Creating a Mood: Reading Caitlin R Kiernan
For a long time, I defined myself as a reader by an appreciation for structure. It's a nebulous thing, structure, a metaphor composed of other metaphors. People will talk about a novel's form, its white spaces, its foundation. They will imagine houses out of the chapters and pages, or structures less practical, more akin to abstract statuary. These metaphors both describe and disguise various combinations of characters, settings, images, themes, and section breaks. They point, in particular, to the characteristics of a fictional world that are also markers of that world's creation. In short, reading for structure often means reading with a conscious awareness of a story as a story, rather than reading it as a series of events that bring us closer in understanding or sympathy to the characters who dash through. (Which isn't to say that anyone who reads for structure isn't also reading for character -- these distinctions and preferences are often slight.)
Recently, while reading The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan, I realized that structure is not my primary passion in reading. Instead of structure, it is mood that I search for and cling to and hold close. Mood, an aspect of writing that may be even more nebulous than structure. Simply put, mood is the feeling of a story. Unlike the common feelings that children learn to identify, such as anger and sadness, or even the feelings of adolescents and young adults, like loneliness and desire, mood in fiction fits among those complicated, situationally-specific feelings for which English has a limited vocabulary. A mood in fiction might be the feeling created by reviewing the events of one's life, sorting through them like spools of thread in a sewing box, and realizing that the possibility of change passed unnoticed years before. Or, vice versa, a mood in fiction might be the feeling created by tapping against the walls of one's life in search of a crack through which change can flow. The point is, when we talk of mood in fiction we may use words like regret and impatience, but those words can only point to a more complicated creation.
Mood, I would argue, is the primary element of Kiernan's The Drowning Girl, and the one word summary of that mood is dread. The novel is presented as a text being written by India Morgan Phelps, also known as Imp, as she struggles to come to terms with her memories of a woman named Eva Canning. Two facts are made clear in the opening pages: first, that Imp can't trust her own memory and second, that like her mother and her grandmother, she is not sane, though unlike her mother and grandmother she inhabits sanity with the help of a therapist and a collection of pills. The use of mental illness here is the first major manipulation of dread by Kiernan. Mental illness has been a backbone of dread in horror, from movies to novels to video games. In its least empathetic forms, the use of mental illness in horror is built on the "sane" person's fear of the mentally ill -- a fear that he or she can't know how they will act or what they will do and that they might at any point become violent. Even more deeply, horror draws on the "sane" person's fear of becoming mentally ill him or herself. In its most damaging forms, the use of mental illness reinforces and magnifies these fears, until the mentally ill become monsters and everything that touches them, including therapy and medication, likewise is monstrous. The Drowning Girl evokes these fears in the opening descriptions of Imp's mother and grandmother, and of the great-aunt who put dead birds and mice in bottles and labeled the bottles with Bible verses. But, as Imp points out late in the novel, we dread what we cannot see. The something below the water or in the dark of the trees evokes more dread in stories than the fully seen shark or bear. By placing at the forefront Imp's diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, the history of mental illness in her family, and the medication she takes, by making sure that we see it fully from the beginning, Kiernan removes Imp's mental state from the focus of our dread.
This strategy also ensures that the reader doesn't spend the entire novel attempting to diagnose Imp -- a reaction common to college and high school classrooms, whether the text is fantastic or realistic. Instead, our attention turns with Imp toward the threats hidden and disguised by her mind, turned into somethings rather than things that can be identified, categorized, and dismissed. She writes out current events and events that have long-since passed in an attempt to make sense of what has happened and is continuing to happen to her. At the center of her questioning is the woman Eva Canning, who she remembers meeting twice, each meeting somehow the first. Though she knows that a first meeting can only happen once, both memories are there, each feeling as real as the other. The dread as we read comes not from wondering what the confused memories say about Imp, but rather what the confused memories say about the dangers surrounding her.
The Drowning Girl follows a fairly linear and cohesive narrative, despite the digressions and circling thoughts of its narrator. Ultimately, though, it's not about what happens next so much as about what happened then, with the then ranging from the last few years of Imp's life, to her childhood, to the events in the lives of others. There is the visit to the Blackstone River by Phillip George Saltonstall in 1894. There is the death of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. There are the events of "The Little Mermaid" and "Little Red Riding Hood," fictions within fictions. There are the lives and deaths of Imp's mother and grandmother. There is, less pressingly, the dreams and childhood of Abalyn, Imp's girlfriend. These thens haunt Imp, distorting and revealing her memories, giving them a truth that doesn't always match the facts of reality.
None of this captures the mood of The Drowning Girl. It doesn't describe how the dread would build until I had to close the book, warding off dark impossibilities that threatened to fill corners and windows with ghosts. After fifteen minutes or a half hour, the world of the everyday would cushion me again and I could return safely to Imp's hauntings, shaken only slightly by the growing certainty that she or I would be dragged deeper and deeper into shadowed brambles where claws clicked against the packed dirt so quietly they almost, almost couldn't be heard. See, the only way I can think to talk about mood is to attempt my own inadequate re-creation. Character, at least, can be found in the actions lined up on the page, while structure can be identified through scene breaks, repetitions, and events, each of which have a firm place in the text. Mood is present in adjectives, yes, and in what is hidden as well as what is shown, but a difference in mood is created by more than a reference to dark trees instead of light. Mood is the weight of every moment that preceded this moment in the text. Mood is the emotional tenor of a fictional world, contained within every decision, every reaction, every thing. It's a haunting by the past. No wonder it took a ghost story for me to recognize what I've been searching for all along.