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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