Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Ammonite Violin & Others
Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of our foremost writers of dark, unsettling fiction, often with a supernatural element. In the complexity of her approaches and the tactile ways in which she makes the unreal seem real simple labels don't apply. Southern Gothic? Yes and no. Horror? Maybe, sometimes. Part of a larger tradition of questioning the unknowable? Absolutely.
Now this brilliant writer has a new collection out from Subterranean Press, The Ammonite Violin & Others, which Booklist called, "Brilliantly crafted, tightly woven, and memorable." The cover of the book was also recently featured on the cover of Publishers Weekly.
I was honored to be asked to contribute an introduction, part of which is reproduced below. I highly recommend picking up the collection.
Some writers cannot help themselves. Some writers, by the sheer complexity and reach of their imaginations will always be somewhat unclassifiable. For this reason, it’s their view of the world we value, not the category in which a publisher places them. These are the writers who create what they find to be perfectly normal, only to be told it is strange. Such writers I value the most, for they are sui generis. Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of these writers, and in The Ammonite Violin & Others she goes to very strange places, indeed.
In effect, she has created a collection that positions supernatural elements of myth and folktale in a place far more primal than even their original context. In a radical move that no doubt came to her as naturally as a dolphin takes to swimming, Kiernan has managed, through texture and point of view, to show us the reality of these archetypes.
Angela Carter reclaimed iconic stories for feminism, but still used her lush prose in a stylized way that mimicked the flatness of tales, which are generally two-dimensional compared to short stories. Kiernan has accomplished something much more subversive—hers is a kind of dirty, modern lyricism. Like many of the Decadents, her prose is, yes, lush, but it’s also muscular, allows for psychologically three-dimensional portraits of her characters, and has the flexibility to be blunt, even shocking. Mermaids, selkies, vampires, and fairies all make appearances in this collection. However, the method of description and storytelling creates a sheer physicality and alien quality to the context for these creatures that both humanizes them—in the sense of making them real, if not always understandable—and makes it impossible to see them—so often the case when writers describe “monsters”—as just people in disguise or as caricatures we can dismiss because they exist solely for our passing frisson of unease or terror.
Part of this authenticity—part of the reason I find them disturbing—comes from the simple fact that the people in these stories don’t really survive their encounter with the supernatural. Whether in, among others, “Madonna Littoralis” or the two “Metamorphosis” stories, this inability to survive can be literal or figurative, or both—and it occurs because the supernatural isn’t so much something terrifying in Kiernan’s view—it can be, but that’s not the true point. The supernatural to Kiernan is also something beautiful and unknowable in intent, and often wedded to the natural world. In a sense, trying to know something unknowable will always destroy the seeker.
In almost all of these stories, too, the characters seem to encounter the supernatural as part of a need for connection, even if the thing they connect with is Other and will be the death of them. And, once the connection is made, the implications of that passing over, are never what they might have seemed to be before the crossing.
Kiernan also discards the typical plots that you see in fantasy or supernatural fiction. There are few twists here, little action in the conventional sense. Such artifice would form a barrier to getting at truths about the relationships in these stories, some of which form intricate snapshots of dysfunction and the attempt to communicate (underscoring that even in normal human relationships, we are all encased in our separate skulls and, ultimately, unknowable).
Caitlin R. Kiernan creates her own light in this remarkable collection, and shines it on dark places. In doing so, she gives us gritty, lyrical, horrible, beautiful truths.