The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan
The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2013) is the tenth collection of her shorter work and represents a snapshot of her fiction over the last six years or so — as she explains in the introduction, she’s quite prolific, these fourteen stories being drawn from one-hundred-and-seven published during this period. It’s a pleasingly varied selection with everything from steampunk to science fiction to fantasy and a little dabble in the horror end of the pool. If the essence of a good collection is variety, this very much shows off her range of storytelling to the best advantage. For those not familiar with her work, it’s perhaps appropriate to warn potential readers that some of the content is mildly unconventional when it comes to sexuality and relationships.
“The Steam Dancer (1896)” is a sad commentary on the position of women in society. Here’s someone who’s rescued from death and allocated a role where she’s entirely dependent on a man for her maintenance and, worse, can only earn a living by dancing for men without her clothes on. The only thing left to her to do is escape inside her head. At least she’s not been deprived of her dreams. “The Maltese Unicorn” is a delightful pastiche of early hardboiled classics. Originally written for Supernatural Noir, it subversively captures the spirit of the original falcon with an interesting unicorn relic in a PI/hitperson modern melange. Perhaps the gender balance is, for once, skewed in exactly the right direction. Given the function of the relic, an all-female cast is necessary to debate the nature of original sin and how, if at all, other women might follow the example of the Virgin Mary and be freed from the stain of sin, even if only temporarily. “One Tree Hill” is a nice change of pace to a carefully understated cosmic horror story in which much is hinted and everything, apart from the nature of lightning, is left unexplained. “The Colliers’ Venus” continues with the exploration of the inexplicable as coal miners unearth something that should not be there and, in their fear, give shape where there was none. Curiously, the men give their fear the shape of a woman.
“Galapagos” was in Eclipse Three and is one of these extended tease stories of first contact. From the outset, we know the protagonist met something really scary. The only question is what. The answer is delayed while we go through the mad-woman-locked-up-in-a-mental-hospital trope. It’s somewhat pandering to stereotypes to have a hysterical female screaming her head off and being doped up to the eyeballs to maintain any degree of calm while the government tries to persuade her to tell what she saw. The psychological destruction of a stereotypical macho male might have made cultural sense. Men prefer to characterise themselves as heroic. The top female astronaut should therefore have called her bimbo husband up into space to receive the message. The experience denting the sangfroid of a man and leading to his sedation would have had more impact. “Tall Bodies” is a classic example of the craft of writing. It beautifully captures the lack of answers for both the woman and what she sees. Individually, they are inscrutable to outsiders although the human community has its own opinions. “As Red As Red” is another wonderful piece of writing which understates the potential threat of contemporary vampirism in Rhode Island, carefully alluding to the facts we know to be salient and then passing on before anything comes clearly into focus.
“Hydraguros” is an elegant atmosphere fantasy meets science fiction story with hints that what this mid-level gang member is seeing when not totally high on the latest chemistry is perhaps an alien parasite or something bigger. As Shakespeare said, “If you prick me, do I not bleed silver?” “Slouching Towards the House of Glass Coffins” reminds us we do many things out of love. Whether it’s requited, journeys are made, sacrifices are given unselfishly. It’s the way we feel closest to ourselves and others. “Tidal Forces” first appeared in Eclipse Four and continues the search for answers when one in a long-term relationship gets into trouble. She may even be dying. Even that’s not certain. All that’s clear is the need to do something before she fades away. “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” subverts the usual high fantasy expectations as the “barbarian” hero kills the Troll and then, Grendel-fashion, must confront the female of the species (assuming she’s sober enough, of course). “Random Thoughts Before a Fatal Crash” is the final days of the series character Albert Perraud in Paris as he paints a work which will be long remembered after his death. And finally, the titular “The Ape’s Wife” also deals with a kind of timeless immortality, retelling the myth of King Kong to explore the desolation following in the wake of humanity’s quest to understand the world. Sadly, this has meant the collection of artifacts and animals (usually dead), the destruction of local cultures, and the death of indigenous populations through the spread of disease. Even the primaeval forests are now slashed and burned to make way for plantations. It’s the end of the world as it was and a remaking of the world into something less interesting because it’s increasingly homogenised. What a relief it would be if the removal of one miraculous thing could trigger its replacement with something equally miraculous.
Taken as a whole, The Ape’s Wife is one of the best collections so far this year.
Dust jacket by Vincent Chong.
For other posts dealing with Caitlin R Kiernan and her work, see:
Blood Oranges (written as Kathleen Tierney)
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.