Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Poppy Z. Brite & Caitlin R. Kiernan - Wrong Things
Released in 2001 in a limited edition by Subterranean Press, Wrong Things is a collaboration between Poppy Z. Brite and Caitlin R. Kiernan, two writers of Weird and disturbing horror known for their powerful prose. The slim volume contains a story solely by each author – The Crystal Empire and Onion – and then their combined piece. All of it operates at the level of the incredibly high level each has established in their solo work.
Things kick off with Brite's The Crystal Empire, a tale that is, like the stories in Swamp Foetus/Wormtongue (which I loved but did not, alas, get a chance to review), of the purest emotions perverted and of the darkest settings. Zee, Susan, Mathew, Jenifer, and a few other scarcely named and scarcely described low lifes occupy a rundown building. Zee, our narrator, is in love with Mathew. I don't mean ordinary love, like the kind between equals, though. Their relationship is more one of supplicant to messiah. But their world is about to shatter. "Remember the way I look now," Mathew says. "Something huge is going to happen – something huger than you can conceive of, Zee. It will change me." (p. 11)
That change comes in the form of music. The band is the Isle of Man, the singer Anthony LaGuerre, a man who sings with a sound so desperate, so lovely that every hair on my body prickled in sympathy and whose voice is a waterfall jumble of notes. (p. 16) He's something that they need and want, though Zee admits that she didn't know what kind of wanting it was; whether it was wanting to make love or to talk soul-deep with LauGuerre or to shut hum up in a little jeweled box and let his voice escape when Mathew turned the key, like a golden clockwork nightingale. (ibid) LaGuerre is, if you'll pardon the cliché, too good for this world. Too perfect and too beautiful. Mathew and Zee go to him, later, and, in the story's horrific climax, either soil or free his gift.
It's rather difficult to tell where the story is going when it's in motion, but the dark atmosphere, reeking of filth and desperation from start to finish, is still more than captivating. The characters, too, are powerful. Zee's twisted out of shape by her love and need for Mathew, but that doesn't make her unrecognizable. It's her vulnerability amidst the horror that makes all of it so affecting. At the end of the story, it's hard to tell just what, if anything, has indeed changed, and that's despite the tumult, violence, and death of the ending.
Kiernan's Onion, though, is the masterpiece of the collection. It is the aftermath of a Weird Tale. Think back to Lovecraft. In stories like The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness, he showed us ordinary men who saw behind the veil, saw their own insignificance and the incomprehensible and impossible nature of the universe, and that's where we closed, with that apocalyptic revelation. But Onion takes place years, even decades, afterwards, a story set in the shattered remnants of sanity. Frank and Willa are two such visionaries. It's clear from what we see that they truly do care for each other from what we see, but, nonetheless, Frank can't even remember the last time he saw "her smile, really smile, not just a smirk or a sneer." (pp. 70-1) The two work at soul crushing, dead end jobs. Though they decided to quit before the story's start, Willa is smoking again, now running low on cigarettes and money, on health and will.
Trying to cope, those who've seen and those who know hold meetings where they eat stale donuts, drink bitter coffee, and try in vain to make "sense" (p. 68) of what's happened to them. The meetings, needless to say, accomplish nothing. It's obvious throughout this slow slide from mania to something worse, something unimaginable that such experiences can destroy, but it's not obvious until the very end that they might also be defining, that, just maybe, a hint of something more – no matter how cataclysmic that hint or how awful that more – might be all that makes life worth living.
Of course, Kiernan is not Lovecraft but for the place she starts her story. First, there's the question of demographics. In Lovecraft's The Statement of Randolph Carter, it's two educated and erudite men that find the staircase waiting within the tomb, a scientist and an occultist that disappears down. The same stairs are found in one character's inexplicable experience here in Onion, but the two characters are young girls, not seeking knowledge but rather escaping the confines of home and looking for a smoke. The biggest difference, though, is certainly the prose. Kiernan's writing is rich and lush, dark and twisting, and, above all, alive, close to home, sweaty and virulent. It's excellent when describing the weird, but is no less so when making the ordinary alien, as when a subway ride is described as: Rumbling along through the honeycombed earth, the diesel and dust and garbage-scented darkness, and him swaddled inside steel and unsteady fluorescent light. (p. 77) Tied with that is Kiernan's constant tendency for oddities in phrasing and structure, little things that keep the reader perpetually off balance like a surfeit of fragrant or combined words like "raincool" or "angrysharp," (p. 68) a tactic that could surely be ruinously distracting in lesser hands but is just another part of Kiernan's spell here.
And so we come to The Rest of the Wrong Things, the collaborative piece, set in Brite's setting The Missing Mile. The story's opening switches between two scenes, one of which shows our main characters – Terry, Vic, and a girl whose name we learn is Tyler – at the vandalized Sacred Yew. Amidst the scrawled swastikas, the characters speculate on what outsiders might have done this until Tyler says: "Well, that's what everyone always wants to believe, isn't it? […] The bad shit always comes from somewhere else. From outside us. outside our world. at least, that's what we'd like to think. That's why Dracula has always been so much more popular than Jekyll and Hyde. But werewolves are a lot scarier than vampires, even if no one wants to admit it. (p. 103) Sounds like a set up for a story that shows us that we're really the monsters, or that they're among us, or something like that, right? Not at all. If that – quite good – quotation's any thematic or plot-based connection to the rest of the story, I just don't see it.
But none of that matters once we get to the Mill, scarred by fire and now inhabited by something strange and foreign, something profoundly other. Their descent into it is an exercise in, as Kiernan puts it in the collection's afterword, "urban archaeology," a vividly described and pitch black maze of rusted machinery and decay. And, waiting at the bottom, is the entity itself, something maybe even risen from that so-damaging flame. As Tyler says: Sometimes things pass too close to us. […] Things from other places. Machineries of blood and starlight. Wrong things. (p. 107) Our three protagonists venture to very edge of that other reality, and then Terry and Vic fall back, disoriented and disturbed, while Tyler advances forward and is gone. At the end of the action, those that're left stumble out to the silent, brooding hulk of the Central Carolina Cotton Mill and the indifferent carpet of stars spread out overhead. (p. 114) In the course of the tale, Tyler, and then Terry, each say a quotation from Alice in Wonderland: "Down, down, down […] I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time? I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth…" (p. 112) It doesn't matter that, come the end, Terry and Vic have survived and will not be troubled again. They've been forever altered by what they've seen and experienced.
In the aforementioned afterword, Kiernan says that the role of The Rest of the Wrong Things in the collection is "more a starting point than a centerpiece." (p. 129) As such, I can't help but make connections. In that final tale, we're told that: One dry, onionskin layer of the night peeled back and this is what was buried underneath. (p. 100) Is that what this is, the story a close up and in-depth manifestation of the extra dimensional and life-altering experiences of Onion? It's certainly true, after all, that each of the stories manages to show us something other, something outside ourselves and absolutely awful, even if Brite manages to show us her Wrong Thing without ever needing to depart the confines of our reality and emotions. In any case, regardless of interpretations, this collection is fantastic. The second piece is my personal favorite, but there is not one of these that isn’t filled with mood, feeling, style, mastery, and, as Terry says at one point, "weird shit." (p. 98) Highly recommended.