Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan
Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan is a collection of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s works which span the years 1993-2004. In this collection there are 24 short stories, one poem, one novella, an introduction by the author, and a short afterword for each work. The stories are arranged in chronological order, letting the reader watch the progression of Kiernan’s style and the noticeable changes in her stories’ subject matter as she matures. Some of these stories are award winners and all have been published previously (though some have undergone extensive revisions since their original publication). A few have subtle connections to each other. A second volume of Kiernan’s stories will be published by Subterranean Press in 2014.
I’m certain that I was not the best choice of reviewer for Two Worlds and In Between. Sub Press sent me a copy and I probably should have passed it along to Terry or Marion, but I’ve been meaning to read Kiernan for years, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I’m glad I’m now familiar with Kiernan’s work, though I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy the book.
The problem is me, not Kiernan. Her prose is beautiful, her imagery is stunning, and her characters feel incredibly real. However, her stories are full of things I generally don’t like to spend my time thinking about. There are far too many cockroaches, chapped lips, suicides (botched and successful), drownings, scabs, bruises, rotting corpses, junkies, rapists, therapists, and men in ladies’ panties. The pages are full of pus, blood, sweat, viscera, cigarette smoke, mildew, piss, shit, and cum. Most of the people we meet are depressed, in pain, empty and, usually, suicidal.
In addition, I found the plots to be too episodic and indistinct for my taste. Kiernan admits in her afterward to “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” that “Most times, a story comes to me as an image, a jumble of images, a character, a name, fragments, or a confetti of words. I don’t think in plots. I don’t have clever ideas.” You can definitely become completely submerged in these images and characters, but if you do, you’ll probably feel like killing yourself.
It wasn’t all complete misery, however. There were a few moments of… well, I wouldn’t call it brightness… let’s say moments of awe and maybe even an occasional small pang of pleasure:
- “Rats Live On No Evil Star” — I almost enjoyed this little look at genius and madness.
- “Riding the White Bull” — I believe this is CRK’s first science fiction story. The world-building is excellent and it is refreshing to get so far away from her frequently used clove-drenched Gothic Industrial setting.
- “The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles” — This is the style of “dark” that I prefer — it’s weird and unsettling, but mentions of bodily fluids are scant.
- “The Dry Salvages” — This science fiction novella was hard to put down. It, and a few other stories in the collection, make excellent use of Kiernan’s background in paleontology.
Those were the only four stories I enjoyed in this collection, and even they feel hopelessly miserable. But I am glad to have finally acquainted myself thoroughly with Caitlín R. Kiernan’s work. I have the utmost admiration for her talents but, truthfully, I just don’t want to visit her worlds. They are beyond bleak and when I was there, I suffered along with her characters and I couldn’t wait to get out. Even in small doses, Caitlín R. Kiernan is just too dark for me. Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan is, however, a must-read for fans of Kiernan, or for anyone who prefers their fantasy uncomfortably dark.
Kat–I have almost the same problem with this author. Her prose is lovely and her images, while disturbing, are very powerful, but sometimes I think she is mired in a kind of adolescent “life sucks, man!” world view, and she is adept at dragging us down into that same vision.
This actually reminds me a lot of my experience with the Boyett book recently. The writing’s great, but I just don’t want to read about excrement and pus quite that much. But I have to recognize the skill involved.
This book is sitting on my shelf awaiting my reading, mostly because I so intensely admired Kiernan’s The Red Tree a couple of years ago. That was definitely a bleak book, but the artistry overwhelmed the bleakness for me. I’ll be interested to see whether Kiernan’s stories affect me as you suggest, Kelly, or whether I find myself enjoying them.
The Red Tree was really interesting. I’m such a sucker for the “did this really happen, or is the character insane or an unreliable narrator” type of plot. Bleak, but fascinating.
I will read Red Tree, even if life does suck, because I know what a good prose writer she is, and because of the reviews.