Caitlín R. Kiernan is a powerful writer, with a prodigious vocabulary, a mastery of prose and the ability to ground a sentence with a perfectly chosen detail. Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, published by Subterranean Press, contains 25 works by this accomplished stylist. Many of the works have graphic sexual imagery and intense sexual violence. In many cases that is the sole intent of the piece.
I have no complaints at all with the line-by-line prose, but the anthology is a mixed bag. My copy was an advanced review copy, and there was no information provided about the genesis of each story and when or where it was published, so there is no context. (I don’t know whether the finished version will give some.) Ultimately, I don’t know if this collection is successful.
Several of the pieces here are traditional stories, or as close to traditional as Kiernan comes. Many are vignettes. According to Wikipedia, Kiernan created a journal called Sirenia Digest and is interested in combining “…erotic literature with elements of dark fantasy and science fiction, creating brief, dreamlike fictions.” The vignettes in this collection have that quality. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to divide my review into three sections; Stories, vignettes, and Read at Your Own Risk (RAYOR).
In “Fish Bride” and “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” Kiernan out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. “Fish Bride,” set in an eerie town near the ocean, is a story of two lovers who have to part. “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” alludes to creatures who appear in many of Kiernan’s works, the Hounds of Cain. “At the Gate of Deeper Slumber” and “Fecunditatum (Murder Ballad No 6)” also echo Lovecraft.
“Rappaccini’s Dragon (Murder ballad No 5)” is a straightforward vengeance tale featuring a poison garden, where a young man named Daniel forges the perfect weapon to kill the rapacious couple who murdered his twin brother in an evening of exotic sex. The story is more or less linear, but Kiernan uses it to comment on the nature, or rather artificiality, or story-telling.
“Murder Ballad No 7” is a pretty and cynical tale about a fairy changeling and the one human who can see her true aspect. “The Thousand and Third Tale of Scheherazade,” employs a role reversal as a male sex slave entertains a human woman who works for the Hounds with a fairy tale. The story ends before the slave’s story does.
My favorite piece is “Melusine (1898),” a story that appeared on Subterranean’s website. In 1898, in a steampunk version of Denver, a strange carnival comes to town. It advertises a mixture of live and clockwork wonders. Miss Cala Weatherall, an engineer at a zeppelin plant, is a rational, logical, exacting woman, but, confused by the vivid dreams she’s has had lately, she decides to attend the carnival, even though it’s not her thing. The sideshow tent is uncannily like one in her dreams. Once inside, a splashing sound coming from deeper within the labyrinth of the tent draws her in until she reaches a tank inhabited by a mermaid. The mermaid speaks directly to Cala, and it knows her deepest dreams and desires. Cala is convinced the creature is a construct… but still, how can it know her? “Melusine” is not completely successful as a story, but works beautifully as a metaphor for the way art can seduce us, even when we know it’s artificial.
In “The Wolf Who Cried Girl,” Kiernan toys with us. Is the protagonist a wolf who has been driven into human shape against her will, or an un-medicated schizophrenic? Is she trapped in a human body or a delusion? Kiernan artfully manages the suspense. In “Dancing With the Eight of Swords,” that rarest of entities, a female serial killer, is confronted by a lilac-skinned, horned woman who interrogates her. As the story progresses, the relationship between these two changes in a way that is surprising but plausible.
“Fecunditatum” and “I am the Abyss, and I am the Light” are both stories about transformation. “I am the Abyss, and I am the Light” uses science fiction trappings but is ultimately a psychological fantasy about merging, completely, with another. “The Bone’s Prayer” and “At the Gate of Deeper Slumber” are virtually the same story; a lesbian couple, an artifact found at the seaside, a transformation. Even the names of the characters are similar. It would have been nice to know why both of these stories are included and how they relate to one another.
In “The Perils of Liberated Objects, or the Voyeur’s Seduction,” a woman clings to a red-covered book that, when opened, shows her whatever she wants. She asks for “something horrible” because that is the only thing that arouses her. The book obliges with a horrible scene, while in another dimension, the book’s home, priests conduct a dark ceremony to reap the benefit of the book’s energy. The most disappointing story in the book is “The Derma Sutra (1891),” because it fails to deliver on its promise. In the same Denver as “The Melusine,” an unnamed vampire woman has captured a repressed, self-righteous monster hunter named Tess Brockton. The vampire has tattooed the monster hunter, head to toe, with sigils and spells. Her goal is not to kill the hunter, but to corrupt her. The story reads like Marquis de Sade Lite, as the hunter shudders with supernatural orgasms and murmurs, “Please, don’t.” Apparently ink and sex is all that’s needed to corrupt a crusader, especially if she’s female and an aging virgin. Since there is no internal struggle in the mind of the hunter, and no danger to the vampire, this story lacks any conflict. The zeppelins that chug overhead periodically serve no purpose in the story either.
My favorite vignette is the disturbing “In the Bed of Appetite.” The piece is a dialogue between the narrator and his gender-ambiguous partner. One of Kiernan’s recurring themes is the risk of completely opening oneself to the Other, and the narrator in this piece has. His lover has bound him, not in the usual bondage way, but to simulate a half-cannibalized character the narrator has created in a story. The narrator tells us, “… I see now that this is not the night (or the final hour before dawn) when at last I feel your teeth close about my throat…” The real risk of loving a monster is death, and Kiernan is at pains to let us know that.
“The Belated Burial,” is a wink to a Poe story. A young vampire goes through an initiation. “Flotsam” is also about a vampire and the man who drives through the night to keep his tryst with her. This story had an unfortunate resonance with Pirates of the Caribbean and made me giggle at an inappropriate moment. In “A Canvas of Incoherent Arts,” a woman is shackled in a black room, one she has been in many times before. The woman and her partner play a game. The woman is there to be scared, and her partner makes sure she is. “The Bone Collector” builds suspense but ends with a touching moment between two isolated people.
Read at Your Own Risk “Beatification,” “Untitled Grotesque” and “Concerning Attrition and Severance.” Severance is literal here as one woman tortures and mutilates another with a knife, in front of an audience. If “Derma Sutra” was de Sade Lite, this is full-on homage to the Marquis, who Kiernan lists as an influence. In “Beatification” it is a man doing the mutilation of a woman. “Subterraneus” is probably the most successful of these mutilation-themed works, as a woman offers herself as a sacrifice to a group of strange underground dwellers. “Untitled Grotesque” follows a group of watchers, all of whom have been surgically altered, as they watch a strange couple perform a surprising sex act on stage. The audience does not know that high above them, a group watches them, and that the real drama happens, not on the stage, but in the second row.
More than half the pieces in this anthology are good, and many others at least left me thinking. Kiernan is always in control of her words, whether she is trying for gallows humor, pathos, beauty or terror. Context would have helped. I don’t recommend this for Kiernan beginners, but it provides some disturbing background to the work of a strange and major talent.