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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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Apologies for the utter deadness around here lately; Kakaner is fiendishly, horrendously, unspeakably busy with a very exciting new job, and I’ve been occupied trying to not get kicked out of wildly succeed in my graduate program.

But here’s another round of gender-subversive fun for fans of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and anyone whose interest was piqued by my review of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight: Katie O’Neill’s gently goofy and heartfelt new webcomic Princess Princess, in which a dashing princess errant is the one to rescue a tower-immured damsel.

“I have a sword, a unicorn, and kick-butt hair!” – Princess Amira

Princess Princess updates once weekly, and is predicted to run up to 30 or 40 pages. You can also find additional art and bonus comics over at its Tumblr.

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.28.2012
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.

(Yeah, the cover design is pretty punishingly cute. And also, classy! Oh Vertical, you know how to win my heart.)

The friend who egged me on in my desire to read this series, which has the proud distinction of siring the “princely girl” anime subgenre (i.e. Rose of Versailles, Revolutionary Girl Utena), described it as “nonstop shoujo bullshit.” Honestly, I can’t add much more to that than “but there’s lots of wacky gender stuff, too!!”

Adapted from the cover blurb:

“A mischief-making angel’s prank goes too far when the newborn princess of Silverland ends up with two hearts — one male and one female. Since the laws of Silverland only allow a male heir to ascend the throne, Princess Sapphire is raised as a prince. Princess Knight is the fast-paced tale of a heroic princess who can beat any man at fencing, yet is delicate and graceful enough to catch the eye of Prince Charming. Filled with narrow escapes, treacherous courtiers, dashing pirates, meddlesome witches, magical transformations and cinema-worthy displays of derring-do, you’ll be swept right along as Sapphire tackles one challenge after another.”

“One challenge after another” is only too right: the plot twists (potions, prisons, a desirous island queen, hellish pacts, Swan Lake references, etc. etc.) are addictive to a point, but past that point get exhaustingly frenetic. My patience was also tried by the fact that Sapphire is actually pretty dull. Apart from intermittent feats of gallantry, she doesn’t accomplish much other than throwing herself into defeatist fits of tears and mooning with disturbing passivity over her square-jawed and also dull main squeeze, Prince Franz. It comes as a relief to those of us rooting for a pluckier hero/ine that Tezuka has Sapphire close out her gender-bending with a bang: even though she ultimately prefers traditional femininity (she declares her desire to just get married in a dress, please), she’s still up for a swordfight even after her “boy heart” has been revoked.

One more photo and further thoughts on characters and gender after the cut:

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection

An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”

(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)

I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.

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Date read: 8.1.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is one of my most treasured finds from Readercon, picked up from the fantastic Somewhere in Time Books: Tanith Lee‘s 1988 limited-edition novella, with illustrations by Tom Canty. From the title and pastel cover I expected a tale of genteel swashbuckling, possibly YA; should have remembered that Lee never goes in for gentility. Elegance, yes – Lee is manically elegant – but never gentility.

Madame Two Swords starts in a familiar place for Lee: a sensitive, fearful, recently orphaned young woman in an early 20th-century alternate France is treated cruelly by both circumstances and humanity; her only spiritual sustainment comes from a book of poetry discovered in a secondhand shop:

“The blue cloth binding was quite pristine under its dust. It was a slender book, without lettering. I opened it out of curiosity.”

“The book was my talisman. Other girls wore crosses or medallions.”

The narrator is unemployed and evicted, and finds herself in dire straits, chased from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other: too middle-class for hard labor, too unskilled to be a seamstress, too unwilling to accede to customers’ advances to be a waitress in the seedier cafés. At the extremity of her despair – enter Madame Two Swords, a black-eyed old woman of terrifying intensity, in whose museum-like house the narrator comes to some strange realizations.

In this France, the Revolution was sparked by the poet-demagogue Lucien de Ceppays in the city of Troies. This Revolution culminated in the execution of the original revolutionaries, including de Ceppays, by the fickle mob, and the occupation of France by a fearful British monarchy. Inhabitants now speak “Frenish” as often as French, and labor in a depressed economy overseen by a puppet government. The narrator’s talisman-book is, of course, a volume of de Ceppays’ work, and contains besides a haunting watercolor portrait of him. The story quickly sees her devotion to his image and memory moving beyond girlish fantasy.

The final supernatural twist, when it comes, is powerful in effect, in large part because of the supreme delicacy with which Lee constructs the fleeting image central to the revelation. There’s an also-delicate but definite touch of gender-bending, which I wish I could discuss in more detail without being spoilery, but suffice it to say that I liked how Lee addressed its implications, a lot. This is a story that makes use of deeply Gothic-Romantic tropes (duh, Tanith Lee) yet resists being just romantic; it’s fierce and intelligent and ultimately insists on the dignity of all of its characters.

And so my love affair with Tanith Lee continues! If you like Revolutionary France and cross-lingual puns and intelligent Gothic fantasy, if you love Tanith Lee and beautiful books, you might consider treating yourself to a copy of Madame Two Swords.

Two more photos (can’t help showing it off!) under the cut:
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Date read: 1.24.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Penguin Ink EditionsPenguin Ink editions, when will you stop being awesome? Cover art by Thomas Ott.

Shirley Jackson is the queen of opening lines:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the capstone in my mini Jackson-marathon of January; for some reason I’ve decided to review it first. It was her last novel, and contains almost all the Jackson trademarks: persecutory villagers, a haunted (not literally, in this case) house, thinly veiled wickedness and brutality, a split psyche, embodied here in sisters light and dark. Jonathan Lethem’s excellent introduction in the Penguin Ink edition situates these usefully in Jackson’s own life as the formerly shy wife of a university professor isolated in small-town New England, and in her sad decline as she succumbed to agoraphobia in her later years.

Merricat Blackwood. Oh, Merricat. She’s a typical Jackson heroine in that she’s determinedly childish and presexual; it’s hard not to read her relationship with the Blackwood house (like that other great Jackson house, Hill House) as an attempt to return to the womb. I also had a hard time remembering that she’s supposed to be 18, and not 12 or 13. A capricious, spiteful witch-child, she delights in hiding, in secrecy, in burying and nailing charms around the family estate, repeatedly drawing lines of protection around her and Constance and the house. (When interloping cousin Charles appears, Merricat hates him almost more for resembling her and Constance’s father than for his obvious mercenary aims; she strenuously rejects any masculine influence from their domain.) Her black cat Jonas follows her everywhere, and they “talk” to each other fluently. She loves thinking about the deaths of others: of her family, scandalously and mysteriously poisoned six years ago; of the villagers who hate them and blame fearful, fragile Constance for the murder. Above all, she’s monstrously selfish, a sort of funnel constantly drawing off Constance’s maternal attentions and lovingly described cooking.

Like any good trickster character, she’s both hateful and seductive. I couldn’t not identify with her flighty witchery – a good chunk of my childhood in a nutshell – all the while that I was increasingly repulsed by her emotional stranglehold on Constance. The violence in the book crescendoes shortly before the end, but the ugliness goes on from there, quietly, as Merricat proceeds to get exactly what she wants; it left me feeling more disturbed by a book than I have for a long while. At the same time, I couldn’t help remembering how much fun Merricat was, her wicked humor and her mocking embrace of dysfunction. Lethem’s introduction highlights Jackson’s talent for slyly “instill[ing] a sense of collusion in her readers,” reflecting “the strange fluidity of guilt as it passes from one person to another.” You can’t get much better at that than Merricat Blackwood.

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Shirley Jackson: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 11.1.07; reread once or twice since
Book from: Library originally; now personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(There is nothing about this cover that does not amuse and please me. Consider it an honorary Bad Book Cover Friday?)

Tanith Lee‘s The Secret Books of Paradys are among the most exquisitely aestheticized and unabashedly Gothic works I’ve ever read, which means of course that I’m obsessed with them. The series is set in a parallel-universe version of Paris, known variously as Paradys, Paradis, Par Dis, and Paradise. (Lee has also written a more recent series about a para-Venice, The Secret Books of Venus, though I’ve yet to read them.) Each of the four volumes comprises interweaving, thematically unified stories. The books stand alone well, though they’re seeded with references to a few recurring elements within the universe – locations, names, a certain poet – and the fourth volume has a climactic finality to it. Each of the books is further themed by color (see what I mean about aestheticized?), frequently embodied in significant pieces of jewelry and, in The Book of the Damned, stained-glass windows. (Always makes me think of “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

The Book of the Damned takes as its themes sexual transgression and ambiguities of sex, gender, and identity, considered in three novellas. The first, “Stained with Crimson,” follows an ill-fated poet, Andre St. Jean, on a journey of sexual obsession in 19th-century Paradys. St. Jean is given a ruby scarab ring by a dying man on the hills of the Temple Church; soon after, he is introduced to the ring’s owner, the ineffably unobtainable Antonina von Aaron. Cue a game of predator and prey in which role reversals are linked with a cycle of death, rebirth, and sex changes. Oh yes, and vampires. I mean, obviously. This is perhaps my favorite out of all the Paradys tales, both for its sentimental associations, as it launched my Tanith Lee obsession, and for its no-holds-barred Gothstravaganza, ladled out in the most sonorous, decadent, purple-saturated language imaginable. Further layers of allegorical imagery incorporate Greek mythology (a Pan symbol, a trip down a deathly river) and the elements, the latter perhaps complementing the book’s primary-color triad.

“Malice in Saffron,” though little less wrought and hectic, takes a much grimmer turn. As with many of Lee’s works, its events are incited by sexual violence and abuse of women. The protagonist, Jehanine, is assaulted by her stepfather and rejected by her beloved brother. After fleeing the countryside, she finds shelter within a nunnery in medieval Paradys, but by night transforms herself into capricious, murderous Jehan, who roams the backstreets of Paradys with a gang of thieves. Like many of Lee’s vengeful heroines, Jehanine nears the brink of being consumed by her own desire for destruction, but ultimately finds peace and redemption. Jehanine, I suspect, is a distant Paradysian extrapolation of Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc; her story also heavily references Cathar beliefs.

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Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.

If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.

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