Review by David G. Cercone II
November 6, 2020
What Ho, cats and kittens! I am going to attempt my first review for The Society. Therefore if this doesn’t read like something you’d see in the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement, I beg your indulgences…
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Houses Under the Sea is physically a beautiful book to look at and hold, bound in a deep shade of plum with a dust jacket that boasts an illustration hinting at the aquatic themes and dangers lying within. My copy also has a nice thicker frontispiece with the authors’ signature, as it it sone of the 1250 signed limited hardcover editions. The pages of the book are of a pleasant thickness as well. It features a splendid and revealing introduction by Kiernan to her Mythos oeuvre called “Lovecraft and I” as well as very useful publication history at the end of the book.
The stories within express, up to the date of printing, Kiernan’s total Mythos output finally collected under one cover. Totaling 30 stories in all, four of which comprise the linked Dandrige Cycle quartet and one — “M is for Mars” — appearing in print for the first time. For someone like myself this is the book I have been waiting for for a good long while and it is an absolute treat to have everything relating to the Mythos finally in one handy, if somewhat weighty, volume. It is a collection full of tales that are deeply learned and dark: replete with beauty, horror, archeology, girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and both sorts who love monsters. It is awash with Deep Ones and Ghouls and explorations of different aspects of their cultures and societies. I’d like to highlight my personal favourites for you. Most of the stories have such satisfying “reveals” that I won’t be sharing any spoilers for them.
I came to love Kiernan's writing via a story she published as part of the superb Shadows Over Baker Street collection from 2003 (Reaves and Pelan eds.) "The Drowned Geologist” is a tale delicious in its love and respect for both Conan Doyle and Lovecraft, and is written with a genuine understanding of the universes both men created so that I reread it three times the very first time I encountered it! To say more about it is to do you all a disservice, as it remains one of the two stories by Kiernan that I reread every year and I refuse to deprive you the pleasure of encountering it for yourselves. Suffice it to say HPL and Holmes are two great tastes that go great together and that you won’t look at fossils quite in the same way again after reading this…
The second tale of Kiernan’s that I cherish is “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)”. Kiernan takes us into both the worlds of the emerging film industry in America and the continuing dire effects of the paintings of one Mr. Richard Upton Pickman. A tale of drugs, suicide, the movies, decadent, deviant, underworld parties and perversions, and witchcraft; it centres around Kiernan’s love of Ghouls and their world. It exhibits Kiernan’s deft touch in taking an actual Mythos story like “Pickman’s Model” and crafting a new tale of her own that fits with it perfectly. It is an examination and an investigation of the suicide of Thurber from the original and the missing actress at the centre of the events leading to it, told from the point of view of Elliot, the character to whom Thurber narrated HPL's original tale of Pickman and his "model". Kiernan’s grasp of the early film world — something I myself have long been fascinated by — exhibits the amount of careful research she puts into all her stories. Her breadth of knowledge across several disciplines shines through in her work and never feels forced nor showy.
“Houses Under the Sea”, which I read for the first time thanks to this excellent collection, is told from the point of view of a washed-up journalist trying to make sense of the story of a cult he was covering and the collapse of the affair he was having at the same time with the mysterious Jacova Angevine, the disgraced academic at the heart of it. His investigation leads to his tangentially being placed on the fringes of the tragedy ensuing from the mass suicide she led her followers into that has made world headlines. Told in a style of such authenticity that the sting it packs in its tail is deftly delivered. Written in the academic style that Kiernan understands perfectly, for she is really a palaeontologist, you see — writing is just something she ‘does’ — the story contains excerpts from TV, the internet, and the pulp novels of Jacova’s Angevine’s dead father who is more important to the story than it at first seems. This is a sort of a Mythos take on the infamous Jonestown tragedy and Kiernan draws direct parallels between the cult in “Houses” and Jonestown intentionally. It is terrifying and I loved every page of it.
“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” is easily my favourite new story that I've come across thanks to this oh-so-useful collection. A cross between a '50s creature feature and and a missing episode of Kolchak the Night Stalker or The X-Files, it hits all the right buttons. Kiernan infuses and peppers all her stories with such elegant references, such sly winks and nods as well as easter-eggs to HPL’s originals that often her writing might be called “meta”. “Cabinet 34 Drawer 6” is a superb example of this, as this story happens to be about The Creature from the Black Lagoon pretending not to be a Deep One while the Deep Ones are pretending not to be The Creature from the Black Lagoon… It is wry and thrilling and full of conspiracies and secrets and it is absolutely gorgeous. I smiled at the end of it. Also? Anyone who has ever taken The Vermonter anywhere up and down the Northeast will appreciate this tale all the more for AMTRAK is a horror that is as eldritch as any! “Cabinet 34” has lingered in my thoughts since first reading in the best of ways.
The rest of the collection ranges from heavily erotic tales — not my personal cup of tea to be honest, but very artfully done nonetheless — to stand-alone tales mostly involving Ghouls, Deep Ones, or doomed academics. The Dandrige Cycle was entirely new to me. "M is For Mars" is a really sly tale, as so many of her tales are deliciously sly, and makes me want Kiernan to try her hand at Mythos inflected science fiction all the more.
If you are new to Kiernan’s writing I can’t suggest a better introduction to her. If, like me, you have long adored her haunting, deeply intelligent work, this collection is indispensable. I feel that Kiernan is probably the single living writer in English today who has been able to synthesise Lovecraft’s work into a combination of homage and reinterpretation in equal measures across the bulk of her writing in the most satisfying and sincere ways. Hers is a voice original, dark, and seductive — I urge you to take her to bed with you tonight; I’ve never regretted doing so….