To Charles Fort, With Love by Caitlin Kiernan
Even though it has been almost 20 years (sigh), I can still remember the only
time I watched Nightmare on Elm Street. I was in a room with twenty
or so of my closest friends at a party the night we graduated from high school.
We all managed to scream at the appropriate times and I fell asleep with one
hand wrapped around my friend Randall’s (we had known each other since
first grade), and the other wrapped around my friend Dan’s (since third
grade). I had nightmares for weeks. (It was that damn song that did it: “One,
two Freddie’s coming for you. Three, four better lock your door...”
Why do I still remember that?)
I’ve never been a fan of obvious horror, meaning that slasher movies and books are not something I gravitate to. I have no interest in spending my hard earned cash on whatever Jason, Chucky or Freddie are doing these days. I do like scary, but smart scary. One of my favorites is Ray Bradbury, whose October Country is a wonderful, creepy book. Go ahead and read “The Emissary” and then tell me that you don’t freak out just a little when the family dog comes wandering in out of the rain. I dare you.
And yes, I have read Stephen King and loved some while not so much liking others; ditto Anne Rice, and what the hell has happened to Laurell K. Hamilton, I will never know. I first learned of Caitlin Kiernan from Subterranean Press, which has published several books by her. Kiernan is described there as “best known for her contemporary settings, ‘gothnoir’ tales of pain and wonder, and atmospheric stories of Lovecraftian terror.” While this may indeed be true, what I found after reading her latest short story collection, To Charles Fort, With Love, is that Kiernan is really more of a throwback to the old fashioned style of storytelling. She is in fact a craftsman when it comes to the art of telling a tale and exhibits a truly impressive ability to place characters in a terrifying situation while still reining in the plot and preventing overblown phrases and unnecessary action (blood spatter, anyone?) from infringing upon the human elements. I am sure that if Kiernan wrote a companion piece to “The Emissary,” it would also star a boy and his dog and the night and manage to be equal parts chilling and beautiful. Like Bradbury, Kiernan has the impressive gift of understatement, and she also has a talent for gripping the reader’s heart from the very beginning and only letting it reluctantly go after the last word is written.
In her preface, Kiernan explains that Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) was a writer who knew what it was like to be one of the damned. Kiernan has her own collection of damned experiences, immediately recounting one that conjures an image of a mysterious creature from beneath the sea and leaves both writer and reader shaken by the possibility such a real-life moment can occur. She doesn’t ask you to believe her, or even to offer pity for her encounters with the unexplained, but Kiernan does insist that you respect the perspective from which she sees the world. She offers up her stories--"love letters," she calls them, or tokens of her affection--as evidence that she is intimate with a version of living that does not include many of us, that in fact patently excludes the common and ordinary.
As you read her stories, Kiernan will instead make you jealous for what she knows. She will quite possibly convert you to her way of seeing the world. By the end of Charles Fort you will likely find yourself reading slower and slower, savoring each word, even repeating them aloud in an empty room. Kiernan will make a believer out of you before she is done. As to whether or not you will be afraid, well that depends on how much haunted houses, ghouls with a penchant for dissection, dead girls, New Orleans nights and Irish myths figure into your own list of personal fears. For me, I found myself falling a bit more in love with her writing as each story began. I did not know Charles Fort or Caitlin Kiernan when I read the first page, but I was a devoted fan of both by the time I read the last.
I will resist classifying Kiernan as a horror writer because her stories do not terrify in the classic sense; they seem more to slowly invade your consciousness and give you the occasional delightful shiver. They return to you in the night, in the dark, when there is a sound or smell that seems suddenly wrong, out of place. Her stories are all about seeing the world from a different point of view, acknowledging a darker or more sinister vision. By the time I reached Tara’s story in “A Redress for Andromeda,” I knew there was something wrong about the party she attended in the old house, the house that “sits alone in the tall grass, waiting for Tara.” I knew nothing good was going to happen for Tara in that house.
I was so right.
But Kiernan didn’t cut me a break because the house, the Dandridge House, is dissected and all of its secrets exposed in the two stories that follow Tara’s grim evening: “Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea” and “Andromeda Among the Stones.” In each case the truth about haunted houses (and haunted people) becomes clear, and somehow monsters become vulnerable and humans more corrupt. The fact that the house is tied to World War I and Lewis Carroll’s “Lobster Quadrille” only makes it odder and more terrifying. Could anything under the bed really be worse than what we do willingly on the battlefield? Whose dark is more dangerous, the wailing monster in the attic that once was your brother, or the insistent need to kill or be killed that the civilized world clings to as “necessary?” “October 30, 1883, an Austro-German treaty with Roumania is signed providing Roumania defence against the Russians,” writes Kiernan. “November 17, 1885, the Serbs are defeated at the Battle of Slivnitza and then ultimately saved by Austrian intervention. 1887 and the Mahdist War with Abyssinia begins.” And on and on and on.
“All of these events,” writes Kiernan, “all of these men and their actions. Lies and blood and betrayals, links in the chain leading, finally, to this moment…” Suffice to say, it’s a very bad moment for Meredith Dandridge and the culmination of a fabulously creepy trio of stories that delve into myths of the sea and the end of the world. The fact that Kiernan took the time to ground the saga of the Dandridge House in the solid facts of world military history only gives the plot that much more resonance and allows it to linger even longer with the reader when she is done.
The collection does not dwell in history at every turn, however; there is the horror of ghouls and vampires and dead girls in “So Runs the World Away” and “The Dead and the Moonstruck.” Parallel or imaginary worlds take center stage in “Onion,” which includes one of the strangest group meeting scenes that has surely ever been written. (And you thought you had problems: Life could be a lot more complicated if you had the issues Frank and Willa are dealing with!) The thing behind the door, or under the puddle, or outside the window, is explored in “Standing Water,” “Spindleshanks” and “The Road of Pins.” “Road” was probably my favorite story in the collection (which means nothing, really, since I loved them all), as it explores so effectively how something evil can slither into your life without a person noticing; how you can be knee deep in terror before you realize you should be afraid. It was superbly written and from a writer’s perspective, a lesson in how to craft tension one single, simple, subtle layer at a time. Take notes, people: It just doesn’t get any better than this.
I could go on and on about these stories, about all the things that Kiernan reveals and how she has made me now look twice at the pictures that hang on my walls, arbitrary potholes I pass on the street and the mysterious writings of long dead skeptics. I will be reading the stories in To Charles Fort, With Love many, many times; but more importantly, I will be reading the work of Caitlin Kiernan for even longer. I don’t care what genre appeals to you as a reader; this is a collection that will not disappoint any fan of a good story. It has completely rocked my world and I am thrilled to have discovered someone new to love.
To Charles Fort, With Love by Caitlin Kiernan