Alabaster by Caitlin R. Kiernan
In the small Florida town where I grew up there was a trashy little roadside orange grove that also boasted a few caged animals that they claimed was a zoo. My parents took my brother and me to Houser’s Grove & Zoo only once, shortly after we moved to the area and before they knew its sad local reputation. I must have only been five or six-years old but what I remember is tiny cages, sick looking animals, and a general feeling of despair and tragedy.
Drive-up zoos were once as common in the South as broken down carnivals and beachfront property, but you have to be from the South in order to know this. With her latest collection, Caitlin Kiernan proves that she knows how to write a damn fine story about the scariest parts of everything that lives and breathes down those long dark southern roads. And yes, there’s a creepy roadside zoo story too.
Alabaster is a collection of stories about the character Dancy Flammarion, who first appeared in Kiernan’s second novel, Threshold. Dancy is a thirteen-year-old monster killer who follows the direction of her angel, an unseen creature who is either a force for good or evil, and who is slowly driving Dancy mad. The stories chronicle Dancy’s struggle to stay sane as she meets the worst creatures in heaven and hell and kills a lot of them with her very big knife.
The first story, “Les Fleurs Empoisonnees” (“In the Garden of Poisonous Flowers”), introduces Dancy to vampires who travel in a Monte Carlo and a household of genteel southern ladies with some very ghoulish habits. The best part of this story is the way that manners plays such a large part. Even when the killing starts, or might start, or threatens to start, everyone is still so damn polite about it. And the ladies of the Stephens Ward Tea League and Society of Resurrectionists are pure classic creepy, just like all those great Vincent Price movies that scared the crap out of me when I was way too young to be up that late. Here’s a look at their lovely home:
Through the bright kitchen and down a long, dimly-lit hall, walls hung with gilt-framed paintings of scenes that might have found their way out of Dancy’s own nightmares. Midnight cemetery pictures, opened graves and broken headstones, a riot of hunched and prancing figures, dogjawed, fire-eyed creatures, dragging corpses from the desecrated earth.
And then there is the most particularly southern way in which the story opens:
Miles past a town named Vidalia, town named after an onion, onion named after a town, but Dead Girl has no idea how many miles; the vast, unremarkable Georgia night like a seamless quilt of stars and kudzu vines and all these roads look the same to her.
Vidalia onions and kudzu vines, a nightmare plant right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You are in the hands of a gothic master at work in a region she clearly loves.
Apart from trading sarcasm and good manners with vampires and Scarlett O’Hara’s demonic descendants, there is a childhood story from when Dancy lived in a north Florida swamp where something from long before knocked on the door one night with an unexpected demand. “The Well of Stars and Shadow” gives us Mr. Jube, one of those iconic characters that always seem to inhabit southern literature who in this case plays a significant part in our future monster killer’s formative years.
Next is “Waycross” and a monster called the Gynander who doesn’t seem to have a face of his own. We get another glimpse of the long hard road that Dancy has traveled on her divinely (she believes) driven quest, and see that while others have called her crazy she has always persevered and returned to the southern roads that take her from one monster to another.
And then there is the title story, “Alabaster.” Dancy comes to the Texaco station and the signs that say “live panther -- deadly man eater.” You can see the cat for three dollars while your tank is getting filled up with gas. It’s a chance to show the kids a wild animal that used to know the swamps and forests so well, but now sits in a cage and awaits the pleasure of those too cheap to visit a real zoo. Dancy isn’t there to see, though; she’s there because she knows that panther is something more, something else. Whether the real beast is what lives in that cage out back or the man that keeps it in there is for the reader to decide.
The book winds down with “Bainbridge,” by far the boldest story. Readers meet Julia Flammarion, Dancy’s mother, and view the moment the angel first came to her and made its demands. The story follows Julia before Dancy was born, as well as Dancy in an Alabama church that shelters shadows, demons and the angel itself in an alternate world that readers of Kiernan’s novel Murder of Angels will recognize immediately. The question you are left with after “Bainbridge,” though, is what is the angel and what motivates him to claim the Flammarions as his instruments of retribution. Julia hopes for divine intervention as she walks a lonely beach considering the value of a demented life and gains it perhaps, although no one can truly know why. As for Dancy, she finds the “ancient monsters who have hidden themselves away in the lonely places of the world"; she kills what she came for and then she burns it all down. In Alabama Dancy does humanity’s dirty work yet again, and Kiernan makes us see just how painful a job it is for her teenage hero, just how ugly and nasty being a savior can be.
Alabaster by Caitlin R. Kiernan