I’m trying to remember how long ago I first read Silk. It may have been as much as ten years ago, when the book was new. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that few books have stayed with me the way Silk has. Even when I’d forgotten the details of the plot, images remained: the horror of the climactic scene, the kudzu-strangled trees. A few years after reading Silk, I went on a road trip through the South, and I couldn’t help but think of Spyder Baxter when I saw a clearing where the trees had been so swallowed by the kudzu, they resembled ivy-covered pillars of some ruined church.
I reread Silk in one sitting last month, on a night when I was in a melancholy mood and snow was falling hard outside. I’d forgotten that there’s a freak snowstorm in Silk. Once again, I felt a strange closeness to the story, watching the snow pile high while the characters were doing the same thing.
Silk is a haunting blend of horror and old-school urban fantasy, the kind of urban fantasy that has less to do with badass back-tattooed vigilantes and more to do with alienation from mainstream society. The central characters are a loosely connected group of struggling musicians and troubled goths trying to make it on the streets of Birmingham Alabama. They’re broke, most of them come from traumatic pasts, drugs are endemic, and alliances among the group are shifting. The brightest spot in their lives is the relationships they forge in the face of problems both mundane and magical.
Because, as if these characters didn’t have enough to deal with, supernatural forces are lurking at the edges of their lives, with tragic results for several of the group. Caitlín R. Kiernan blurs the lines between vision, dream, and drug trip, and evokes the terror the characters feel at not knowing what is real and what is imagined. The fantasy elements are drawn from an eclectic mix of mythologies; there are references to the Orpheus myth, Native American lore, and the legend of the Nephilim, with an eerie little cameo by Virginia Dare. The connections are sometimes left hazy, but somehow it all works anyway, and it’s scary as hell to boot.
The characters are sometimes challenging to me, mainly because some of them come off as complete jerks. I got my fill of pretentious arguments about music and the fine distinctions between this subculture and that subculture long ago. Then again, I think they’re probably written that way on purpose, and thankfully, most of the story is told from the point of view of the two characters I liked, Daria Parker and Niki Ky.
Kiernan’s prose is dense and detailed, and she writes about the squalid and the macabre as lovingly as she describes the beautiful. I think that’s why images from Silk stayed with me so long. You can’t help but get a vivid mental picture of everything she describes. Here’s an example; I really liked this passage:
Spyder Baxter’s shop looked like something displaced, something stolen from the streets of New Orleans maybe, and wedged in tight between Steel City Pawn and First Avenue Rent-2-Own. Daria paused before the display window, fly-specked and ages of dust gathered in the corners like little dunes, parabolic drifts against smeared glass and rusted frame and a handful of dead bugs thrown in for good measure. Weird Trappings’ handpainted sign swayed and squeaked faintly on its uneven chains, approximate Gothic in clumsy black and purple slashes across whitewashed tin.
Though occasionally the prose does seem a little overwrought to me:
She finally found the key that fit right, that had the right number of peaks and valleys of the proper heights and depths cut in the right order, held it tight in her trembling fingers and turned the dead bolt, opened the door and stepped into the murky warmth of the house.
(I’m not sure I need quite that much detail about finding the house key, but in most places the intricate detail is a plus.)
Silk isn’t a perfect novel. As I mentioned above, there are some connections left vague, some things never quite explained. I wonder if things become clearer in Murder of Angels, or if the vagueness is part of the intended effect, so that some mysteries remain. I also got irked after a while by the fact that “fat” seems to be synonymous, here, with “mundane and narrow-minded,” but I can kind of see why these particular characters would think that way, since they spend much of the novel not having enough to eat.
Still, it’s a very good novel, and one that has made a lasting impression on me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Silk — (1998, 2004) Spyder Baxter is the patron saint of the alienated and lost. She invites them into her mesmerizing world of ritual and ceremony, blood and fire… a realm of vengeful gods, of exiled spirits harboring the dark secrets of Hell — and the darker secrets of Heaven. But is she their guardian angel — or a much more terrifying force sent not to redeem, but to destroy?