With Caitlín R. Kiernan’s new novella, Agents of Dreamland, available February 28, it seems like the perfect time to look back on the long career of one of dark fantasy’s most acclaimed authors.
To date myself and the author, Kiernan’s distinctive, razor-sharp prose has been thrilling me since about 1995, when I would obsessively refresh the GeoCities site she shared with fellow horror “Furies” Poppy Z. Brite and Christa Faust. I bought her first chapbook, Candles for Elizabeth, in my local Hot Topic. It’s probably the only thing from a ’90s-era Hot Topic that doesn’t embarrass me now.
Born in Dublin, Kiernan spent most of her childhood in Alabama before authoring ten novels, numerous graphic novels, and over two hundred short stories, flash pieces, and novellas. Her work combines a heavy dose of Southern gothic tradition with Lovecraftian otherworldliness and an appreciation for the scientific and the erotic in equal measure.
These five choices were very difficult to narrow down—particularly when there are so many short story collections to choose from—and are presented in order by publication date.
Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000)
Are these early stories as technically well-written as the ones featured in more recent collections including The Ape’s Wife? Well, no. But they were the first I read, and the damaged, dangerous cast of characters contained within have stuck with me for decades. Also cool about this particular collection? The stories were presented with an alternate chronology that arranged them according to their internal timeline vs. their publication dates. This highlighted that many of the stories in this collection are connected in ways obvious and arcane, with many of the characters making repeat appearances, like Jimmy DeSade and his lover Salmagundi Desverine, doomed to be the Snow White of an industrial junkyard in “Glass Coffin,” very reminiscent of Kathe Koja’s thriller Skin. There’s a shackled angel, a tentacled horror, and a band of squatters in New York’s Museum of Natural History, in the standout “The Last Child of Lir.” Irish gothic imagery is heavy here, as is goth rock imagery. These characters felt real enough to make a sad teenager wonder if their pain, too, could transcend into something wondrous and terrible.
In Kiernan’s second novel, a group of friends are put on a path towards traumatic cosmic horror that coincides with the discovery of an unearthly, trilobite-like fossil by paleontologist Chance Matthews and the appearance of a disturbed albino girl named Dancy Flammarion, who says she was raised to hunt monsters and destined to do so with Chance and Chance’s psychic ex-boyfriend, Deke Silvey. Chance’s skepticism and science background is constantly at odds with the mounting evidence of terrors from deep time and are given an authenticity that should come at little surprise: Kiernan herself studied vertebrate paleontology while at the University of Alabama. There are two more novels in this series, Low Red Moon and Daughter of Hounds, the latter hinging on Deacon and Chance’s daughter. But Threshold‘s biggest legacy is Dancy Flammarion, who would become an important recurring figure in several short stories and graphic novels.
The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (2012)
James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning, semi-autobiographical novel is a must-read in Kiernan’s canon. Managing, just barely, to medicate her schizophrenia, India Morgan Phelps, aka Imp, becomes obsessed with an 18th-century painting and a girl named Eva, who might be a muse, a mermaid, might be feral, might be a ghost, or might be another delusion of Imp’s damaged mind. When Eva vanishes, Imp spirals into a search for the truth that costs her her relationship with her girlfriend Abalyn and careens towards an ending that is beautiful and bewildering. Exorcising her demons through writing in her diary, Imp learns that answers are in short supply and besides the point when greater questions about perception, art, and mental illness are there to be asked in this astounding and dark fantasy.
Alabaster: Wolves (2013)
One of Kiernan’s earliest short stories was featured in The Sandman: Book of Dreams anthology, which was so well-received by Neil Gaiman that Kiernan landed a gig writing a Sandman spinoff series called The Dreaming and a Death of the Endless story, The Girl Who Would Be Death. While Kiernan’s darker take on Gaiman’s universe is worth seeking out, Alabaster is Kiernan’s first graphic novel series featuring an original creation—monster-slayer Dancy Flammarion. Dancy is less Buffy Summers, more Joan of Arc. Guided by a seraph, or just plain mad, Dancy traverses the dark places in the world and must decide if she is a weapon or a pawn in some greater game of evil.
The Ape’s Wife is a menagerie of genres. There is urban fantasy, epic fantasy, supernatural noir in the wry “The Maltese Unicorn,” steampunk beauty in “The Steam Dancer (1896),” and the queer retelling of Beowulf in “The Sea Troll’s Daughter.” Many stories spiral out into open-ended questions Kiernan continues to ask, a continued fascination with pain and wonder, yes, but also an examination of humanity’s place against the unknowable—which is sometimes no place at all.
The title story of this World Fantasy Award-winning collection is told from the perspective of Ann Darrow, the blonde who so fascinated Kong. “History is a steamroller. History is war,” she thinks on a bench in the American Museum of Natural History, looking at the mounted skeleton of the Eighth Wonder of the World, after the great ape’s great fall. Where Ann ends up after Skull Island is a powerful, poignant meditation on monsters and myth.
Why not just make things a bit easier and go for Subterranean Press’ two-volume The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan? Well, if you can find the gorgeous hardcovers in a used book store, that is. Both volumes are very sold out. You also can’t go wrong with the collection To Charles Fort, With Love, which features the award-winning story “A Redress for Andromeda,” part of Kiernan’s Dandridge Cycle. The Red Tree is a particularly nightmarish and self-referential novel about a writer, a tree with a dark history, and madness. You might also want to check out the forthcoming Dear Sweet Filthy World, her latest fiction collection featuring, for the first time, rare stories only available to subscribers of the author’s own zine, Sirenia Digest.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing, Den of Geek, and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. She’s a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ workshop. Follow her on Twitter.