"Above all others [s]he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination... the major products of [Ms. Kiernan] attain a genuinely classic level, and evoke as does nothing else in literature an awed convinced sense of the imminence of strange spiritual spheres of entities." -- H.P. Lovecraft (paraphrased)
By Paula Guran
By Paula Guran
by Caitlin Kiernan
Roc/ 260 pages/ $14
(Publication date: 6 November 2001)
I can't even remember the last time I had my dreams directly invaded by what I was reading. Considering what I read, that's good. Nightly nightmares probably are not good for you. Then I read Caitlin Kiernan's new novel THRESHOLD. And I had dreams. Haunting dreams. Kiernan manufactures an "atmosphere of fear" so effectively that it indelibly permeates your psyche.
She manages this by combining the symbolic with the realistic, the weird and the worldly, the rational and irrational, the literature of the 21st century with that of the past, her own professional scientific knowledge of paleontology with an innate sense of the supernatural. And dreams, too, play an essential role in THRESHOLD.
Chance Matthews is twenty-three and studying paleontology in Birmingham, Alabama. It is field in which her grandparents (who raised her) both excelled. But, like almost everyone else who ever mattered to her, they are both dead -- her grandfather very recently. Chance's grieving solitude is disrupted by Dancy Flammerion, a strange albino teen-age girl who has emerged from the backwoods to find Chance, a woman she has never met but of whom she had had dreams. Dancy may be a psychotic killer or she may simply be as mad as Alice's Hatter (even though she closely resembles Alice's White Rabbit.) There's also the chance that angels do talk to her and that she kills monsters at their biding.
Despite her emotionalism, Chance is essentially a scientist, logical and with faith only in evidence as solid as the rocks with which she works. As she studies ancient species, her life is filled with mystery and revelation. "But never mysteries whose understandings lay any farther away from her than the familiar confines of the rational, the empirical. and never revelations that left her with anything other than a deeper respect for the methods of science and a deeper faith in the constant, foreseeable pattern of nature."
Dancy approaches Chance with warnings of doom only after she has convinced Deacon "Deke" Silvey -- Chance's ex-lover who has been driven to alcoholism in part by a psychic ability strong enough to assist in solving gruesome crimes, but in which Chance never believed -- of the seriousness of the situation. Deke is a skeptic, not quite accepting Dancy's story while knowing there is truth to it -- and always intent on trying to lessen his pain, to make it bearable with the booze.
Sadie Jasper, Deke's goth girlfriend, is convinced. She reads Algernon Blackwood and Yeats and is writing a book she never intends anyone else to read. Sadie is also, like most horror readers and at least one character in any horror movie, "hungry for secrets. Afraid of the sounds an old house makes at night, but she's starving to learn something really terrible."
Kiernan provides clues, pieces of a puzzle for both her characters and readers to sort out. Or rather, as Chance points out at one point, "...some of them are pieces of a puzzle and the real trick is figuring out which ones are and which ones aren't." Dancy's strange knowledge, their dead friend Elise appearing in Chance's dreams, a trilobite, an odd impression on an ancient rock, a specimen in a bottle, a suicidal crow, a ledger, her grandmother's death... The puzzle is also tied to something monstrous that Chance, Deke, and their friend Elise experienced one night while stoned and exploring the waterworks tunnels through Birmingham's Red Mountain. Elise later committed suicide and neither Deke or Chance have ever spoken of that night.
For readers, one clue lies in references to Blackwood. Although THRESHOLD echoes many mythic voices including that of Beowulf, Lewis Carroll, William Butler Yeats, and others, the most obvious resonance is Blackwood's story "The Willows." "The Willows" tells of two men who, at least on the surface, are unalike. Like the characters of THRESHOLD, they are forced to confront the uncanny and try to survive.
We come to realize the tunnel, built in 1888, breeches some sort of boundary between our world and a place where "beings who are now about us [but] have absolutely nothing to do with mankind" dwell..."it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own." (I quote Blackwood, not Kiernan.) When human "thoughts make spirals in their world" (both Blackwood and Kiernan) the boundary is dangerously breached.
Kiernan's distinctive style may deter a few readers. If so, it is their loss. In THRESHOLD, she uses her notably poetic witchery of words to describe the indescribable or etch an emotion. By the end of this novel of truth and time (it is subtitled "A Novel of Deep Time") and dreams you start to grasp some of the meaning of the many levels of her story. When it reaches its unexpected conclusion, you have just begun to cross the THRESHOLD's threshold. You are finally ready to begin understanding.
H.P Lovecraft said of Algernon Blackwood, "Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination... the major products of Mr. Blackwood attain a genuinely classic level, and evoke as does nothing else in literature an awed convinced sense of the imminence of strange spiritual spheres of entities." The same can now be said of Kiernan. THRESHOLD is an impressive achievement.-- Paula Guran, originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #37