lo, many listeners.


Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ninth Skeleton” (1928)..
Listen online: Pseudopod #331. (Or read online here.)

Smith is one of the big old Weird Talers whose work I’m less familiar with; this story puts some satisfyingly weird shit on display – a suggestive phantasmagoria whose horror conflates motherhood and femininity with corruption and death (for men). God forbid! The repeated description of the lissomely prancing lady-skeletons is just so ridiculous, and so sinister.

Vis-a-vis the lady-horror, I felt a bit of resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” i.e.,

“…and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”


Christine Brooke-Rose, “Red Rubber Gloves” (1966).
Listen online: Pseudopod #329

This is almost physically painful to listen to, both because of how mentally demanding it is to focus on the repetitive narrative form, and because of how much tighter and tighter and tighter the suspense is drawn via the winch of that repetition. The sterility of the images grows increasingly alien, glaring, and menacing; likewise the voice of the narrator – one woman* in confinement watching another – seems, increasingly, not unhinged, but simply dissociated from reality, moving with inhuman detachment amid an assemblage of flat, hot, arid shapesWhen the horror finally breaks, its volume seems insignificant in comparison to the cumulative effect of all the seeming nothing that has come before.

* I just realized that I assumed that the in-story narrator is a woman because Pseudopod’s narrator is; I can’t remember whether there were any explicit cues in the story as to the narrator’s gender, but I suspect that the narrator’s implicit identification with the observed housewife, and the parallels with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” would have had me guessing female anyway.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.3.2013
Book from: Personal collection

“Stories do not serve me. Even my own stories.”

Caitlín Kiernan‘s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl form a diptych: red and blue, burial and drowning, the chthonic and the oceanic. They’re mirror-image confessionals struggling with grief, mental illness, suicide, inexplicable loss, inexplicable hauntings. Present-day hauntings as crucibles for pain, and art, folded in with the matter of folklore and urban legends – that is, hauntings passed down through time, what Imp in The Drowning Girl terms, with a kind of vehement sociological exactitude, “pernicious memes.” (As if naming the thing will better pin it down, fix its dimensions. I suspect the vehemence is partly ironic.)

The Red Tree has a ferocious heat to it, a molten core exerting terrible gravity – the boiler in the basement of the Overlook. There’s only one way in to Sarah Crowe’s story, and it’s down. Catabasis without anabasis.

Like Sarah, Imp circles around and around the places of greatest hurt, making darting rushes towards them, then leaping back again just as quickly; being slowly, slowly drawn on and in. But as Imp makes her way through the waterscape of her memories, slipping from current to current, tidal pool to tidal pull, we gradually become aware that for her, there might be a return. Her story is not entirely about consumption, about the claiming of a sacrificial victim; it is also about bearing witness, about choosing or being chosen to bear witness, and it is as a witness that she will survive. (Her survival of Albert Perrault’s art exhibit in particular, and her movement in memory around it, reminded me of another of Kiernan’s haunted witness-narrators, in the science-fiction short “A Season of Broken Dolls.”)

Because one thing The Drowning Girl does that The Red Tree doesn’t, is show us, make us bear witness to, the bodies of the dead. Bodies, and unfamiliar or outright violent transformations of them, mutability and violation, are one of its principle preoccupations (again as in “Broken Dolls,” and countless other pieces of Kiernan’s fiction). The Little Mermaid, werewolves, Imp’s transsexual girlfriend Abalyn, all are considered as superimpositions of multiple identities, and multiple physical beings. (Though Abalyn resists Imp’s initial attempts at narrativizing her experience as a transsexual woman – telling her that she was “brave” for undergoing surgery, for example.)

In The Red Tree, the dead are disappeared, beneath the roots of the oak tree, or simply into a black obscurity, like the endless void of the basement spreading under Sarah Crowe’s house. But in The Drowning Girl, the literal bodies of the dead are tossed back out again, out of the deeps, for Imp, for her fellow witnesses in fiction and in history, and for us to contemplate from shore. We see that they’ve been worked on, but not, of course, what’s been working on them. The recurring image of a beautiful girl, drowned and bisected – gone from ribcage down, like half-rotted Hel of Norse mythology – becomes a macabre sister to the image of the mermaid. The blame is put on scavenging sharks, but who’s to say what was really responsible for the dissolution of body, life, memory, out there in the blue. For those victims of the deep, the physical violation seems besides the point.

Still, it’s enough to wound their witnesses in turn. Imp assembles snippets of song, poetry, fiction, art, history, and legend around herself like talismans, weaves them densely, as if glancing from juncture to juncture of the resulting web, assessing its intersections and symmetries, will render her own experience of being haunted, twice, by a siren or a werewolf named Eva Canning, more comprehensible, more forgivable.

It doesn’t, of course; it just makes it deeper, more terrible. “Lost paintings, daughters of mystery, mysteries and the pieces aren’t ever going to stop falling into place. Or falling, anyway. One Eva, but two paintings.” I found myself thinking about the all the twinnings, the uncanny reflections and resonances and multiplications, as two kinds (more twins) of sounding: echoes sent up the wellshaft by Imp’s investigations, her attempts to sound the depths.*

But the denseness of the weaving, and the mind of the weaver, are beautiful, too. Sarah Crowe is furious in her hurt; Imp is just as much a wounded animal, but a gentler one, with a quietly mordant wit. The essential elegance of her thoughts, as they flow from tale to tale, image to image, is not diminished by their desperation – rather, that intentness and need invests them with elemental power, the ability to peel back the surface of fairy tale and urban legend, expose the bone. Not as a violation (“stories do not serve me”), but as a revelation of potency and meaning, of one possible essential shape among many. I think Angela Carter would have approved.


* I just realized that I gravitated towards this pun because I’ve used it once before on this blog, in this post about a Jack Gilbert poem.

Go to:

Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.11.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Original Sins collects issues 1-9 of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, with art by John Ridgway & Alfredo Alcala.

There’s a certain disadvantage to targeted reading of comics (or whatever) that are considered to be gamechangers. This is, obviously, that you don’t actually appreciate what the game is that they’re coming along and changing. I theoretically know plenty, for example, about what the 1980’s British Invasion of Comics achieved, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the associated works. But since I don’t actually want to go sloshing around in the surrounding milieu of stagnating American comics, I just have to take people’s word for it that they were stagnating – which means that it’s hard to completely understand what the Brit Pack reacted against so successfully. Ah well.

Hellblazer vol. 1 cover

It’s a rotten, fallen world that magician John Constantine lives in, ushered along by his ripely tortured narration (“My mouth is rank – sweat bathes me, like the cold, nicotine condensation on the carriage window”), and sometimes simply by panel after panel depicting British urban misery in Ridgway and Alcala’s scratchy inks. Delano takes shots at just about everything awful in Britain (and sometimes the US) in the ’80’s, sometimes satirically (demon yuppies!) and sometimes just angrily: Maggie Thatcher, economic decay, televangelism, football hooliganism, and hatred and bigotry and greed of all stripes. I’ve seen the John Constantine character dismissed as dated, but it’s depressing how close to home much of Original Sins still feels in 2012, particularly on the economic front.

It’s the anger that really gets to you in this series, anger directed both outward and in. Constantine often lashes out against the forces of suppurating evil, but even more often seems to do harm to humanity himself through some combination of deliberate, self-interested inaction and plain cockiness. Apparently it’s a running “joke” in the series that Constantine gets all of his friends killed; he’s already off to an impressive start in Original Sins, with various allies falling dead throughout the volume at the hands of all manner of hellspawn and religious zealots. His raffishness and devil-may-care pragmatism too often translate into willingness to pass easy judgments on others’ weaknesses, and on what needs to be done to expedite his idea of the greater good, with the result that guilt becomes another dominating flavor of the series.

The story that I found the most viscerally disturbing in the volume, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” features Constantine as passive witness to the destruction of an Iowan town by their own Vietnam War ghosts. He insists that he’s cut off from the conflict, helpless to intervene. But given his shoddy track record on intervention throughout the volume, I wasn’t so convinced that this wasn’t just his well-developed sense of self-preservation talking.

I was certainly impressed with the heated, fetid atmosphere that Delano brews up – so different from the limp, humorless chilliness of the Constantine movie, whose main and only attraction for me was the Keanu-Reeves-as-Constantine/Tilda-Swinton-as-Gabriel homoerotic tension. Unfortunately, my aggregated puzzlement at the dense referencing of previously encountered characters and situations increasingly convinced me that I really had to backpedal at least a couple years and start in with Swamp Thing, where John Constantine first appears, before diving back into Hellblazer.

I also note that I started this review a year ago, and, coming back to finish it now, find that my memories of the comic are surprisingly dim. I’m guessing that this is in large part because I felt more impressed by its effect, than actually affected.

Go to:
Jamie Delano: bio and works reviewed
Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987): review by Emera

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I’m trying to remember how Walter de la Mare’s 1912 poem “The Listeners” ended up in my to-read pile, and I suspect it was by way of Robert Aickman, whose cagey, elliptical, and exceedingly unsettling tales of the supernatural I’m just beginning to plumb. I haven’t read enough of either yet to make any interesting judgments about de la Mare’s influence on Aickman, so for now, here’s “The Listeners.” The poem conjures a creeping, velvety sense of estrangement, and of the sort of pressure that the unseen can begin to exert on the imagination at night, and in solitude.


The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ’d the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr’d and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.9.2013
Read it online here – and don’t forget the preface!

I can’t call myself a Hawthorne fan – I would compare the charm that his prose has for me to that of a room full of massive and hideously overcarved ancestral furniture. I can’t help but succumb to the effect of somber impressiveness at times, and the proceedings are occasionally enlivened by a sly wit snaking through (e.g. the self-reviewing preface to “Rappacini’s Daughter,” linked above – aubépine is French for hawthorn) – but I still remember rolling my eyes through the entirety of The House of the Seven Gables. But in smaller doses? I saw a not-too-battered Dover Thrift edition of selected Hawthorne short stories – with a scratchily rendered cover image of very New Englandy headstone ornaments, which I loved – at Lorem Ipsum last weekend, and couldn’t resist adding it to my pile of Gothic stuff.

The romantic melodrama of “Rappacini’s Daughter” is great fun. I think I’d watched the 1980 made-for-TV adaptation before (which appears to have become visually confused in my head with the 2004 film adaptation of the Merchant of Venice? forbidden daughters and Renaissance Italy and all that), but never actually read the story. I still had to haul myself over some of the more pompous prose, but the air of darkly glowing, morbid eroticism and the portrait of perverse desire – with its distorted echoes of Dante and Beatrice, and Romeo and Juliet – are a fair trade for enduring the stiff, orotund moral tone. (Hawthorne points a condemning finger at the corruptibility of the intellect and the imagination, whereas nature he roots in Godly love.)

And Hawthorne creates fantastically sensual effects in the elegant, grotesque confusion of woman and flower:

“Night was already closing in; oppressive exhalations seemed to proceed from the plants and steal upward past the open window; and Giovanni, closing the lattice, went to his couch and dreamed of a rich flower and beautiful girl. Flower and maiden were different, and yet the same, and fraught with some strange peril in either shape.”

“Nor did he fail again to observe, or imagine, an analogy between the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gemlike flowers over the fountain, — a resemblance which Beatrice seemed to have indulged a fantastic humor in heightening, both by the arrangement of her dress and the selection of its hues.

Approaching the shrub, she threw open her arms, as with a passionate ardor, and drew its branches into an intimate embrace — so intimate that her features were hidden in its leafy bosom and her glistening ringlets all intermingled with the flowers.”

Additionally – I can’t seem to stop referring to Poppy Brite and Storm Constantine lately – I could swear that one of the two wrote an retelling of this, or at least a short story inspired by, but a title properly suggestive of poisonous beauties isn’t jumping out at me from either of their bibliographies. Hmm.

Go to:
Nathaniel Hawthorne: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.18.2012
Book from: Library. Lovecraft’s works are also available online in various archives, such as hplovecraft.com.

Last Halloween I realized I hadn’t really read any Lovecraft since high school, and set out to rectify that by picking up a couple collections from the library.

This one had a cover that I would class as “moderately metal” –

book wakingup


– and contained the following stories: Cool Air, The Hound, The Lurking Fear, The Terrible Old Man, The Unnamable, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, The Outsider, Herbert West – Reanimator, Arthur Jermyn, The Moon-Bog, The Temple, Dagon, From Beyond, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Assorted thoughts on some of those:

  • “The Hound” – Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi suggests that Lovecraft deliberately, (self-)parodically overheated the language in this Gothickest of Gothic tales, wherein two Decadents struck by “devastating ennui” stray from Baudelaire and Huysmans, and into the accursed pages of the Necronomicon. Unsurprisingly, it’s long been one of my favorites. It’s so ripely morbid and hysteria-stricken. I also have a fondness for doggish ghouls, and the one summoned in this story is pretty kingly.

(Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin, who provided a brief foreword for this collection, turned up the decadence of “The Hound” another couple of notches in his amply homoerotic Louisana Gothic retelling “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood,” which I remember reading with fierce delight in high school.)

  • “The Lurking Fear” boasted by far the best and most B-movie-worthy back-of-cover blurb for this collection – “An upstate New York clan degenerates into thunder-crazed mole like creatures with a taste for human flesh[!!!!!!!!!!!!]” – as well as, I think, the highest concentration of of delightfully absurd Lovecraftiness. Behold:

“With what manner of far-reaching tentacles did it prey?”

“Then, as I playfully shook him and turned him around, I felt the strangling tendrils of a cancerous horror whose roots reached into illimitable pasts and fathomless abysms of the night that broods beyond time.”

“But that fright was so mixed with wonder and alluring grotesqueness, that it was almost a pleasant sensation. Sometimes, in the throes of a nightmare when unseen powers whirl one over the roofs of strange dead cities toward the grinning chasm of Nis, it is a relief and even a delight to shriek wildly and throw oneself voluntarily along with the hideous vortex of dream-doom into whatever bottomless gulf may yawn.”

Abysms!!! Dream-doom!!!!!! That Thing about the Gryphons, too, hails from these parts.

  • “The Terrible Old Man” is a fable about the triumph of xenophobia. Hooray! It’s funny that Lovecraft attributes the same kind of thuggish, bestial degeneracy to non-WASP immigrants as he does to the ancient-monster-interbred New Englanders in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and to miscegenators in general (see also “Arthur Jermyn”). One imagines his ideal man as a skinny white fellow valiantly sandwiched between the forces of ancient evil and the rising, filthy tide of new immigrants. The taste of his neuroses – the smell of sheer fearfulness – is frequently almost overwhelming.
  • “The Unnamable” is striking in that Lovecraft seems to be having a conversation with some of his literary detractors in it, yet turns it into an earnest philosophical assertion rather than simply a cheeky comeback, as I’d initially assumed it might be. (Though there is an element of wishfully vengeful thinking to it, too, in the tradition of Poe.)

The narrator is an obvious stand-in for Lovecraft himself, and debates with a friend who “object[ed] to my preoccupation with the mystical and the unexplained; for although believing in the supernatural much more fully than I, he would not admit that it is sufficiently commonplace for literary treatment. … With him all things and feelings had fixed dimensions, properties, causes, and effects; and although he vaguely knew that the mind sometimes holds visions and sensations of far less geometrical, classifiable, and workable nature, he believed himself justified in drawing an arbitrary line and ruling out of court all that cannot be experienced and understood by the average citizen. Besides, he was almost sure that nothing can be really ‘unnamable’. It didn’t sound sensible to him.”

Of course, matters pan out such that the skeptical friend, too, is forced into a sense of cosmic and epistemological abjection. A lot of my thinking about life, the universe, and everything Unnamable has, in fact, been flavored by Lovecraftian cosmicism in the past few years – mostly instigated by Caitlín Kiernan‘s science fiction – so I was inclined to offer plauditory fingersnaps at the end of it.

Go to:
H. P. Lovecraft: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.8.2013
Book from: Personal collection

“My name’s Quinn. If you buy into my reputation, I’m the most notorious demon hunter in New England. But rumors of my badassery have been slightly exaggerated. Instead of having kung-fu skills and a closet full of medieval weapons, I’m an ex-junkie with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or…whatever.

Wanted for crimes against inhumanity I (mostly) didn’t commit, I was nearly a midnight snack for a werewolf until I was ‘saved’ by a vampire calling itself the Bride of Quiet. Already cursed by a werewolf bite, the vamp took a pint out of me too. So now… now, well, you wouldn’t think it could get worse, but you’d be dead wrong.”

The recently released Blood Oranges looks to be kicking up some dust in the vicinity of urban/paranormal fantasy, which is as it should be: Caitlín Kiernan, writing under the pseudonym of Kathleen Tierney, aimed it as a rejoinder to many of the more questionable indulgences of the genre, whether they be tramp-stamped, pleather-clad heroines or beglittered vampires. It’s also a fast-paced, profane, and combustive little thriller with an unapologetically queer, thoroughly ornery protagonist who’s suffered the tragicomical fate of being transformed into the world’s only werepire. (At least her heroin addiction is gone.)

Since I lack a generalized sense of vindictiveness towards urban-whatever fantasy, I don’t find particular satisfaction in trope-busting per se, and some of Quinn’s acid meta-commentaries – about how if she had been a character in that kind of book, this would have happened that way, but she’s not, so it didn’t – do go on a bit. What does interest me about the device is how it helps inform Quinn as a character. As fun as pyrotechnics and various deaths-by-werewolf can be, I found it far more rousing to watch the way that, tedious particulars aside, Quinn constructs and references narratives, then unceremoniously shreds them in her wake. Junkies lie, she tells us very early on. And so, after she’s rattled off a grimly spectacular rendition of her origins as a monster-slayer, it soon comes out that in fact she’s “been stretching the truth like it was a big handful of raspberry-flavored saltwater taffy.” The real origin story involves significantly more clumsiness and bad timing on the part of the defunct monsters.

While Quinn never repeats that gambit to quite that degree in the rest of the novel, digressions and evasions continue to criss-cross and loop around her narration – pop-cultural riffs and potshots, reminiscences that slide back and forth across time and various shadings of the truth. Combined with the raw prose (Quinn warns us that she’s no writer), what comes across is the voice of a young woman who’s talking too fast, sometimes too loudly or too softly, compulsively running her hands through her hair, and not much meeting your eyes – someone rough, vibrant, and, despite the efforts of numerous supernatural beings, very much alive.

Quinn doesn’t have enough agency to be a really free-wheeling trickster character (like many of Kiernan’s characters, she’s trapped in a relationship with a dubiously benevolent protector/mentor/creator), but in her exuberant roughness, her scrappiness, her avowed suspicion of anything resembling a moral code, there’s a definite, electric touch of the trickster spirit. Temper that with the sense of submerged loss that’s another constant in Kiernan’s work, and you have a protagonist whose wry, sometimes melancholy self-awareness convincingly undergirds the satire.

Go to:
Caitlin R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.24.2012
Book from: Personal collection

 “Strange things can happen at a crossroads, and the crossroads outside of Arcane, Missouri, is no exception. Thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks knows all the odd, mysterious tales about her little town – she grew up hearing her mother tell them. But even Natalie is not prepared for the strangeness that’s unleashed when Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show rolls into Arcane with its bizarre tonics and elaborate, inexplicable machines. When Natalie finally gets a close look at the intricate maze of the medicine show, she knows in her gut that something about this caravan healers is not right… and that Arcane is in grave danger.”

Like Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker is a spooky circus mystery-adventure set in a Midwestern town, and featuring young protagonists who must reckon with the insinuation of evil into their lives. Realizations about both mortality and morality loom large. The Boneshaker has more of a Western feel, though, shaded with near-apocalyptic gloom; the seductions of the circus have an even more explicitly diabolical flavor. Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” would be right at home on a soundtrack for the novel, I think.

As protagonist, Natalie is an intriguing foil to the unearthly disruptions of Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair: inquisitive, skeptical, mechanically minded, a little bristly and imperious. Admirably, her inquisitiveness extends to the emotional realm, as increasingly throughout the book, she tries to get inside the heads of the people she’s known for all her life, but frequently taken for granted. From the townspeople who have encountered evil in its various forms before, including her own mother, she gleans haunting snatches of narrative that deepen the novel’s Biblical mythos and lend it an absorbing sense of grandeur and pathos.

Unfortunately, Milford’s prose, though carefully detailed, is on the flat and list-y side, even when she write scenes that should be demonically animated:

“She didn’t have to be told to run. The harlequin lunged after her.

She sprinted and dodged, not caring which twists and turns she took in the maze of tents. Bells jingled overhead; the harlequin had taken to the wires again.

Her feet kicked up dust and slid on old straw. The things in her arms stirred restlessly. The Amazing Quinn raced alongside and above on a wire parallel to her path.”

And so on; the rhythm and syntax remain monotonous, and the descriptive choices expected. It’s troublesome, too, that one of Natalie’s mentors seems to have been tipped out directly from the Magical Negro mold. “Nothing to do but play my guitar and dispense advice to white folks in need, doot de doo…”

What Milford does do beautifully is frame rational-minded Natalie’s collision with the realization that the world is insistently, terrifyingly irrational. Her town and the crossroads are much older and stranger than she thinks they are; many of the adults around her have known far more suffering and struggle than she could have imagined; and moreover – worst of all, even – they, too, are fallible and vulnerable. Milford has things to say, too, about the power of story and memory, and weaves in the usual YA subplot of learning to stand your ground in the face of fear, but Natalie’s coming to grips with the pervasiveness of evil and mortality is by far the most affecting narrative strand.

I won’t be seeking out the sequels, but all in all, The Boneshaker was an entertaining read, both thoughtful and goosebumpily suspenseful, with satisfying lashings of American folklore and Christian mythology. I’d recommend it as a companion for a thunderstormy summer afternoon.

For a previously reviewed dark fantasy also featuring Western and Biblical touches (and, coincidentally, a red-haired doctor of dubious humanity), see: The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers.

Go to:
Kate Milford: bio and works reviewed
The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers (2007): review by Emera

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