Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Ammonite Violin and Others - Caitlín R. Kiernan

A while ago, I bought a number of books in a Subteranean Press clearance sale. Eleven books with a huge discount but I didn't know what I would be getting. As it happened, the package contained a lot of short fiction collections, mostly of authors who's work I'm not too familiar with. Until now, I've only read and reviewed one, The God Engines by John Scalzi. The Ammonite Violin and Others by Caitlín R. Kiernan is the second of this batch. I had read one a few short stories by Scalzi but Kiernan is completely new to me. The Ammonite Violin and Others turned out the be a beautifully written collection of very dark short stories.

The collection contains 20 short stories as well as an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer (which, unless you have previous experience with Kiernan's writing, I recommend you read after finishing the stories, he lost me halfway through the first time). As usually Subterranean packaging is wonderful, a very nice high quality hardcover with plenty of attention to the coverart. I like the author picture (taken by Kathryn A. Pollnac) on the back of the book in particular. It contains too many stories to review individually but there are some comments I'd like to make on a few of them and the collection in general.

Subterranean calls these stories dark fantasy but I have a hard time pinning them down. Some of them could be horror, some have post apocalyptic feel to them, some borrow heavily from Greek and Celtic mythology. Kiernan herself does not feel she is a horror writer but some of the details from her stories do show influences of Edgar Allen Poe for instance (although H.P. Lovercraft is also frequently mentioned in discussions of Kiernan's work). A Child's Guide to the Hollow Hills for instance, shares some of his obsession with death and decay. The stories also often display a sense of helplessness and inevitability. Characters being intellectually aware that they are heading for disaster but unable to help themselves.

Most of these stories are very brief pieces, the entire collection is only 230 pages long. They are snapshots of a moment or event crucial to the character but, as VanderMeer points out in the introduction, containing very little action. Kiernan presents a lot of them as riddles to the reader. She generally leaves a lot of room for the reader to interpret the story. There's no coddling the reader, you have to actively give meaning to the images she presents. It makes these tales fascinating, sometimes mysterious, and not something to be read cover to cover in one sitting.

The stories are written in a beautifully descriptive style. Long, flowing sentences and lots of imagery mark many of these stories. To give a random example:
It's not a wild place - not some bottomless, peat-stained loch hidden away between high granite cliffs, and not a secret, deep spring bubbling up crystal clear from the heart of a Welsh or Irish forest where the Unseelie host is said to hold the trees always at the dry brittle end of autumn, always on the cusp of a killing winter that will never come.
Opening sentence of Bridle
With this one sentence Kiernan conjours up an image that completely contrasts with the urban setting of the story. Kiernan goes on to create a synthesis of the classic Kelpie myth in a modern setting. The power, glamour eroticism of this mythological creature combined with a decaying corpse in an abandoned park in the city. This coupling between the mythological and horrific returns in many of these stories.

The story that gave the collection it's name is something different entirely though. The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) combines two other elements that return in the stories in this collection often: fossils (an occupational hazard given her education in palaeontology) and the sea. In fact, I don't think I know of any other writer who uses the word brine as much ad Kiernan does. The main character in this stories considers himself a collector. His two collections consist of Ammonites and suffocated women and now his is looking for a way to combine his two passions. It's incredibly creepy how he discusses these collections without any sense of guilt or regret. Despite this lack of emotion in the main character, the story has a very emotionally charged ending.

The type of work Kiernan writes is not material I read a lot. Although I try to read a decent amount of short fiction, most of it is science fiction and however you choose to label Kiernan's work, science fiction most likely isn't it. I had absolutely no idea what to expect of this collection, I guess you could say it was a bit of a gamble. One that paid off handsomely. I very much enjoyed reading The Ammonite Violin and Others. I may have to check out one of Kiernan novel length works. I would be interesting to see how Kiernan's approach would work for a longer piece. I can feel that to read stack growing again.

Book Details
Title: The Ammonite Violin and Others
Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 235
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-305-1
First published: 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment