Caitlin R. Kiernan, Dark Fantasy with a Real Voice

The Drowning Girl trade paperback cover

… the world is filled with sirens. There’s always a siren, singing you to a shipwreck.

The last time I went to the library, I did something I haven’t done in a while. I just wandered through the stacks a little and looked, or felt, or whatever it is that happens when I sometimes stumble onto something that I don’t know I’m looking for. This time I struck gold. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl (a novel) was shelved at eye level on the end, right next to Two Worlds and In Between Volume 1 (a collection of short stories). I grabbed both after just a short review, and went to lunch, where I immediately became engrossed in Kiernan’s novel within the first few pages.

Kiernan’s character, India Morgan Phelps (Imp to her friends), comes from a family with a history of mental disorders. Her mother was schizophrenic, and both her mother and grandmother committed suicide. Imp also has some psychological issues, and takes a variety of prescriptions (which she discusses as male –“the Messiers”). The book takes the form of a memoir that Imp is writing while trying to work through recent life events that have left a tangle of confusion. Her chance meeting on a moonlit road with a naked woman, Eva Canning, becomes tied up in several obsessions that she deals with — a painting called The Drowning Girl, the fairy tales “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Little Mermaid”, a disturbing display by artist Charles Perrault, and the mythical sirens. About half way through this book, I had to stop for a day or so. Kiernan definitely hit a nerve with me regarding some of Imp’s obsessions with the number 7 and counting, as well as her fixation on the painting and stories to the point of collecting files of information on them. Everything is a bit too close, too realistic.

Soon, Eva Canning becomes the focal point of Imp’s obsessions, and she believes she has The Drowning Girl picture imaginedmet a true siren, because she absolutely cannot get Eva, or the words Eva whispered to her, out of her mind. But, is Eva a siren or a wolf? In Imp’s mind, she met Eva for the first time twice: once on a warm July evening (wet and close to drowning), and once on a snowy November night (wolflike with golden eyes). Imp has a fully constructed narrative for each meeting, and trying to suss out which of these are true, or whether somehow both are true, takes up much of her mental efforts.

Imp writes what she thinks, and often the other, more sane Imp, breaks in as she tries to struggle through her attempt at figuring out what is really happening to her. Kiernan’s prose is at times simple, eloquent, and exemplary of a true schizoid break as her character thinks deeply about things, and I was especially struck by insights that she voiced, insights that I realized I had also felt but never realized until then. For example, while considering her memories of “Little Red Riding Hood”:

I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf. So, I suppose I saw it as a werewolf. When I was older, and read a book about wolves and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen a wolf in my mind’s eye made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves. Especially if you are a wolf, or a little girl.

Her grasp of the horrific is greatest when she allows the most disjointed part of her mind to speak, in a chapter where her version of what has happened and her attempt to get a grip on who — or what — Eva was, is painfully allowed to pour out:

And I can still smell Eva crouched on the raw dirt above me, pissing, shitting wolf lady, and she raises her head, throws back her head, wishing there was a full moon that night, howling anyway. I think, howling because there wasn’t the moon, her faithful brutal sweet rapist. Her rapacious satellite. Her tidal puller. Pray you, love, remember, how could you use a poor maiden so?

Imp’s suffering is what creates the pull of this book. Her inability to determine what is real and what is just a creation of her poor, damaged mind. In the end, our narrator is unreliable, not only for us but for herself, and while there is a facsimile of resolution at the end of the book, neither Imp or the reader is allowed to walk away with it completely tied up in a neat package. There is always a shadow of doubt.

Two Worlds and In Between book coverKiernan’s collection of stories, Two Worlds and In Between, promises to be just as addictive for me. The stories span her career, and she has included short notes after each. However, her introduction to the collection, where she discusses what her stories mean to her, what writing means to her, is some of the most beautiful, dark writing I have ever read:

I wasn’t always a storyteller. I was something else and someone else before, and then there were a number of years as surely amounting to apocalypse as any seven shattered seals or blaring trumpets, a tumult of private war and famine, earthquakes and locusts and poisoned rivers. Becoming a storyteller was a necessary reinvention of myself from the ashes of who I was and who I might have been. In the aftermath, it’s what was left to me, and somehow, somewhy, I decided it was better than lying down and dying. One age ended and the next began, and in the new age I was a storyteller.

I, for one, am very glad that Kiernan’s storytelling age began, and I look forward to all the new paths for stories and nuances of voices that we can expect to hear from her.

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Oh, Phantasm, Why Do I Love You So Much?

I have been having a love affair with the Phantasm franchise for probably more than 20 years now. It started out innocently enough, just another horror movie that I hadn’t ever seen before, and then, of course, the two sequels — Phantasm II (1988) and Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) — followed later by what appears to be the final chapter, Phantasm IV : Oblivion (1998). The original came out in 1979, and I have no idea how long after that it actually was until I saw it, but I immediately fell in love with the flying silver orb, whizzing along the hallways with that supersonic keening sound, just dying to chunk itself into someone’s forehead so it could churn out that gout of blood. Whoever came up with the orb really added something to the horror movie culture!

Phantasm's crazy silver orb
(Photo from DVDActive.com)

And, I was young enough to have a huge crush on Michael — he was so cool. Riding his motorbike in the cemetery, driving that black muscle car around and knowing how to work on it. (Seriously, Jody, your younger brother is the one fixing your car?).

Phantasm's badass car
(Photo from IMCDB.org)

Once I’d watched the first one, I was hooked. I especially remember the trailer for the second one, and remember watching it with a roommate who also liked horror movies.

I kept re-watching them until the third one came out. At that point, I was older and wiser and had realized that Reggie was definitely where it’s at. He could drive and fix that awesome black car, and was weaponized to the hilt. (And, by the way, all of us Supernatural fans owe a huge debt to the second and third Phantasm movies. If you doubt me, just check them out.) Reggie’s charm and skills always got him the babe (at least for awhile, until she went weird), and the bald with a ponytail thing just seemed to work for him somehow. Who knew that a simple ice cream vendor that just wanted to strum some guitar tunes in his free time would end up being the biggest hero of the series?

Phantasm II - picture of Reggie
Reggie ready for battle (Photo from Chud.com)

Waiting for the fourth installment felt like it took forever. At one point I cycled through all the previous films in a week’s time. I was like an addict, or maybe an 8-year-old with their favorite film (or maybe those are both kind of the same thing). Once it finally came out, it was clear that Michael (the original Michael!) had grown up and was ready to take on the Tall Man in a final battle. He was back from the beyond, and you could tell that it had changed him. He was sadder, tireder, ready for it to be over. While this last installment wasn’t the best movie in the series, I was still pretty much just happy to revisit all those characters and themes, and to let Michael and Reggie have a final say.

Photo of Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man
(Photo from Wikipedia)

So, what’s kept me re-watching these movies over the years? Well, all of the above, but Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man keeps me coming back, too. No one else can growl “Boy!!” in quite the same way. And, what about all those awesome slo-mo sequences of him walking? Or driving that hearse like a madman? Or just appearing out of nowhere, and towering and glowering and grabbing at you with those clawed hands? I love the special edition DVD of Phantasm, because it starts out with Angus Scrimm introducing the movie and talking about being asked to audition for the part. The director told him he would be playing an “alien”, which Scrimm took to mean “foreigner”, until he got the script!

There’s also the overall mood and ambience of the movies – it’s always dark or darkish and it feels like the town or place the characters are in could be the last inhabited area on earth. This is especially so in the second and third installment. And, of course, there’s the Phantasm theme. It’s got a really 70s, Dario Argento feel to it that works for me. There’s the other creepy characters that keep popping up, like the girl and her blind, fortuneteller grandma in the first movie, or the girl that keeps seducing guys at the bar and taking them out to the graveyard to get it on (and sometimes her face looks like the Tall Man’s), or the girls that are horrifically transformed in the second and third movies. There’s the weird gateway to the other dimension that just begs for you to put both hands on it, and the chaos that ensues once someone finally does. Oh, and there’s the crazy squashed hooded creatures that the Tall Man is apparently stockpiling and using as slaves, which are constantly running through the bushes or rolling out from behind things in the basement of the mortuary.

I guess that for me these movies just have an originality to them. There’s nothing else out there quite like them. A sense of isolation, loneliness, and an impending doom worse than death permeates them. A helplessness runs throughout, from Michael’s inability to stop what he knows is happening in the first film, to Reggie’s inability to save Michael and his persistence in fighting something no one else seems to know is happening in the second and third, to the final fight of Reggie and Michael in a battle where they both know it’s unlikely there will really be a win, and where, again, Reggie will not be able to save Michael. The idea of our world being systematically plundered while no one is looking is frightening, as is the idea of a doorway to another dimension that might exist right in the next room. The Tall Man’s absolute disdain for humans, his overwhelming strength, his seeming ability to be everywhere or anywhere, and his delight in using those clearly technologically advanced spheres of murder is monstrous. There is no appealing to this creature for mercy. His ponderous, long gait is patient in the knowledge that he will eventually get you, no matter where you run, how deeply you hide, or how savagely you fight back.