Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan
When you look at the world of dark fantasy or horror (depending on the way you apply labels), it’s sad there are so few women who get the recognition they deserve. I suppose if we stretch the boundaries, we have to include Anne Rice among the really well-known. Of the “midlist” crowd, my personal favorites are Poppy Z Brite and Lisa Tuttle. All of which is probably not the best way to begin a review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2012) but I thought I should make the point that the mass market is not given the chance to appreciate the quality of the dark fantasy or horror fiction that women write. Whereas the men are heavily promoted, women are not picked up by the mainstream publishers and so are less well-known. This denies the majority the chance to read work by Caitlin R Kiernan and others. Not only does she produce such good prose, but her work gives a fascinating insight how fiction written by a woman differs from the male version. In this collection, we also see a conscious effort made to blur the line between the “dark” and the “erotic”, i.e. to make explicit what many of the male writers tend to leave implicit. Those of you who know Caitlin R Kiernan will understand she has an insight into the spectrum of gender and so her fiction tends to approach sexuality and eroticism from less usual directions. This makes her work all the more interesting to read and, once again, we’re indebted to Subterranean Press for supporting her work.
“The Wolf Who Cried Girl” is an elegant story about the socialisation process. No matter how they first present as children, we intend to transform our young into adults we can be proud of. For the elite who are strong and the average, this works reasonably well, but when the non-standard have to contend with the prejudices of the peer group and authority figures, it’s very difficult to stay true to the inner personality. Those with gender issues are only too aware of this problem. This is the story of a wolf who’s magically transformed into a girl. Hospitals and counsellors attack her instinctive feral identity, forcing her to assume the appearance of a woman. Her decision to have sex with a man proves the final step in the magic driving the process of social change. The voluntary acceptance of the new identity is inevitably the surrender of the old. Except, of course, wolves never like to surrender and always fight to the end, particularly if they believe they have been tricked. The reverse is “Unter den Augen des Mondes” in which a female werewolf finds herself a prisoner and unable to transform into her human body. Living as a caged animal, all she can hope for is the opportunity to kill the man who taunts and abuses her.
We then have a genuinely macabre allegory. “The Bed of Appetite” makes literal the cliché that people can be consumed by love. This inevitably involves one or both parties accepting some reduction in their individuality. They give up their freedoms, accept new responsibilities. But, as the relationship moves towards termination, what will be left of each person? “Subterraneus” is a simple but powerful Lovecraftian story. “The Collector of Bones” reminds us of the idiom that some people talk you to death. These three stories also consider the difference between dominance and submissiveness depending on the gender role. “The Bed Of Appetite” is particularly interesting because the woman begins to write the story, but it ends as the man dictates. “Beautification” continues the theme of submissiveness and self-sacrifice, except it’s not at all clear what benefit will accrue to the woman from this sacrifice. “Untitled Grotesque” returns to the world of gender mutability in a story of voyeurs where it’s important to understand who’s watching whom with the greatest interest. At least, in “Flotsam”, there’s an obvious pay-off for the submission. The victim longs to give blood to a vampire because it’s an ecstatic experience. Unfortunately, the sexual high emphasises the dominant loneliness and frustration because the donation comes only when it suits the convenience of the vampire. “Concerning Attrition and Severance” completes this small section by moving us from voluntary submission to sadism for the greater enjoyment of the sadist and her watchers.
“Rappaccini’s Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)” shows us that, with good preplanning, revenge can achieve the desired result, while “The Melusine (1898)” demonstrates that if you live in the moment, you can suddenly find your rational defences overwhelmed as love beckons. But if you hesitate, the magic is lost and the mundane rationality of the world reasserts control. “Fecunitatem (Murder Ballad No. 6)” asks if you have a close relationship with nature, will a death of your own choosing lead to a different view of the world? Perhaps a seed might take root and prove you as fertile as the rich earth. Moving into science fiction, “I Am the Abyss, and I Am the Light” describes a process whereby a human and an alien surrender their individual personalities and merge into a single being. In so doing, the individuals become something different, neither human nor alien, but a third species. During the process, both overcome the inherent loneliness of being one individual in a body, never knowing what others around them are thinking. Through this surrender of individuality, they accept each other in a form of relationship that’s intimate and permanent. Similarly, “Lullaby of Partition and Reunion” suggests that true love implies the two people will intermingle, will fuse both physically and intellectually — even become soul partners like siamese twins albeit with different parents.
“Dancing With the Eight of Swords” thinks about a serial killer who, while alive, believes the voice of another is guiding every action. Would it not be remarkable if, upon death, the killer might find a different way of relating to that voice, perhaps even of breaking down barriers to become a single individual who can make her own choices. “Murder Ballad No. 7” raises the possibility that, if a man could see past a glamour to the fairy below, he might be considered worthy of being a mate, albeit only within the fairy ring, of course. “Derma Sutra (1891) offers a Lovecraftian potential for two coming together through the application of various tattoos and the use of words from Ancient Books, while “The Thousand-and-Third Story of Scheherazade” is a nice inversion of the original Arabian Nights to keep a different relationship going. “The Belated Burial” suggests an intermediate step in the metamorphosis from dead human to vampire. “The Bone’s Prayer” reinvents the old trope of the message in a bottle and wonders how a small piece of soapstone with signs of the Elder Gods carved on to its surface might serve the purpose. “A Canvas For Incoherent Arts” has a couple playing S&M games based on sensory deprivation. What does the submissive partner become when she’s actually afraid? “The Peril of Liberated Objects” is a powerful Lovecraftian acceptance of dreaming as a form of voyeurism, showing an unexpected price paid out of sight. “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” was reviewed in Black Wings. “At the Gate of Deeper Slumber” continues the Lovecraftian theme with a wonderful box that offers the use of a portal if only you have the courage to open it. Finally, “Fish Bride (1970)” completes the frame of the first story. A woman is slowly going through the metamorphosis to become one of the Deep Ones. Unfortunately, she falls in love with a human man. As her gills begin to show and the call grows stronger to join her mother in the city beyond the Devil Reef, she realises the loneliness that awaits her without the man she loves. Here acceptance of the process produces the mirror image result but without the option to pick up a knife and strike with any meaningful purpose.
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is a collection of densely written stories, often with challenging content. As such, it rewards those who take their time to engage with the author and think through what underpins each story. Because of its frankness and some eroticism, it will not be to everyone’s taste. This is a shame because, regardless of the superficial descriptions, the underlying themes transcend physicality. Almost without exception, the stories are about the mind and how it relates to the world around it through the agency of the body. Yes, some of the stories are disturbing, but is one of the functions of art not to disturb, to challenge our safe view of the things around us we perceive as mundane?
My opinion on Lee Moyer‘s contribution to the cover design provoked some debate so I’ve written a more detailed critique of the artwork at Cover Design For Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. For reviews of other work by Caitlin R Kiernan, see:
The Ape’s Wife
Blood Oranges (written as Kathleen Tierney).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.