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The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan

September 21, 2013 1 comment

The_Apes_Wife_by_Caitlin_R_Kiernan_wraparound_cover

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.

Caitlin R Kiernan

Caitlin R Kiernan

 

“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.

 

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.

So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.

Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.

For a review of other books by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart and The Ape’s Wife.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart

Introduction

In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.

Definition

The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.

How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork

I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.

So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.

This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.

When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.

An analysis of the jacket design

Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.

What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”

In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.

So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.

Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:

Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.

My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.

I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.

As a final thought from me:

Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.

Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan

July 14, 2012 4 comments

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.

Caitlin R Kiernan

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.

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