A is for Alien
Caitlin R. Kiernan
I’m pretty terrible at reading short fiction. I’ve said that before. It isn’t an easy form to write in and when reading it I always feels the siren call of longer prose. So, when I say that A is for Alien is one of the more engrossing collections I’ve read, amongst a very tiny list of collections I’ve actually read, you should understand that for me that is pretty high praise. Perhaps it is Kiernan’s use of one of my favorite Lovecraft quotes as the collection’s opening epithet but from the very beginning I found reading the the stories collected here to be a pleasant, though frequently bleak and depressing, experience.
To be honest I’m not quite certain I’m qualified to judge how well the stories in A is for Alien function as short stories, it isn’t a form I’m versed enough in to form an opinion of real merit, but I can say that as plain old fiction the stories here are creative, fascinating, exciting, sad, and occaisonally frustrating. Most stories are blatantly ambiguous leaving one craving more details. Opening story Riding the White Bull thrusts the reader into a situation involving a kind of psychic detective tracking an alien entity dropping hints about his history with his now-cyborg handler and the original discovery of the same alien entity. It is a surprisingly complete tale, completely self-contained, wrapping its story up in its scant page count. It is a satisfying story in its own right but at the same time leaving you craving something longer.
Which, truth be told, can be said for a number of the stories in this collection. Primarily, these stories are those that seem to occupy the same worldspace. With posthuman entities, a vaguely post-apocalyptic New York, noir overtones, and Lovecraft influenced inscurtable alien entities it hits multiple notes on my own scale of cool that have me hoping its a world that Kiernan returns to in the future; either as another collection or as a longer piece of fiction. Other tales, offer interesting and frequently heavy ideas. “Ode to Katan Amano” and “A Season of Broken Dolls” were two that were especially fascinating. The latter in particular, about a journalist’s encounters with the world of gene scultping, living statues made of people and other living parts (the mention of walls covered with living human skin was the one that particular sickened) was bleak in its outlook, not only on journalistic integrity, but on the darker depths art can sink to given the advent of new technologies. But again, as in other stories, A Season of Broken Dolls, takes an rather nebulous approach examing in detail the journalist’s reaction to horror but never going into specific details about the object that caused it. However, here that same ambiguity works to great effect since as a reader you end up walking that fine line between curiosity and aversion. A Season of Broken Dolls’ #17 is the monster you never see but you know is there and as a result feels all the more chilling.
Kiernan is a disciple of Lovecraft that espouses that same unknowable horror of humanity’s attempts to reach beyond our own ken. Many writers have employed Lovecraftian elements to great effect but Kiernan is the only author I have ever read who is truly able to nail the oppressive tone and mood of Lovecraft’s vision without ever seeming to imitate. Of course, it is a tone and approach that could easily become overbearing though in Kiernan’s case she tends to mitigate that possibility with a splash of humor and her deft ability to weave thematic elements from other genres into the mix.
If you’re a fan of both horror and science-fiction and have yet to give Kiernan a try A is for Alien is an excellent opportunity to experience her unique style. While her longer fiction tends to be related, it isn’t a true series (at least I don’t think it is) but it features recurring characters, this collection remains self-contained and doesn’t appear to relate to any of her novels (at least as far as I could tell). While it certainly isn’t a perfect collection and amongst the limited amount of Kiernan’s writing I’ve experienced (I’ve previously read Threshold and Daughter of Hounds) features some of her best. Splendid stuff and, if you like it, keep an eye out for The Red Tree coming in August.
RANTY NOTE: Why the hell does Roc insist on the craptastic “urban fantasy” covers? Ugh. I don’t have anything against urban fantasy in particular but it they tend to have a distinctive pattern to their cover art that Roc has copied for Kiernan’s novels. They don’t really convey anything about the novel and are, IMO, quite misleading.