Image Credit: Andre Benz
This week, I read The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan, a collection of Kiernan’s best short stories. This collection is deeply impressive. After each story, I had to stop, so I could fully appreciate the spell that each one cast over me. What surprises me the most is how I hadn’t known about her until a recent review of this book in the New York Times.
Kiernan writes a combination of dark sci-fi and fantasy stories which sometimes dip into the realm of horror. The worlds that she creates are so perfectly imagined and so real—from a forest haunted by fairies, to a futuristic Mars which has been inhabited by humanity, to the snowy hills of Romania. The characters are varied and unique—including but not limited to a priestess of a cult of Cthullu, a stripper with a bionic leg, a set of murderous vagabond twins, King Kong’s Ann Darrow, as well as Countess Erzabet Bathory.
Picking standouts amongst these pieces is incredibly difficult and entirely subjective because honestly, they’re all really good, so I’ll just summarize a few of my favorites:
“Andromeda Among the Stones” is the first piece, and I thought a really strong start to the collection. In the story, a father and his daughter bury the mother. It’s told in varying time jumps—going back in time, and then forward. The mother’s ghost visits the daughter, and then the brother appears to have some sort of wasting illness, for which he’s been locked in the attic. We eventually find that the house where they live overlooks some sort of mystical danger. Ultimately, the father’s willingness to risk all of his family in order to learn the secrets of the sea cost his family everything.
Another piece which really stood out was “La Peau Verte.” In the story, Hannah’s a struggling artist. She receives an invitation—for a thousand dollars, she must appear at a party as a green fairy. It seems like easy money, so she accepts. All the while, she’s reliving her own experience with the fairies, when her sister vanished years ago, without a trace. In a stunning array of masterful language and emotional panache, the “real” world fades away as Hannah is transported into another world—one which she ran from the last time she encountered it.
Finally, in “The Prayer of Ninety Cats,” Kiernan creates a cinematic rendering of Countess Erzabet Bathory, from her first encounter with magic to her ultimate fall from grace. It’s an intriguing reimagining of historical events, giving it the feeling of the magical—Bathory becomes a dark priestess, seeking power through blood rituals, believing that because she knows the Prayer of Ninety Cats, they will come and save her in her hour of need. Who does arrive is a small peasant girl, who is more than she seems.
I’ve never read a book of short stories that I loved as much as I did this one, to the point where I don’t feel like I’m doing it justice. Usually, there are a few which I feel don’t stand up to the rest of the pieces, but each story included in this collection is as dynamic and captivating as all of the others. There was not one story which I wasn’t completely drawn into. Kiernan is a master storyteller, and I can’t recommend this book enough.