The Poet Of The Lost: Rediscovering Caitlin R. Kiernan [Fantasy Week]
Caitlin R. Kiernan is, according to Neil Gaiman, “the poet and bard of the wasted and lost.” She’s one of the most respected, and amazing, writers of dark fiction out there, but she's nowhere near as well known as she deserves to be. In an effort to correct that oversight, we've put together an introduction to the works of one of the most unique talents in fiction.
THE DROWNING GIRL & THE RED TREE
Arguably, Kiernan’s two most famous novels are The Drowning Girl and The Red Tree.
The Drowning Girl is a novel about a schizophrenic lesbian named Imp who is slowly losing her mind after encountering a woman who is a mermaid, who may be a wolf, who is the daughter of a woman who led a group into the ocean in a bizarre suicide pact --- the leader of a cult who worshipped a creature that resides at the bottom of the ocean, named Mother Hydra.
Imp falls in love with the woman, but remembers her coming to her two times, meeting this woman named Eva Canning twice, and thinks, believes, or knows that she’s also the spectre that has long haunted a river --- the ghost of a dead girl, or a sea creature, or something else entirely.
The Red Tree is about a novelist named Sarah Crowe who, in an effort to overcome her writer’s block, moves to a farmhouse in the country near a large red oak. But, since this is dark fiction, all is not what it seems. She discovers a subterranean layer underneath the house, and an unfinished manuscript on the tree’s dark past. Soon after, a young and beautiful painter moves in, and the darkness ramps up. It’s unclear what actually happens and what is just a product of Crowe slowly losing her mind. It’s a dark and haunting novel that stays with you long after you’ve finished.
Both novels echo each other --- The Red Tree features references to Mother Hydra, and The Drowning Girl’s depictions of dark, haunting wolf-based paintings will immediately call to mind images from the climax of The Red Tree.
While Kiernan isn’t a household name, she may get a bump in popularity soon. Josh Boone, the director of the hit film The Fault in Our Stars, has optioned The Drowning Girl and The Red Tree. He’s writing the script for the first; she's writing the second. Why a YA romance director is taking on some of the darkest, most cerebral, Lovecraftian fiction ever published, featuring the most unreliable narrators since Humphrey Humphrey is… well, it’s unclear. With any luck, it will be a pleasant surprise, and you and all your friends will be talking about Kiernan --- but you’ll have the most information, because you read this, you lucky dog you!
THE SANDMAN/THE DREAMING
Perhaps the most popular thing Kiernan is known for is her connection to the Vertigo series The Sandman. Not only is she professionally attached (more in a minute), but she was in a goth punk band named after Delirium. (Death’s Little Sister; listen here.)
Kiernan helped create one of the most memorable and controversial characters of the series’ run, Wanda Mann, although the extent of her involvement is unclear. Of course, that’s not her only connection to the award-winning Vertigo series.
Thanks to a story Kiernan wrote about Wanda Mann for Dreaming: Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory, a collection of short stories set in the world of The Sandman, Kiernan was asked by Gaiman to write for the then-running anthology-esque Sandman series The Dreaming. After an issue or two, Vertigo handed her the series, and she wrote the remaining thirty-some issues, which --- unjustly --- caused a huge controversy in which she was blamed for killing the series. She became, in her words, "the most hated woman in Sandman fandom."
However, if you check out the series, you’ll see that this is an overblown claim; she’s an amazing writer, and comic book fans have always been populated with whiny babies. The comics might be a bit hard to find, unfortunately. Despite the fact that The Dreaming is based on one of the most popular comics ever, Kiernan's thirty-plus issue run on The Dreaming still somehow remains largely uncollected, though, Comixology does offer every issue of the series digitally.
Whether or not her comics are as terrible as the hype (they’re not), Kiernnan was no doubt a huge influence on the world of Sandman. Her work on The Dreaming also made her one of the few trans women to ever write for DC Comics.
After that, Kiernan was gone from comics for a bit. Then came Alabaster.
Alabaster has weird, twisting history. The Dark Horse series centers on Dancy Flammarion, a homeless teenage girl introduced in Kiernan’s second novel, Threshold: A Novel of Deep Time. At first, Kiernan had intended nothing more for Flammarion --- a girl who attempts to save the protagonists from Lovecraftian beasts at the urging of her guardian angel --- than that one novel, but then Kiernan had another story for the girl. Then another, then another.
At a convention, an editor at Dark Horse contacted Kiernan about doing a short piece for Dark Horse Presents. Kiernan decided to do a Flammarion story. After the success of that, she was asked to write a mini that became Alabaster: Wolves. That was just the start --- so far there have been two more Flammarion mini-series, Alabaster: Grimmer Tales and Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and the Bird. Between Grimmer and the Bird, the Flammarion prose short stories were collected in an illustrated book called Alabaster: Pale Horse, also released by Dark Horse.
Between the novel and the short stories, Flammarion changed from an almost definitely delusional girl into a somewhat more steady fighter. When Threshold came out, it was hard to tell exactly if Flammarion was driven by an angel or just her insanity; if she was more helpful or harmful.
By the time Wolves came about --- which Kiernan described as a “reboot” for the character --- Flammarion was a proper comic book protagonist; a hard-boiled, Southern-steeped monster-hunter working for the forces of Heaven while wondering if, perhaps, they are as evil as what she’s fighting. She's someone who fits perfectly along Dark Horse’s other characters, such as Buffy and Hellboy, although with much more of a Southern Gothic flavor.
If you're looking to discover the work of Caitlin R. Kiernan, the Alabaster series are a great place to start.