Tidal Forces, by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“And here, on the afternoon of the Seven of Pentacles, this Wednesday weighted with those seven visionary chalices, she tells me what happened in the shower. How she stood in the steaming spray watching the water rolling down her breasts and across her stomach, and up her buttocks before falling into the hole in her side.”

—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Tidal Forces”

“He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1936.

houses_under_the_sea_by_caitlin_r_kiernan[1]Welcome to Women in Horror Month 2020 here at the Miskatonic Review! Of course, I read women horror authors throughout the year (and so should you!), but this is the month in which I’ll join with others in the horror community in lifting up the wonderful work they are producing. You can look back through the archives and catch up with reviews of other fabulous authors, but this WiHM, I’m going to try and highlight some I haven’t yet gotten on the roles of the tenured faculty here at the Miskatonic Review. As I looked through the faculty list, I was stunned by my own omission of Caitlín R. Kiernan because I don’t think I could create a short list of top tier Mythos writers that did not include them. Kiernan is one of my absolute favorites. Their writing is achingly gorgeous, intimate in both its beauty and its pain, inducing a reader to sighs of often inexpressible origin. You don’t read a Kiernan story; you breathe it through your pores where it gives as much as it takes. Late last year, Subterranean Press released a limited, signed, cloth-bound hardcover collection of their best Mythos stories entitled, HOUSES UNDER THE SEA: MYTHOS TALES, for which I hit the pre-order button as fast as I’ve hit it for anything. Those marvelous editions are now gone, but you can pick up the e-book version here for a terrific price.

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That’s right. I’m bragging.

The story I’d like to tell you about tonight, “Tidal Forces,” is found in this collection, but was originally published in Sirenia Digest (#55) in 2011 (the author’s own subscription service) and later that same year was reprinted in Eclipse Four, edited by Jonathan Strahan published by Night Shade Press. It begins, “Charlotte says, “That’s just it, Em. There wasn’t any pain. I didn’t feel anything much at all.” This is a completely misleading opener if ever there was one, at least if we consider the emotional resonance of this story. Charlotte and Emily are lovers. They live on the ocean where, on one innocuous Saturday morning, while Emily was sitting on the porch watching some birds at play, Charlotte paused in her gardening to stretch and look out over the waves. She sees a shadow on the water, as if created by clouds above or something enormous below, but whatever it is it is moving fast and heading towards her on the shore. Emily watched as Charlotte was struck and knocked down. Stunned though she was by an apparent nothing knocking her down, she is unscathed. “But it wasn’t until we were in the bedroom, and she was dressing, that I noticed the red welt above her left hip, just below her ribs.” The injury, the hole, grows slowly instead of healing, and through it can be heard ever so  faintly a “thin, monotonous piping.” Equally as slowly, the implications wear down the women’s psyches. This is not a normal injury, not a normal wound that can be covered by a band-aid until all better.

I’ve always regarded Kiernan’s writing as very smart, and this story is no exception. Three examples. First, they don’t tell this story linearly; if they had done, it wouldn’t be near as interesting or compelling (pretty simple, actually). By bouncing back and forth across the time line they are both making a meta comment on what is happening in the plot and leaving you bread crumbs in both the past and the future that you’ll want to follow, both directions leading to a singularity. Second, they also color the narrative with references to Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, particularly the scene in the rose garden. Here Kiernan offers us a clue that what appears to be reality may only be a thin façade. f52814ae0135dc293e6abbef1058394b[1]Third, Emily names the days, back and forth in time, after individual cards in a deck. The day of the incident is labeled, “The Seven of Clubs. Wednesday, or the Seven of Pentacles, seen another way round…weighted with those seven visionary chalices.” Speaking of Alice, that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I don’t know much about Tarot cards and I don’t know whether Kiernan does either or not. Either they are playing with fluidity here—which would not be an uncommon theme for a Kiernan story—or they are mixing up their tarot suits and their modern suits. The four tarot suits are Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins, corresponding respectively to Spades, Clubs(?), Hearts, and Diamonds. (I couldn’t find definitive information that Wands corresponds with Clubs, so this is a guess.) Here Kiernan says the seven of clubs, which ought to be the seven of wands, but she alternatively names it the seven of pentacles (another name for the suit of coins) but depicts it as having “seven visionary chalices.” As a metaphor, this is quite mixed up. Chalices, or cups, is the last image they leave us with so that was the one I wanted to explore, and wow, is it a treasure trove of symbols for this story! The element of the suit of cups is water; our story is entitled “Tidal Forces,” the initial word of which functions on at least two different levels but one is water. And the shadow that kicked off the troubles was over the water. The suit of cups in tarot deals with emotional situations and events and again, contrary to the opening line, this story is about two people in a very emotional, romantic relationship dealing with their emotions about the inciting incident. The seven, particularly, is a caution not to build castles in the air. This card, it seems, is suited perfectly to the day.

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“Au Lit:Le Basier” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (d.1901)
Emotions and relationships and love being at the center of this story are what makes this story so powerful, and work so well. Kiernan is turning Lovecraft inside out. The Old Gent never wrote about love, despised relationships, and thought emotions a weakness. Kiernan answers by penning a very Lovecraftian Mythos tale which highlights a lesbian relationship, centers on emotion (also inducing emotion in the reader), and uses love as a driving force for the resolution of the story. It’s beautiful!

As I said in the introduction, Kiernan is one of my absolute favorite Mythos writers. I’ve never read a story by them that failed to elicit a powerful emotional response or one which I’ve easily forgotten. (Also contained in this collection, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” needs to be read and re-read by every HPL fan, and then someone needs to combine the two stories into a single, B&W noir film. Please.) Like the title suggests, this is a story that draws you in and doesn’t let go. It is neither violent nor grotesque, but quietly suggestive, emotionally gripping, and beautifully haunting.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection.  But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.

Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.

Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.

At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.

Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.

I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.

When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.

The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.

I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

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