LOW RED MOON
By Caitlin Kiernan
Welcome to the "Lovecraftian-paleontological fiction" Sub-Genre
Low Red Moon
ROC / 352 pages / $14
I'd predict that the next big horror subgenre is sure to be "Lovecraftian-paleontological fiction" -- if Caitlin Kiernan had not already both created and cornered the market. Let's face it, there aren't many fictionists who know Mississippian from Ordovician, let alone the difference between the two. The fact, however, that Kiernan knows the difference is the least of her talents.
Her latest novel, Low Red Moon, is both a continuation (of her Lovecraftian-paleontological universe) and a departure (from her less conventional previous style and structure and, well, paleontology.) After a prologue-introduction to brooding murderess Narcissa Snow, the voices in her head, and something of her situation, we are re-introduced to Deacon Silvey. In previous novel Threshold Deacon "Deke" Silvey was an alcoholic-psychic and his girlfriend was the ever-rational paleontologist Chance Matthews. They are now married and expecting their first child. Deke's been sober for a while, but it's still a full-time job to stay that way. Chance has finished her degree and been hired as an assistant professor in the geology department at the university where she still works closely with long-time friend Alice Sprinkle. Sadie Jasper, Deke's friend from the old days, also returns in a supporting role.
Local police, alerted to Deke's psychic abilities by an Atlanta cop with whom he'd previously worked to solve crimes, have called him in on an investigation. What he "sees" at the scene of a ghastly crime -- Narcissa -- is too terrible to tell the police and nearly drives him back to drink. Chance also flashes a bit on the bad vibes. But, burdened with hormonally induced near-hysteria, the eminent birth of her child, and her attempt to adhere to logic, Chance's response to Deke is loyal but shrill.
Narcissa's plans for Deke and Chance's unborn child soon consume the couple as well as their closest friends, Alice and Sadie. The story unfolds as Deke is forced to pursue Narcissa and her relentless monstrosity.
And therein lies a key difference between Low Red Moon and Kiernan's first two novels, Silk and Threshold. Once the LRM story is set up it becomes, essentially, a chase sequence with Deke as the hero and Narcissa as the bad guy. This is, of course, not an unusual course to follow with a novel, but it is a different direction for Kiernan. Although it's the author's longest book, it is also the "easiest," fastest-paced of the three. Even if Kiernan had no conscious plan to make it so, this structure allows Low Red Moon to be a far more "suitable" (Translation: "comprehensible to the illiterates who run Hollywood") choice for film development. (Translation: More accessible to more readers even if it is never a movie.) Yes, LRM -- unlike Kiernan's two previous novels -- can be reduced to a log-line: Beautiful blonde monster Narcissa is "ticked off because she wants to be a real monster and the other monsters won't let her into the club." She thinks that by giving them "psychic detective" Deacon and rational paleontologist Chance's very special unborn child that she can "buy her way in." Narcissa kidnaps the pregnant Chance so that baby can be born amidst a macabre birthing ritual and Deacon must race against time and forces beyond human control or comprehension in a desperate attempt to save his wife and child.
Of course log-lining does not do justice to Kiernan's novel. That's just the skeleton. There's plenty of meat, blood and gristle to the story and far more nuance than film can probably convey. Two "Children of the Cuckoo," Starling Jane and Scarborough Pentecost, show up to tie the basic storyline even more firmly to the larger somewhat Lovecraftian universe Kiernan has been creating these last few years, a universe in which a world of unspeakable but alluring nastiness that connects to our own in places like the waterworks tunnels through Birmingham's Red Mountain and beneath a certain yellow house on Benefit Street in Providence, RI. Jane and Pentecost serve the Hounds of that other world, the very entities with whom Narcissa wishes to attain full communion.
Kiernan sticks to the previously established amorality of her universe. The single most heroic incident in Deacon's life, for instance, turns out to also have been a sort of villainy. One cannot help but sympathize with monster Narcissa, as nasty as she is. The denizens of those Other Darker Places cannot be considered as evil, but merely beyond our ken: "You'll never see past the lies that were put here to blind you," Narcissa tells Chance. "You'll never see the truth of things, the beauty and the horror hidden just below the surface."
There may be neither good nor evil in Kiernan's cosmos, but in LRM -- unlike Threshold and Silk -- that cosmos definitely embraces the supernatural. Although the author makes some effort to cast doubt, ultimately she leaves no choice but to accept that there preternatural mysteries of time and space and not everything can be rationally explained. This may be one reason that LRM is less eerie and atmospheric than Threshold; more H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps, than Algernon Blackwood.
The many levels of Threshold are replaced by inner-connectedness to earlier works. Although LRM stands alone as a novel, it's this tangle of fictional web that gives it true dimension. Those well-versed in Kiernania will spot references to and characters from several short stories, the novella In the In the Garden of Poisonous Flowers, as well as Threshold and, to a much lesser extent,Silk . One can envision it all growing into an annotated, cross-referenced dark fantasy over the next two or three decades, an intelligent franchise. LRM even ends with a pronounced and poignant "beginning." Low Red Moon might eventually be viewed as a "bridge" work with which devoted readers can start piecing together the Meaning of It All. Not that Kiernan should devote herself solely to this channel of her imagination, but she can dip back into it and draw upon it as she wishes.
Then there's this change in the author's use of language and writing style --
Early in LRM Deacon tells erstwhile novelist Sadie that he liked her writing style, her voice. Sadie replies with a laugh, "My voice?...My last rejection slip called my style obtuse' and contrived.'" Deacon compares it to Faulkner, "a la The Sound and the Fury." Sadie says: "Oh, you mean the way I liked to run words together to make new adjectives? Well, I don't do that anymore. It just kept pissing people off."
Kiernan, too, has dropped stylistic conceits similar to (if more successfully executed than) Sadie's. Unlike Sadie, though, Kiernan's voice seldom impeded her editorial (or critical) acceptance. Although her style probably did piss people off, they were probably people who wouldn't care much for her work anyway. This new "looseness," however, may free the author herself and allow for new approaches to her fiction. -- from Cemetery Dance #48
Copyright © 2004 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.