Women in Horror Week: Caitlín R. Kiernan

By KL Pereira

Have I come all the way to this musty old house at the end of the world to be whittled away by nightmares and obsession?

From The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]aitlín R. Kiernan is one of the most haunting writers of the past 15 years, though I wouldn’t necessarily call her just a horror writer. Her short stories, comics and novels are much too difficult to dissect, to pin neatly into one category, firmly rooted as they are in the diverging and converging tropes of modern fantasy, classic storytelling and weird tales. Kiernan’s brave works have been honored by over twenty nominations and she has won the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel (for Silk, 1998), Best Novel (Threshold, 2001), Best Short Story (“Onion,” 2011), and Best Mid-Length Fiction (“La Peau Verte,” 2005), as well as the James Tiptree, Jr. Award (“Galapagos,” 2010).

In style and subject matter, her work recalls the iconic and infamous – Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Mark J. Danielewski, and even Lewis Carroll. Their influence isn’t hard to recognize, yet even as those threads glimmer, the cloth of Kiernan’s work is wholly her own, a mix of horror, dark fiction, science fiction, and erotica.

Yet, it’s her treatment of insanity that keeps me coming back to Kiernan’s work. I’m continually captivated by her unflinching look at what happens to women in worlds very like ours (as well as worlds of her own creation), who live and struggle and sometimes die with (and due to) mental illness. And by doing so, Kiernan gives power and voice to those who rarely, if ever, get to tell their own tales and truths.

In her recent novels, The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl, Kiernan’s narrators are women who struggle with sanity and suicide. The ever-shakable realities of her protagonists are inundated by mythic creatures and tales that, like the worst invasive weeds, encroach upon and invade the mental and physical worlds of the protagonist until there is complete breakdown. Kiernan’s tales are unwavering and the reader is not permitted a reprieve from these battles, this perspective of mental dissolution.

But while the first-person epistolary style holds the reader is a persistent grip, in both cases, the novels themselves are more than reportage. The stories within them, the stories we hear and internalize, become talismans, testaments and sometimes take on the voices of real women, women we remember, who lived at the edges and in the fields of insanity and horror, and did not live to tell their tales.

It is appropriate to say that in all of her works, Kiernan is an exceptional literary necromancer. She brings to life all the fears you thought you’d conquered, all the fears you’d thought dead, and sets them to haunting you. And for me, she takes what is close to home, the weird woods and factory towns of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, rural isolation, and the ghosts that lurk in the basement of your heart, or in the cores of the ancient trees on your lawn, and affirms a most Lovecraftian axiom and a decidedly Kiernan-esque question: The ghosts are there; they’ve always been there, waiting to devour you. How will you fight back?