Friday, May 6, 2011

Caitlin R. Kiernan - The Ammonite Violin & Others

In the dream, I'm standing alone on the little stone bridge, standing there stark naked, and the park is washed in the light of a moon that is either full or very near to full. I have no recollection of getting out of bed, or of having left the house, or of the short walk down to the bridge. I'm cold, and I wonder why I didn't at least think to wear my robe and slippers. I'm holding the bridle from the trunk, which is always much heavier than I remember it being. Something's moving in the water, and I want to turn away. Always, I want to turn away, and when I look down I see that the drowned boy floating in the water smiles up at me and laughs. Then he sinks below the surface, or something unseen pulls him down, and that's when I see the girl, standing up for out near the center of the pool, bathing in one of the fountains. (p. 33)

The Ammonite Violin & Others is a collection of crystallized longing. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s characters are people filled with desires and loneliness and lust, and their dreams are as decadent as they are magnificent. These are stories so emotional that they are often agonizing to read, tales made of as much desperate hope as tortured despair.

Kiernan’s writing is not easily digestible. Hers are tales woven of tightly knotted imagery and internal monologues, dense tales either utterly unaware that they are being told or obsessed with the obfuscation of their own creation. Easy dialogue is almost nonexistent, here. When conversation does play a major role, it’s often through shifting viewpoints and timelines, through second person tales told to both a lover and a demon while tenses shift.

The title story – my favorite of the collection – exemplifies every one of Kiernan’s elements, even if no part of it is directly supernatural. A collector of ammonites and strangled women melds his two passions – the beautiful and the horrific – into a single perfect instrument and invites a struggling virtuoso to come to his secluded seaside home and play it for him. The music created is spellbinding – a typhoon gale flaying rocky shores to gravel and sand, and the violinist lets it spin and rage… (p. 101) – and the tale’s mixture of the beautiful and the grotesque is nothing short of devastating.

It’s the two Metamorphosis tales – A and B – that are probably the collection’s heart laid bare. Metamorphosis A shows us two distant lovers. One watches, unable to take the next step, while the other reaches out and transforms into something either far greater or far lesser than what they were. The transformation is revolting, and yet it is voluntary. It’s something lusted after, something desired, something needed. It fills a primal and erotic need, and it’s the only thing that can bring the two lovers together.

Metamorphosis B, on the other hand, happens after a character has been changed, after a mermaid has been taken from the sea by a sailor’s lust. In many ways, Metamorphosis B shows the long after consequences of Metamorphosis A, even if the transformations and characters of the two tales are, on the surface, unrelated. B brings forth the darkness inherent in such relationships, the resentment and hatred built up by the imposed change of interaction, the after effects of a love so dark and twisted, so – perhaps – necessary.

The Lovesong of Lady Ratteanrufer brings us to the edge of society. A woman lives at the edge of the river, forgotten and abandoned by the world. Her only companion is the rats, the rats that waited huddled together in the void, the endless nowhere place where there were not yet stars or planets or gods or angels, but only the nothingness before creation and only the rats. (p. 103) Alone with herself and the rats, she becomes their greatest ally, and yet she can do nothing as men destroy them. For One Who Has Lost Herself follows a similar path despite its different circumstances and tone. The narrator is a seal who has lost her skin. Her skin, the core of her being, waits for her at a shop across the street, but she can do nothing but watch it from the other side while, day after day, people jostle by oblivious. When she finally does cross, when she finally does enter the store to reclaim her soul, she learns that the center of her world is irrelevant to those around her. Her most precious position is detritus at the core of a donated chest, unimportant. Amidst such civilized surroundings, her quest for herself seems bizarre and, perhaps, even dangerous.

Many of Kiernan’s stories bring to mind another writer I’ve mentioned often enough on here, Thomas Ligotti. The dense imagery of the two writers is similar at times, and the despair rampant in many of Kiernan’s conclusions is certainly another similarity. That being said, Kiernan reaches those depressive depths (when she chooses to) through very different means.

Ligotti shows us a world where connecting to one’s fellow beings is impossible. Kiernan, on the other hand, is all about those connections and their costs, all about humanity distorted due to its need for companionship. The similarities are perhaps most prevalent in The Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection, a tale of someone journeying beyond and the costs and ramifications of doing so. The Voyeur in the House of Glass, too, is an interesting counterpoint to Ligotti’s work. In the story, a man desperate to plumb the depths of interaction leaps from vision after vision of humanity without truly connecting with any of them. The man’s quest is a carnival exhibit, and his dreams are exploited by showmen even as we experience them. It’s a testament to Kiernan’s skill that a story with almost no plot or character change can be so engrossing, and it does so through some of the most potent imagery and vivid scenes in a collection resplendent with potent imagery and vivid scenes:

The girl lies at the edge of the sea. She is not a mermaid, not yet, but this very morning she has come upon the oily carcass of a tiger shark, nine feet snout to tail, stranded in the seaweed and sand and shell litter. All she has ever wanted, this girl, a strong heterocercal tail, pectoral and anal and pelvic fins to carry her down into abyssal gloom that she might finally take her place in Neptune's lightless halls. She's hacked away the head and jaws a few inches above the gill slits and buries it in the dunes. Then she returns to the shark and slips herself inside, wriggling unwanted legs deep into the slimy, decaying gullet of the monster fish, burying herself to the hips. And with an upholstery needle and fine silk thread she begins to stitch herself to the dead shark, sewing her own pale, insufficient flesh to its sturdy predator's trunk. (p. 143)

You’ve no doubt noticed many similarities in my summaries of these stories. That’s not (or at least, not wholly) from my own stunted ability to summarize. Images and motifs reappear in tale after tale, reinforcing the collection’s dreamlike feel. Many of these stories seem like prior tales glimpsed from a different angle, and yet those often feel wildly disparate while seemingly unrelated tales course through the same emotional channels. Characters across the collection have needle-filed teeth or perfect ivory triangles of feldspathic porcelain, saw-toothed carinae (p. 159) bestowed by dental students and others, and circles and enveloping seas crop up again and again, recurring to permeate our imaginations with their power.

Unfortunately, the same repetition that strengthens the collection’s most remarkable stories can make the weaker tales blend together. There’s no story here that can be considered a failure, or anything even approaching a sane definition of a failure, but some don’t succeed in leaving nearly as much of a mark upon the reader as others. This is, perhaps, a result of the format. Everything in the collection was written to appear, two stories at a time, in Kiernan’s monthly fiction journal, the Sirenia Digest. When compiled, the similarities can, at times, impair an individual tale’s chance to stand on its own.

The Ammonite Violin & Others is a collection to be savored and examined, not quickly devoured. These stories are almost never easy to digest, but they are almost always worthwhile. Caitlin R. Kiernan has the ability to take her readers into the darkest of places, and, when the last page is turned, the reader gets to discover that leaving those places is far more sorrowful than entering them.

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