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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Nov. 2016

I’ve enjoyed the work of Sophie Campbell (formerly Ross Campbell) for 12, 13 years maybe. In high school I spent hours poring over the endless portraits (almost exclusively Wet Moon characters, at the time) in her deviantART account – humid, sexy, angsty, a little uncomfortable, very Goth, all executed in her trademark style of mostly monochrome ink and marker, with lots of lovely wash textures. There was a lot going on that you didn’t see much of in comic art those days – chubby girls, black girls. I was fascinated almost equally by the bodies and the fashion – hair, piercings, soft thighs under ripped fishnets – of all those languorously sprawling, sulkily self-possessed, implicitly vulnerable girls (and very occasional androgynous boys).

I have no good reason for why it took me so long to actually read Wet Moon, except that it used to be harder to find comics from smaller labels.

In the time since, Campbell came out as trans. To put it baldly, this presented an easy resolution to my one discomfort with Campbell’s work: that it could come off as voyeuristic, or fetishistic. To have a lingering male gaze suddenly revealed as [trans]female – suddenly consumption, desire, appreciation, longing are all construed so, so differently. Finding out that Campbell had come out as trans remains the most interesting shift I’ve ever experienced in my perception of an artist and their relationship to their work.

Wet Moon is a dark, dreamy slice-of-life comic, featuring a cast of southern, small-town punks, Goths, and art students, almost exclusively women, and heavily queer. Flavors: cigarettes, hairdye, patchouli, art-supply-store air, pie, swampwater. I’ve also seen comparisons to Twin Peaks, though being only two volumes in, the implied supernatural/mystery element is very slight. There’s a missing student who left a strange dark circular stain on her apartment floor, for example, and inexplicable, moonstruck behavior performed by various characters – midnight swamp immersions, ritualistic circling in front of windows. It’s all lovely and unsettling, and reminds me of, yes, the earliest episodes of Twin Peaks, where I had no idea what was going on, and small moments were rendered all the more terrifying because of it. (Those shots of the traffic light at night, for example – I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of what a traffic light might mean.)

The protagonist is Cleo Lovedrop (yes, all of the characters have wonderful, absurd names – Malady Mayapple might be the winner), with the blue forelock on both of the covers above. Her struggles with romantic confusion and low self-esteem have so far provided the most obvious or continuous dramatic impetus for the series. But the drama is deliberately minimal; the interest lies more in mood, in the understated sense of mystery, and in the affectionate evocation of the banter – listless, playful, or barbed – and small upsets within an extended network of friends.

And then, much of the series so far has been implicitly about bodies: resenting them, costuming them, wanting them to be something different, subjecting them to long minutes of mute observation and appreciation. Multiple characters receive scenes of self-examination in mirrors: sucking in stomachs, examining scars, trying to make muscles. Most of the characters are overweight; some have disabilities or deformities. There’s so much bodily difference that different becomes the order of the day. The cumulative effect is, again, lovely; all the soft curves and folds and rumpled, revealing clothing contribute their own sense of soft melancholy.

Wet Moon is a unique and soulful work of art; I’m grateful that it exists. Scuttlebutt suggests that the series does become plottier, or at least more overtly dramatic – as a devoted fan of plotlessness, I’m almost disappointed, but obviously excited too for whatever Gothic mayhem awaits. Now it’s on me to track down the remaining four volumes (hopefully in the updated editions, with Campbell credited as Sophie, and some great cover designs by Annie Mok); volume 7 is still being eagerly awaited.

Related reading:
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

book-ratqueens-violet

Rat Queens is a rambunctious Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons parody featuring a gang of ultraviolent, foul-mouthed lady adventurers: Hannah the moody, uptight elven mage, dwarven warrior Violet (pictured above with her orc boyfriend Dave), escaped-from-a-Lovecraftian-cult cleric Dee, and candy/hallucinogen-obsessed smidgen (i.e., halfling) Betty. In Volume 1, the Queens deal with the consequences of their inability to rein in their penchant for destructive brawling, which has earned them enemies within the walls of their own town. In volume 2, the airing of old grudges escalates to the summoning of Lovecraftian beasties; the ensuing ruin is intercut with flashbacks that begin revealing the younger lives of most of the Queens.

Rat Queens is inextricably linked with Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in my mind: they’re both recent Image comics that feature racially/sexually diverse casts, obstreperous women, “pretty” art with a light anime influence, sarcastic humor, and graphic violence. In that match-up, though, Rat Queens comes up lacking. Wiebe writes pretty awkwardly at times, and tonally, the comic is in that regime of sarcastic trope-busting where if you’re even slightly not feeling it, it just comes off as try-hard.

In terms of art, Upchurch is likewise okay. He’s good at facial expressions, and occasional panels are quite pretty, but his art often mashes down into strange scribbled shapes that betray a mediocre sense of volume and anatomy. The backgrounds are weak as well; they often feel kind of incoherent and joylessly drab to me. Here’s a representative Upchurch page – theoretically pretty chicks with wandering facial features, backgrounds blurred beyond usefulness:

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Stjepan Sejic picks up art duty partway through Volume 2: Kurtis removed Upchurch from the series after he was confirmed to have committed domestic abuse. Sejic, not Upchurch, is responsible for the cover art featured up top. Sejic’s work is strong – seductively painterly and with great taste in color and light, as evidenced by the cover – and he’s an excellent match for the comic thematically since he’s done a number of hilarious trope-busting joke comics. His only obvious weakness is his inability to draw kids without them looking like creepy adult heads pasted onto miniature bodies. My understanding is that unfortunately Sejic departed the series after Vol. 2 due to work conflicts.

But between Sejic’s work and increasingly substantive storytelling, the comic did grow on me as I dug into Volume 2. That whole volume felt narratively solid to me: the character development is thoughtful, mostly dwelling on issues of authority, belonging, and trust (familial, cultural, religious), and also deepened my appreciation of the Rat Queens’ friendships.

Still, I think I could drop this series without feeling like I’d missed that much. First, the interpersonal conflicts, while humanely portrayed, are pretty standard for fantasy (“I’m an outsiderrrrr”). (I think a significant part of why Saga is so unique and successful is that Vaughan investigates familial relationships in a much more specific and personally informed manner, rather than drawing from the typical sff stockroom of Generic Angst Causation.) Second, there isn’t yet a compelling overarching external conflict. Finally, though I feel fondly towards several of the characters (mainly Dee, Hannah, and Braga), I’m not so invested that I feel the need to keep reading just to see what happens to them.

Altogether, I’d call this fun but not unmissable. Blessings on the proliferation of media focusing on female protagonists, though.

Go to:
Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E
On the road to Saga

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

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Rikki Ducornet, “Wormwood” (1997)
Available in the Iowa Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Word ‘Desire’

Strange, jagged, haunted, heated – like an animal taking little bites out of a freshly killed rabbit. Two children whisper dark stories and dirty, childish love-words to each other as a grandfather lies dying and a terrifying sculpture presides. The last batch of short fiction that I read by Ducornet – her collection The One Marvelous Thing – tended to the precious, in my opinion. I much preferred “Wormwood” for its rawness, its closeness to nightmare or fever-dream.

Stephen King, “A Death” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

A spare Western tale of moral doubt and casual miscarriage of justice. I admired its extreme tautness of language, and darkly funny dialogue. I had to read it two or three times before I’d satisfied myself that I’d explored plot possibilities other than the most obvious one presented at the story’s end.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

and

Rikki Ducornet’s “Bazar” (1991)
Available in the Chicago Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Complete Butcher’s Tales

These two get filed together on account of both being stories of repressed homosexual desire – one narrated by a Nigerian man revisiting his childhood friendship with his parents’ houseboy, and the other set in the heat and clutter of a bazaar in French Algeria shortly before its war for independence in the 1950’s.

“Apollo” is quietly tragic; disappointed affection turns into a moment of severance, of irreversible cruelty; this brings us back round to contemplate things initially unsaid by the the adult narrator. The story is also very much about class, and about the wary orbit that children maintain around their parents, and about reevaluating things seen at a distance (parents included).

Speaking of orbiting: Adichie relates in the accompanying interview that the etymology for “Apollo,” a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, might have to do with the Apollo-11 mission, and the American Academy of Optometry confirms so here. In the body of the story itself, no etymology is mentioned, and so I loved the term’s potent mysteriousness – its bittersweet glow, its intimations of an idealized, youthful homoeroticism, and of health and healing. (On revisiting the story, I noticed that the houseboy who preceded Raphael has the similarly suggestive name of “Hyginus” – also Greek, and having to do with health.)

Ducornet’s “Bazar” is almost explosively cruel by comparison – further explosions being foreshadowed by the impending Algerian War – though interspersed also with extremely funny dialogue between the bazar-owner and his bossy, canny American-expat friend. As with “Wormwood,” there’s a nightmarish viciousness to it; Ducornet’s trademark baroque language tumbles, slithers, lurches, and plunges among the crowded topography of the bazar, and the pitfalls of its proprietor’s psychology.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.31.13
Book from: Public library, and then personal collection.

“At an exclusive girls’ boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her growing obsession is her roommate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy’s friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is an enigmatic, moody presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes.

Around her swirl rumors, suspicions, and secrets – and a series of ominous disasters. As fear spreads through the school and Lucy isn’t Lucy anymore, fantasy and reality mingle until what is true and what is dreamed bleed together into a waking nightmare that evokes with gothic menace the anxieties, lusts, and fears of adolescence. At the center of the diary is the question that haunts all who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or has the narrator trapped herself in the fevered world of her own imagining?”

I had the great honor and pleasure recently of instigating Kakaner’s first-ever read of J. S. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla;” many squees were squeed between the two of us. I had first read the sapphic vampire classic in one bleary sitting around midnight several winters ago, as I was in bed with a fever: perfect.

Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel The Moth Diaries, a self-aware successor to both “Carmilla” and Dracula, absorbed my autumn last year in an even more protracted fever dream. The book is barely over 200 pages long, but I read and reread its middle parts continuously, hypnotically, for almost two months before I finally brought the affair to a close and committed myself to reading the last chapter.

The book feels hermetic, labyrinthine: a maze constructed not of stone or hedges but of wood-paneled walls and prim New England convention, boarding-school propriety fencing in the daughters of unhappy families.

The novel’s narrator – an unnamed diarist – is severe, intellectual, and morbid, but also mordantly funny in her teenaged forthrightness. Cafeteria food, the indignities of boarding-school routines, and the pretensions and fixations of her classmates are scrutinized and discussed with nearly equal intensity to her idolization of Lucy, her hateful fascination with Ernessa, and her anguish over her poet father’s suicide. Donuts, gossip, LSD, field hockey, school dances; sex, blood, fear, death, eating disorders, anti-Semitism. (The narrator and Ernessa are two of the only three Jews in their entire, WASPy school, in the 1970’s.) And the specter of homosexuality in an all-girls’ school: “We were always so careful not to be like that. Girls who go too far.”

All of it is felt keenly, absorbed entirely. “She was […] excruciatingly alive, as if she had been born without a skin,” the adult narrator says of her younger self in the afterword. There’s horror, awe, regret, tenderness, and involuntary longing all in that statement. “I had affection for her, and I have much less for the one who has replaced her.”

From start to finish, The Moth Diaries engages more passionately and personally with the opposition between youth and ageing than any other vampire story I’ve read. Eternal youth means something painfully specific in this book. It means always feeling, always needing, never having enough. It means never getting better, never being able to admit that what’s lost is lost and not coming back. It means being violently alive.

The narrator does get better; her preface and afterword tell us so. But survival, in her straitlaced milieu, also means ossification, it means surrender to convention and a convenient degree of unfeeling. The novel’s conclusion is deeply melancholy: the narrator has survived the turmoil and burning intensity of her adolescence, but finds herself adrift in a colorless marriage, with daughters who are so blissfully functional as to seem alien. Having achieved distance from her pain also means being distanced from the chief sources of meaning in her teenaged life – the loss of her father, and her relationship with Lucy. “[The girl who wrote the diary] had a father. I don’t.”

Even as someone who’s always had a peculiar relationship to ideas of childhood and childishness, I would never choose to return to my adolescent self. I am really, unspeakably appreciative of the comfortable clarity and calmness that getting older has brought. But I do sometimes feel, in a detached way, strangely admiring of that unmediated intensity of feeling: how was feeling that much, obsessing that much, even possible? Reading The Moth Diaries brought me to a troubled sense of comradeship with its narrator. The idea that the rarefied selfishness of adolescence is in some way a purer, elemental state becomes a temptation. The young woman as vampire: helplessly, reflexively appetitive; monstrous yet pure.

Relevant reading: Helen Oyeyemi’s equally Carmilla-flavored haunted-house/vampire novel White is for Witching (which I wrote about here). Oyeyemi likewise draws the connection between female vampires and disordered eating.

Relevant viewing: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Mary Harron’s 2012 film adaptation of The Moth Diaries felt dismayingly insubstantial and silly, despite strong performances by both Sarah Bolger as the protagonist (named Rebecca in the film) and Lily Cole as Ernessa. Two or three of the fantastical scenes were lovely, terrifying, and eerie; otherwise, the film is very missable.

Go to:
Rachel Klein: bio and works reviewed

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The four 2014 Hugo short story nominees are the following (click the titles to read):

I found this spread of stories disappointing, with the exception of Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” which will be receiving my vote this year. (It’ll be my and Kakaner’s first time voting for the Hugos!)

From most to least liked, here are my reactions to each of the four stories:

Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” is far and away the best-written of the four. (It’s also one of two stories this year with a queer protagonist, the other being Chu’s “The Water…”) Samatar presents a compelling voice and point-of-view, and, with a beautifully light hand, weaves folklore together with her characters’ family traumas into a taut yet elusive narrative. That playful elusiveness, and the room that it creates for narrative and interpretive possibility, reminded me of Kelly Link’s work, as did the wry distance that the narrator tries to maintain from her own pain.

I have read a lot of selkie stories; Samatar’s makes the familiar themes of loss, departure, and home-seeking feel cuttingly fresh, urgent, and necessary. I believed in her characters.

I’m now looking forward even more eagerly to reading her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a copy of which has been waiting on my bookshelf since December.

—-

Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” has fun stylistic aspirations, but Heuvelt’s prose isn’t precise enough to carry off the arch effervescence that the story aims for. I was mildly charmed and amused by its portrayal of Thai villagers busily scheming amid a wish-granting festival (somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hughart’s sly, manic style in the Master Li & Number Ten Ox series), but ultimately I felt stifled by sentiment and whimsy, and unconvinced that the story had any substantial convictions.

—–

I found John Chu’s “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” stilted and ungainly, but did feel that some of its emotional stakes came across authentically. In terms of narrative construction, I appreciate the little twist that the parents, typically the fulcrum of a coming-out story, are here rather a McGuffin. Sometimes our fear of how others will react is exactly that – a construction; sometimes we get to be beautifully surprised by the generosity of our families. As another queer Chinese-American, I have, in fact, been outrageously lucky in this way, and I feel acutely grateful to John Chu for exploring that hinge between fear and action, and fear and actuality, in a specifically Asian-American context.

That said, though some of the moments of anguish in the story feel piercingly real, from sentence to sentence I found it very difficult to take the story seriously, on account of the many lurches of adolescent language – “Watching him suffer is like being smashed to death with a hammer myself,” for example. But I very much look forward to seeing what John Chu writes in the future.

—–

Finally: Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” feels simply contrived. The story has to do the hard work of moving from its farcical title and playful opening towards a revelation intended to be devastating. My experience of it stalled in the vicinity of “farcical,” and ended at “mawkish.”

—–

Would love to hear others’ thoughts on the nominees this year, if anyone else has been doing Hugo reading!

– E

Go to:

Rachel Swirsky: bio and works reviewed
“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia,” by Rachel Swirsky (2012): review by Emera

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I just posted my review of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; one of the principal features of that book is the frequency with which other books appear in it, working as signposts, ciphers, thematic echoes, and ironic commentary. I was fascinated and delighted by this internal library, and decided to go back through after my first read to compile a reading list (with particular personal interest in Alison’s self-education as a young lesbian in the 1970’s).

Here it is! I’ve annotated some of the books with quotes or notes from the book (until I ran out of steam), and included dates where they were topical. They are listed more or less in the order in which they appear in the book.

Any corrections or additions are most welcome. Go forth and read!

READING FUN HOME

Alison’s father’s Cultured Reads

Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
Kenneth Clark – The Nude (“I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian.” Young Alison plays soldier in the background while her father reads this in the foreground.)
John Ruskin – The Stones of Venice (“But once I was unaccountably moved to kiss my father good night.” Bruce is reading this in bed.)
Rudyard Kipling – Just So Stories (“…some encounters could be quite pleasant.” Bruce reads bedtime stories to Alison.)
Albert Camus – A Happy Death (“A fitting epitaph for my parents’ marriage.” Alison finds it suggestive that Bruce was reading this shortly before his death.)
Günter Grass – The Tin Drum (Father and mother in “expatriate splendor” in West Germany after the war.)
Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby, The Far Side of Paradise (“Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade.”)
Nancy Milford – Zelda
Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Things Past
Erick Rücker Eddison – The Worm Ouroboros (“Maybe that’s what’s so unsettling about snakes.”)

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.16.14
Book from: Borrowed from C.

Alison Bechdel opens her tragicomic memoir by casting her closeted gay father as Daedalus, artificer of the labyrinth that enclosed their family’s lives, and somehow complicit in her own, Icarian “downfall” – her eventual realization that she was a lesbian. The labyrinth was for me the ideal opening image: I found Fun Home hypnotically meandering, manically meticulous in its assemblage and arrangement of cryptic, resonant details. It’s claustrophobic yet internally expansive in its explorations of space, and meaning.

Most of all, I was in awe of how deep a reader Bechdel is of her own life. I had difficulty finding words to express how moved I was by the complexity and intensity of her vision, and the anguished detachment that keeps her in abeyance to this analytic lens. “Perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.”

The last book that I read that wove together myth, history, and family with such complexity and vitality was Middlesex, which I found a thrilling read – but there’s a particularly sharp, human poignancy to Fun Home because you know that this is a real person looking back at painful, incomprehensible events – the core and substance of her own life – and making something rich, strange, and uncannily beautiful out of all of the intersections and patternings of father and daughter, family and art. It’s dark, spooky stuff – close reading as divination, intertextuality as invocation.

I identified so much with these elements of Alison’s personality: the recourse to narrative and archetype for “explanatory” patterns, the generally obsessive analytical bent. And, of course, the universal family dynamics – the struggle of a child to define herself against or around what her parents want, against what her parents represent. Here they’re shaped with particular sharpness by the fascinating inverted gender dynamics between her and her father. I’m haunted by the strangled potential of the one direct conversation that Alison had with her father, shortly after her coming out and only weeks before his death, about his homosexuality. He admits that he wanted to be a girl when he was little, that he wanted to dress up in girls’ clothes. And Alison leaps in to remind him how she always wanted boys’ clothes, hiking boots and short hair, when she was little. She does this with painful eagerness (how could he have forgotten?), hungry for the moment of identification and closeness, hungry to bring together their reflected selves to a rare point of convergence.

Artwise, I loved the often mordantly funny understatement of Bechdel’s illustrative style, its cool, reptilian composure a counterpoint to the American-Gothic perversity of the Bechdels’ lives. I did wish that the ink washes had darker darks, for more atmospheric drama in certain scenes – but obviously that’s a stylistic choice. It gives a ghostly, faded effect, appropriate to both the sense of imminent storm that never breaks, and to Bechdel’s curatorial reproductions of the numerous family artifacts that appear within. (I was so curious about all of the background details – like the fact that her brother is very specifically wearing a Frank Marshall t-shirt when the family gathers for their father’s funeral. How many of those details were recalled or researched from family photographs, and how many were invented or extrapolated based on more general period reference?)

By the end of the novel, I felt incredibly tender towards both Alison, and her father. As much damage as he did, his story is heartbreaking. I can’t help but hope that he would have found Fun Home a fitting tribute.

As my tribute to Fun Home, I’ve posted a full (and partially annotated) list of all of the books mentioned or read within its pages here.

Go to:
Alison Bechdel: bio and works reviewed

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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: 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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