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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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