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BOOK REVIEWS: April 2000
By Paula Guran

TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER
Caitlin Kiernan
Illustrated by Richard A. Kirk
Gauntlet Press/ $50 (signed)/ 324p ISBN: 1-887-36826-4

book cover Caitlin Kiernan writes silk and velvet in a world that reads polyester and plastic. Using lush language she builds a bleak and despairing world of ruins and rust peopled by the disenfranchised and abused, Kiernan's characters survive on the tattered fringes of society -- a raped nineteenth century Hungarian immigrant girl, goth kids surviving on "fishnet needs and black vinyl desire," Jimmy De Sade "who knows dead; the difference between metaphor and a corpse" or maybe he's Mr. D. himself just waiting for his dance. And within these alienated beings there is invariably some hint of valor, some truth of loyalty, a certain measure of nobility, some recognition of human warmth and need. In traditional horror, the writer to preserves the status quo to save the world from the mutated and monstrous -- defends the norm against the freakish. Kiernan, however, recognizes the deviant and dispossessed as an expression of faith and hope, accepts the outsider as, perhaps, the last bastion of true humanity. These intentionally disturbing stories remind us that discovery can not come without suffering and that mysteries are made real only as a last resort. Here, too, is a collection of stories thats whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the "parts" are not to be admired in and of themselves, but when read together you find recurring characters and motifs, new resonances and chords, rhythms and interplay that can not be detected as easily reading the stories here and there over the years. Her selection of Richard Kirk to illustrate -- an artist who seems born to render Kiernan's words into exquisitely detailed and nuanced pen-and-ink -- further enhances the work. Kiernan is too rare and extraordinary a writer to be accepted by all, but those who can embrace the terrible beauty of her fiction will find it revelatory.

YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU
Douglas Clegg
Leisure/ $5.99/ 393p.
ISBN: 0-8439-4695-4

book cover This might sell books, therefore it should be said, even if it does something of a critical disservice to the author: If you like Stephen King you will probably like Doug Clegg. Like King, Clegg tends to write epic horror that centers on themes like past evil reemerging in the present. Like King, his characters could be you (or maybe your trashy neighbors across the tracks) suddenly beset by the strange. Like King, Clegg is a born storyteller and he spins his tales in an enticing manner that transcends what, at first glance, appear to be generic themes. In fact, if you like Stephen King and are under the age of forty you might like Doug Clegg better than Stephen King because Clegg's work is grounded in the culture, fears, and terrors of the 70s and 80s instead of the 50s and 60s. Finally, giving Clegg the credit he deserves, you may like Clegg even if you don't like King. Although this is a novel about demonic possession, it's really about relationships between people, reality, dreams, and control. Yes, it's about Good vs. Evil, but not in a simple black-and-white, we've-got-to-save-the-world from the Devil sort of way. It's not about salvation, in fact, at all -- it's about redemption. In brief, the story centers around the then-teenaged survivors of the supernatural destruction of two small California desert towns in 1980. Clegg sets the stage -- through a blend of past and present, nightmares and reality -- for both the revelation of the horrific past and its climatic resolution two decades later. The pivot is a seductive monster who infects her victims with evil. (AIDS? The toxicity of our environment? The malevolent past lying dormant until future birth? Hey, there's some dissertation material here...) His imagery drips oozes, and pulsates with (often glowing) gore and Clegg throws every nasty imaginable at the reader -- rape, murder, sexual violence, cannibalism, monstrous manifestations, unspeakable abominations, pitbulls -- splattering the pages with almost poetic grue. For all the gross-out there's considerable glee as well -- the good guys, for instance turn out to be a close-to-retirement pseudo-scientist, two old ladies, and a little dog, too -- as the author has a fine time eliciting both screams and giggles. Clegg's a master at his craft.

CRUDDY: AN ILLUSTRATED NOVEL
Lynda Barry
Simon & Schuster/ $23/ 305p.
ISBN: 0684829746

book cover

I wish I'd found this book a few months earlier because it's simply one of the best novels of 1999 and I would have loved to have discovered it in time to recommend it for whatever award recognition I could. Sigh. Of course, it's certainly not too late to read and appreciate it! Sixteen-year-old Roberta lives "on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe..." with an irritating younger sister and a mother who is dysfunction personified. As she finds her first friends, first love, first psychedelic drug experiences, Roberta tells two stories -- one of the 1971- present, the other of a serially murderous road trip fueled by alcohol and her psychopathic father's warped sense of vengeance. (Pug ugly, her father calls her "Clyde" and she easily passes as a boy on the trip.) Abused in every conceivable way, Roberta is victimized as only a child in an adult world can be, yet at the same time she displays an amazing, cynical resilience. After all, she survives to tell the bloody tale. Or does she? Lynda Barry, who also provides the haunting and funny illustrations, is best known for her eclectic and often dark comic strip ERNIE POOK, but with CRUDDY she mixes overwhelming violence, heartbreaking tenderness, and genuine humor to create a unique and vital work of truly horrific literature. This one will blow you away. Totally.


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