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.

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