I’ve been spending these past two weeks working my way through Silk, the first novel written by acclaimed dark fantasist Caitlín R. Kiernan. It’s rather appropriate I chose this month to take the plunge; according to Kiernan herself, she started work on Silk on October 11th, in Birmingham, Alabama, all the way back in 1993. The novel is…
Actually, let’s not take that route. Let’s try something a little different today.
According to the catalogue of books I make every year, the first novel of Caitlín Kiernan’s I ever read was The Red Tree back when it was sweeping the genre awards in 2011. However, it was only around 2014 that I started her more seriously, first her Dancy Flammarion short stories, then Murder of Angels, the sequel to Silk, and finally a few of her short story collections. It’s been her short stories that have resonated with me the most, but I’ve always had so much trouble explaining precisely why. I suppose it’s part of my weaknesses as a critic; I can hash out world-historical trends like a mofo, but I always feel a little wary outside my little box.
If I had to say what about Kiernan’s work is so compelling to me, I would have to say that it is because she is a pessimistic writer, but of a different sort of pessimist than is commonly found in literary circles. I’m no stranger to contemporary pessimism; I’ve read my Houellebecq and Ligotti and K. J Parker, and they all share a certain outlook, of the (usually male) outsider viewing society as an alien creation, capable of either corrupting the protagonist or being exploited by them for some small pleasure. Kiernan’s fiction, by contrast, is a fiction of the losers, those who are marginalized, pushed to the outskirts by society, and are either unwilling or unable to make any attempt at assimilation. Silk itself is case in point; set sometime in the mid-1990s (Kurt Cobain’s death gets a mention), the story drifts around Birmingham and follows three primary viewpoints: Daria Parker, a bassist trying to keep her band together and keep her guitarist/occasional boyfriend from destroying himself with heroin, Nikki Ky, a Vietnamese-American runaway from New Orleans trying to forget her guilt, and Spyder Baxter, who deserves separate consideration below. These characters and their friends are outsiders to life in Birmingham; they look with contempt at the steel towers of modern life, and personal traumas, interests, and sexualities make them easy targets for the rest of “mainstream” society. There’s a fair amount of abuse in Silk, and much of it is harrowing.
Now, judging from this summary, Silk may just seem like another 1990s novel of outsiders in the big hateful city. However, as the novel progresses, odd things begin happening, all of them connected to Spyder Baxter. A friend will get in a fight with her, then find himself stalked by something in an alley that isn’t there. When she and her “shrikes” gather in her decrepit Victorian home (complete with a bedroom full of spiders in aquarium tanks), they do drugs as she spins stories of wars in Heaven and rogue angels hiding treasures in ordinary humans. In the mornings, she makes her Spam and eggs, takes her medications, and tries to keep the voice of her father who dragged her into the basement as a little girl to scream of the end of the world out of her head. Through Spyder the supernatural bleeds into the world of the novel, but it is handled very ambiguously. For most of the novel, it seems as though the other characters have been infected by Spyder’s mental problems, having dreams and seeing hallucinations reminiscent of Spyder’s, with the book only tipping to the genuinely unworldly right at the end. That’s not a knock against the book; Kiernan is one of those authors for whom the supernatural bleeds into the everyday without needing a portal or an invitation. In time Spyder becomes the antagonist of the story, yet it is to Kiernan’s greatest credit that, in spite of Spyder’s cruelty and delusion, we still see the sickness that drives her, and view not with hate and fear, but the deepest empathy.
As an aside, I should mention that Spyder, with her bleached dreadlocks, pale skin, and blue eyes, and visions of divine vengeance, seems to resemble an earlier iteration of Dancy Flammarion, one that never received The Call and fell into self-consumption. I know Kiernan did experiment with connecting Dancy to Silk in the short story “Bainbridge,” but she eventually rewrote those connections out. For now, it’s better to assume the two are just expressions of an archetype.
This is honestly a piss-poor attempt at a review of a book I really liked but I still don’t feel qualified to talk about. (Fun fact: about a year ago I was given the opportunity to get ahold of an expensive collection of Kiernan’s short stories to review somewhere. I turned them down because I didn’t think I had the right mind for the job.) Kiernan’s novels aren’t for everyone, of course. Kiernan has never had much interest in the strictures of plot, which may make her novels seem shapeless to those brought up on more standard fare. Her books are more stories of characterization, atmosphere, and mood rather than the frogmarch of events, and by those standards she is one of the best writers working today. There’s frank depictions of sex, but they’re handled with a sensitivity and an awareness of the vagarities of actual human intimacy that I’ve rarely seen in genre literature. Silk is not for everyone, but it just might be the book for you.