For the past few years, internet literary critics of fantasy/supernatural novels have been raving about about a writer of “punk rock prose” named Caitlin Kiernan. The praise has been excessive, comparing her to H. P. Lovecraft, Poe and Clive Barker. However, if the endorsements of Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and Garrison Keillor (no kidding!) should move you to find one of her seven novels — and if you live in a small town in Western North Carolina — you may have a problem. Neither the libraries nor the bookstores stock “the poet and bard of the wasted lost.” There is a reason for that.
Kiernan’s work certainly falls within the boundaries of what is called horror, fantasy and the supernatural — but these are classifications that the author steadfastly rejects. She has a point. Although the novel Silk is packed with otherworldly creatures that live by night, imbibe a mix of pot, mushrooms, Ramen noodles and bourbon while exhibiting sexual behavior that is, by mainstream standards, “aberrant,” the cast of characters are quite definitely ... human. They are young, homeless and frequently mentally unstable. Although some are gifted, they are invariably impaired in some fatal or tragic manner. All of them are painfully alienated and lonely creatures, who, in order to survive, huddle together, attempting to create “families.” Often living in unheated tenement slums, they emerge at night, to congregate in back-alley nightspots with names like Dr. Jekyll, the Cave or Dante’s where drug addicts and acid-head musicians and prostitutes dance and drink and make out until daylight.
Mainstream America is horrified by Kiernan’s world (Silk is set in drab and bleak slums of Birmingham, Ala.), and if morbid curiosity tempts the average reader to sample a few pages in something like Daughter of Hounds, they will probably close the book as though they feared contamination or infection and quickly return it to the shelf.
Such reactions delight Kiernan, who notes that she does not write for “the office monkeys” — her contemptuous label for people who live a 9 to 5 existence in a “politically correct” world. Kiernan’s protagonists flip burgers, wash dishes in coffeehouses, work in garages, peddle drugs or eke out a minimal existence in the uncertain world of music (punk rock, goth, grrrl, etc.) and outsider art. Kiernan captures their world with a grim and gritty prose that frequently has a dark and lyric beauty — especially the dialogue which has been called “poetically nasty.”
The characters are unforgettable: Daria Parker is an intense, chain-smoking young woman who dyes her hair with cherry Koolaid and works in the Fidgety Bean, a local coffeehouse, using her wages to keep her band, Stiff Kitten, up and running. Her lover, Keith Barry is a talented musician with a hopeless drug addiction. Spyder Baxter functions as a kind of den mother for a dozen wrecked and lost outcasts (lesbians, transsexuals and drug addicts) who gather each night in her ramshackle house to listen as Spyder weave dark stories about fallen angels and ... spiders (a topic that she knows a great deal about). Niki Ky, a haunted young Vietnamese fleeing from the memory of a suicidal lover, finds herself in Birmingham where she first befriends Daria, but finds herself drawn to white-haired Spyder and her court of “shrikes.”
Although there are terrifying scenes in Silk, scenes in which Kiernan’s characters find themselves at the mercy of a nameless evil that skitters through the dark alleys of Birmingham, thumps on the walls (and whispers in Spyder’s basement), it is finally an evil that originates in the tormented minds of Spyder and her followers. A foolish, drug-induced ritual in Spyder’s basement (lots of mushrooms and an occult mantra) leaves the participants haunted by the belief that they had summonsed “something” and now it follows them relentlessly.
Despite all of its bleakness and obscenity, Silk contains descriptive passages that glow and pulse with sensory details: a thunderous and nightmarish band festival in Atlanta in which the Stiff Kitten performs (and fails) is especially notable. Then, the massive snowfall that buries Birmingham during the novel’s conclusion reads like a frozen tableau in Hell. She may be “nasty,” but this weird woman can write!
Kiernan’s latest novel, The Red Tree, chronicles the psychological disintegration of a single character named Sarah Crowe, an author, who flees a wrecked life in Atlanta and rents the Wight Farm in rural Rhode Island in order to complete her latest novel. The farm turns out to be the infamous site of supernatural events dating back 300 years, including demonic possessions, suicides and human sacrifice. When Sarah discovers a battered manuscript in the basement — a kind of journal composed by the last occupant of the house, Dr. Charles Harvey — a renter who committed suicide, she becomes obsessed with the manuscript, especially after reading about “the red tree” which is located a short distance from the house. Eventually, she gives up all pretense of completing her novel and devotes all of her time researching the history of the great oak, which has played a prominent role in the region’s occult history.
When an artist named Constance Hopkins rents the attic of the house, Sarah gains both a roommate and a lover. However, in time, the two women begin to bicker. Both develop a dread of the “red tree,” and begin to suspect that they are helpless pawns of the tree. Attempts to visit the tree turn into nightmarish treks (It takes you hours to walk a few hundred feet, and even a longer time to return to the house). As Sarah continues to read the manuscript, (which she shares with Constance), this novel gradually turns into a terrifying story of compulsive possession. Eventually, Sarah comes to doubt the world around her, a doubt that is substantiated when she visits Constance in the attic and discovers that no one lives there.
The Red Tree takes the form of a journal in which Sarah Crowe provides a daily record of events. After Sarah discovers the manuscript in the basement, she begins to record passages from it. As a consequence, Sarah’s journal is interspersed with passages that were typed on a manual Royal typewriter with a worn ribbon. Like the faulty typewriter in Stephen King’s Misery, these typed passages (just as they appear in the original manuscript) give the narrative a disturbing quality.
Caitlin Kiernan’s novels give abundant evidence of the author’s impressive research and learning. Within a single chapter, the reader may find references to sources as varied as Seneca, Nina Simone, Thoreau, Tom Waits, Joseph Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft. Kiernan often wields her impressive learning like a bludgeon and seems to take considerable satisfaction in doing so. The reader may feel both taunted and intimidated by this amazing author. However, discerning readers will probably forgive this author for her occasional outbursts of unabashed arrogance and vulgarity. Caitlin Kiernan has a rare talent.
Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan. RoC Books, 2002. 353 pages.
The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. New American Library, 2009. 385 pages