Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Caitlin R. Kiernan's Two Worlds and In Between

Two Worlds and In Between is an absolutely massive collection, as befits the author. Kiernan is, in my opinion, one of the premier talents of modern dark fiction, and a career overview such as this is long overdue. Unfortunately, many of her previous collections are rather hard to find, so this definitely fills a need in the market.

The book is divided into two sections: early work (1993-1999) and later (2000-2004). It may go without saying that the second half of the book is the superior, but Kiernan's early material really only suffers in comparison to her own later work. I'd definitely recommend reading all the pieces in order, as I think it gives a really good idea of how Kiernan has grown as a talent.

Part 1, although it's definitely the work of an author still finding her voice, features some very interesting work. "Rats Live On No Evil Star" (don't you love that title?) and "Postcards From the King of Tides", in particular, are outstanding. Some of the other early tales don't hold up as well. "Emptiness Spoke Eloquent" feels to me (as Kiernan herself mentions in her afterword) like the work of an author who wants to write something more powerful than her ability can currently convey. Many of the other stories in Part 1 suffer from the same difficulties. Again, I'm definitely not saying these are bad stories, they just feel a bit undercooked. [Side note: "Tears Seven Times Salt", which I read in 1998 or so, was my first exposure to Kiernan's fiction. While I was very impressed at the time, and felt that I was witnessing the coming of a major talent, the story doesn't seem as transfixing fourteen years later.]

And now for Part 2, where the real pleasure of this collection resides. This half of the book could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with classics like Klein's Dark Gods or Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer. The stories contained herein are uniformly dark, rich and powerful works, in which Kiernan displays a masterful command of style and language. I could wax rhapsodic about any number of these selections (and frequently do, given half a chance), but in the interest of brevity, I'll confine my most glowing praise to those I feel are the best. "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" is, along with most of the fiction in Part 2, a modern Lovecraftian tale written with a careful eye for nuance and atmosphere. The Dry Salvages is a short science fiction novel which builds on the themes of the earlier "Riding the White Bull" to deliver a chilling tale of first contact. I was thrilled to be able to finally read this book, as I'd never been able to find a copy when it was published earlier. I was not disappointed at all.

The final story in this collection, "Houses Under the Sea" is also its crowning jewel. It is without a doubt one of the finest works of dark fiction I've ever had the pleasure to experience. The story touches on the themes of lost love, damaged psyches and cosmic horror wrapped in the post-mortem account of a suicidal cult. You owe it to yourself to read this one.

I really cannot recommend this collection highly enough. The stories themselves are nearly all fantastic, and the chance to witness Kiernan's growth as an artist and prose stylist is fascinating. If you are at all a fan of modern horror or dark fantasy and haven't been acquainted with Kiernan's work already, you simply must read this book.

Friday, March 23, 2012

An update, and a new review: Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year, Volume 3

No, surprisingly enough, I haven't forgotten about this blog. I'd love to say that I've been busy doing important things at work, but the sad truth is that my time has been far too occupied with Skyrim lately. At any rate, I've written a new review for today! Enjoy!

Datlow has returned with her annual collection, and as usual, those who share similar tastes will be pleased. I personally don't feel this volume was as strong as the two previous, but there are several very strong tales here that literary horror fans shouldn't miss. There's quite a bit of overlap with Stephen Jones's Mammoth book this year, which is unfortunate. I've omitted duplicate reviews. I'll do a brief rundown of each story herein:

"At the Riding School" by Cody Goodfellow: I felt this was a weak beginning to the collection, with a rather predictable plot involving an exclusive school for girls. However, the characterization was strong.

"Mr. Pigsny" by Reggie Oliver: Much more to my taste than the previous, "Mr. Pigsny" is a classical weird tale after the style of M.R. James or Robert Aickman, but with gangsters (!). This should come as no surprise to readers of Oliver's posthumous collaboration with James, "The Game of Bear." Recommended.

 "--30--" by Laird Barron: The absolute high point of the collection. Barron's voice has only grown stronger as time passes, and this story is possibly his most accomplished work to date. A tale of a broken relationship, isolation, and possible supernatural occurrences in the high desert. This is a marvel, and every dark fiction reader owes it to themselves to witness it firsthand.

 "Was She Wicked? Was She Good?" by M. Rickert: An unusual and disturbing story about the stress of parenting, childhood cruelty (or possibly something deeper, and darker) and the Fair Folk. Fantastically evocative prose, with one of the best opening lines I've read in years.

"The Fear" by Richard Harland: A group of film fans investigates a famed director-turned-hermit's lost work from the 60s. Goes off the rails a bit at the end, but the subject matter of lost, strange cinema is fascinating.

"Till the Morning Comes" by Stephen Graham Jones: This rather nostalgic and sentimental tale manages to be both bleak and life-affirming. It sounds contradictory, but somehow, it works.

"Shomer" by Glen Hirshberg: I've always found Hirshberg to be underwhelming, and this story is no exception. However, it did introduce me to the Jewish custom of Shomer, which I found to be very interesting, so it wasn't a total loss.

 "The Obscure Bird" by Nicholas Royle: Royle delivers another cryptic tale of obsession and familial discord, this time focusing on owls. Yes, owls. The final passage is extraordinarily tense and frightening.

"Transfiguration" by Richard Christian Matheson: This is and unusual work for Matheson, in that it's more than two pages long. It's the sad tale of a psychopathic truck driver with a keen religious obsession, and the landscape he moves within. The northern Alaska setting is one not often explored in horror, and the landscape conveys a sense of isolation and bleak despair. A powerful work.

"The Days of Flaming Motorcycles" by Catherynne Valente: Another zombie story (Can this fad end now? Please?), although this one is saved by Valente's lovely prose and the unusual portrayal of the "zombies."

"The Folding Man" by Joe R. Lansdale: Lansdale always delivers, and this story of extremely creepy and unsettling nuns, and the pseudo-mechanical horror they unleash on a carload of pranksters, is a high point of this book. There is some truly gruesome and disturbing imagery found within this work.

"Just Another Desert Night With Blood" by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr: Prose poem about a maniac, or some such. Not to my taste at all.

"Black and White Sky" by Tanith Lee: A mysterious story about a plague of magpies that blankets Britain, and how people eventually come to live with it. Lee's work is always a joy to read, and while this is not my favorite of her stories, it is a pleasure.

"At Night, When the Demons Come" by Ray Cluley: Another tale of a demonic apocalypse, although this one is distinguished from "Lesser Demons" by its unrelentingly grim tone and horrifyingly nihilistic conclusion. It's less about the external horrors that cause the end of civilization than it is about the profound darkness dwelling in the depths of every human heart.

"The Revel" by John Langan: It's rare for the same author to get two stories in the same Best-Of, but Langan was certainly deserving. As good as "City of the Dog" is, "The Revel" is better. While dealing with similar premises, the two stories differ in their approach. "The Revel" is nearly meta-fiction, with its cinematic language (even going so far as to describe camera angles) and direct implication of the reader as a willing accomplice in horror. Fantastic work here. If he keeps up with work of this quality, I really feel that Langan may be mention in the same breath as giants like King and Barker someday.