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The Drowning Girl Paperback – March 6, 2012

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Roc Trade; 1 edition (March 6, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451464168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451464163
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #264,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Caitlin R. Kiernan is the author of nine novels, including Silk, Threshold, Low Red Moon, Murder of Angels, Daughter of Hounds, and The Red Tree. Her award-winning short fiction has been collected in six volumes, including Tales of Pain and Wonder; To Charles Fort, With Love; Alabaster; and, most recently, A is for Alien. She has also published two volumes of erotica, Frog Toes and Tentacles and Tales from the Woeful Platypus. Trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, she currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


“I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.

“A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,” she also typed.

I also typed.

My name is India Morgan Phelps, though almost everyone I know calls me Imp. I live in Providence, Rhode Island, and when I was seventeen, my mother died in Butler Hospital, which is located at 345 Blackstone Boulevard, right next to Swan Point Cemetery, where many notable people are buried. The hospital used to be called the Butler Hospital for the Insane, but somewhere along the way the “for the Insane” part was dropped. Maybe it was bad for business. Maybe the doctors or trustees or board of directors or whoever makes decisions about such things felt crazy people would rather not be put away in an insane asylum that dares to admit it’s an insane asylum, that truth in advertising is a detriment. I don’t know, but my mother, Rosemary Anne, was committed to Butler Hospitalbecause she was insane. She died there, at the age of fifty–six, instead of dying somewhere else, because she was insane. It’s not like she didn’t know she was insane, and it’s not like I didn’t know, too, and if anyone were to ask me, dropping “for the Insane” is like dropping “burger” from Burger King, because hamburgers aren’t as healthy as salads. Or dropping “donuts” from Dunkin’ Donuts because donuts cause cavities and make you fat.

My grandmother Caroline—my mother’s mother, who was born in 1914, and lost her husband in World War II—she was also a crazy woman, but she died in her own bed in her own house down in Wakefield. No one put her away in a hospital, or tried to pretend she wasn’t crazy. Maybe people don’t notice it so much, once you get old, or only older. Caroline turned on the gas and shut all the windows and doors and went to sleep, and in her suicide note she thanked my mother and my aunts for not sending her away to a hospital for the mentally insane, where she’d have been forced to live even after she couldn’t stand it anymore. Being alive, I mean. Or being crazy. Whichever, or both.

It’s sort of ironic that my aunts are the ones who had my mother committed. I suppose my father would have done it, but he left when I was ten, and no one’s sure where he went. He left my mother because she was insane, so I like to think he didn’t live very long after he left us. When I was a girl, I used to lie awake in bed at night, imagining awful ways my father might have met his demise, all manner of just desserts for having dumped us and run away because he was too much of a coward to stick around for me and my mother. At one point, I even made a list of various unpleasant ends that may have befallen my father. I kept it in a stenographer’s pad, and I kept the pad in an old suitcase under my bed, because I didn’t want my mother to see it. “I hope my father died of venereal disease, after his dick rotted off” was at the top of the list, and was followed by lots of obvious stuff—car accidents, food poisoning, cancer—but I grew more imaginative as time went by, and the very last thing I put on the list (#316), was “I hope my father lost his mind and died alone and frightened.” I still have that notebook, but now it’s on a shelf, not hidden away in an old suitcase.

So, yeah. My mother, Rosemary Anne, died in Butler Hospital. She committed suicide in Butler Hospital, though she was on suicide watch at the time. She was in bed, in restraints, and there was a video camera in her room. But she still pulled it off. She was able to swallow her tongue and choke to death before any of the nurses or orderlies noticed what was happening. The death certificate says she died of a seizure, but I know that’s not what happened. Too many times when I visited her, she’d tell me she wanted to die, and usually I told her I’d rather she lived and get better and come home, but that I wouldn’t be angry if that’s really what she had to do, if she had to die. If there came a day or night when she just couldn’t stand it any longer. She said she was sorry, but that she was glad I understood, that she was grateful that I understood. I’d take her candy and cigarettes and books, and we’d have conversations about Anne Sexton and Diane Arbus and about Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse. I never told Rosemary’s doctors about any of these conversations. I also didn’t tell them about the day, a month before she choked on her tongue, that she gave me a letter quoting Virginia Woolf’s suicide note: “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.” I keep that thumbtacked to the wall in the room where I paint, which I guess is my studio, though I usually just think of it as the room where I paint.

I didn’t realize I was also insane, and that I’d probably always been insane, until a couple of years after Rosemary died. It’s a myth that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Many of use are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people. Still, it simply hadn’t occurred to me, that the way I saw the world meant that I had inherited “the Phelps Family Curse” (to quote my Aunt Elaine, who has a penchant for melodramatic turns of phrase). Anyway, when it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t sane, I went to see a therapist at Rhode Island Hospital. I paid her a lot of money, and we talked (mostly I talked while she listened), and the hospital did some tests. When all was said and done, the psychiatrist told me I suffered from disorganized schizophrenia, which is also called hebephrenia, for Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. She—the psychiatrist—didn’t tell me that last part; I looked it up myself. Hebephrenia is named after the Greek goddess of youth because it tends to manifest at puberty. I didn’t bother to point out that, if the way I thought and saw the world meant that I was schizophrenic, the crazy had started well before puberty. Anyway, later, after more tests, the diagnosis was changed to paranoid schizophrenia, which isn’t named after a Greek god, or any god that I’m aware of.

The psychiatrist, a women from Boston named Magdalene Ogilvy—a name that always puts me in mind of Edward Gorey or a P. G. Wodehouse novel—found the Phelps Family Curse very interesting, because, she said, there’s evidence to suggest that schizophrenia may be hereditary, at least in some cases. So, there you go. I’m crazy because Rosemary was crazy and had a kid, and Rosemary was crazy because my grandmother was crazy and had a kid (well, several, but only Rosemary lucked out and got the curse). I told Dr. Ogilvy the stories my grandmother used to tell about her mother’s sister, whose name was also Caroline. According to my grandmother, Caroline kept dead birds and mice in stoppered glass jars lined up on all her windowsills. She labeled each jar with a passage from the Bible. I told the psychiatrist I’d suspect that my Great Aunt Caroline might have only suffered from a keen interest in natural history, if not for the thing with the Bible verses. Then again, I said, it might have been she was trying to create a sort of concordance, correlating specific species with scripture, but Dr. Ogilvy said, no, she was likely also schizophrenic. I didn’t argue. Rarely do I feel like arguing with anyone.

So, I have my amber bottles of pills, my mostly reliable pharmacopeia of antipsychotics and sedatives, which are not half so interesting as my great aunt’s bottles of mice and sparrows. I have Risperdol, Depakene, and Valium, and so far I’ve stayed out of Butler Hospital, and I’ve only tried to kill myself. And only once. Or twice. Maybe I have the drugs to thank for this, or maybe I have my painting to thank, or maybe it’s my paintings and the fact that my girlfriend puts up with my weird shit and makes sure I take the pills and is great in the sack. Maybe my mother would have stuck around a little longer if she’d gotten laid now and then. As far as I know, no one has ever proposed sex therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia. But at least fucking doesn’t make me constipated or make my hands shake—thank you, Mr. Risperdol—or cause weight gain, fatigue, and acne—thank you so much, Mr. Depakene. I think of all my pills as male, a fact I have not yet disclosed to my psychiatrist. I have a feeling she might feel compelled to make something troublesome of it, especially since she already knows about my “how daddy should die” list.

My family’s lunacy lines up tidy as boxcars: grandmother, daughter, the daughter’s daughter, and, thrown in for good measure, the great aunt. Maybe the Curse goes even farther back than that, but I’m not much for genealogy. Whatever secrets my great–grandmothers and great–great–grandmothers might have harbored and taken to their graves, I’ll let them be. I’m already sort of sorry I haven’t done the same for Rosemary Anne and Caroline. But they’re too much a part of my story, and I need them to tell it. Probably, I could be writing fabricated versions of them, fictional avatars to stand in for the women they actually were, but I knew both well enough to know neither would have wanted that. I can’t tell my story, or the parts of my story that I’m going to try to tell, without also...

More About the Author

Caitlin R. Kiernan was born near Dublin, Ireland, but has spent most of her life in the southeastern United States. In college, she studied zoology, geology, and palaeontology, and has been employed as a vertebrate palaeontologist and college-level biology instructor. The results of her scientific research have been published in the JOURNAL OF VERTEBRATE PALAEONTOLOGY, THE JOURNAL OF PALAEONTOLOGY and elsewhere. In 1992, she began writing her first novel, THE FIVE OF CUPS (it remained unpublished until 2003). Her first published novel, SILK (1998), earned her two awards and praise from critics and such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Poppy Z. Brite. Her next novel, THRESHOLD (2001), was also an award-winner, and since then she has written LOW RED MOON (2003), MURDER OF ANGELS (2004), DAUGHTER OF HOUNDS (2007), and, forthcoming, THE RED TREE. She is a prolific short fiction author, and her award-winning short stories have been collected in TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER (2000), WRONG THINGS (with Poppy Z. Brite; 2001), FROM WEIRD AND DISTANT SHORES (2002), and TO CHARLES FORT, WITH LOVE (2005), ALABASTER (2006), FROG TOES AND TENTACLES (2005), TALES FROM THE WOEFUL PLATYPUS (2007), and, most recently, the sf collection, A IS FOR ALIEN (2009). She has also scripted comics for DC/Vertigo, including THE DREAMING ('97-'01), THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE DEATH ('98), and BAST: ETERNITY GAME ('03). Her short sf novel THE DRY SALVAGES was published in 2004, and has published numerous chapbooks since 2000. Caitlin also fronted the goth-rock band Death's Little Sister in 1996-1997, once skinned a lion, and likes sushi. She lives in Providence, RI with her partner, Kathryn, and her two cats, Hubero and Smeagol. Caitlin is represented by Writer's House (NYC) and United Talent Agency (LA).

Customer Reviews

To know what I mean by that, you’ll need to read it.
Caitlin R. Kiernan's novel is ever powerful, often poetic and at times profane.
John O. Raab
Within the first chapter, I knew I was going to love this book.
Nicole Sharp

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By E. A Solinas HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 3, 2012
Format: Paperback
"The Drowning Girl" is a book that doesn't fit neatly into any category -- it's a haunting, dreamlike novel awash in mermaids, werewolves, fairy tales, art and schizophrenia. Caitlin Kiernan is at the peak of her wordcrafting powers in this story, weaving together a truly spellbinding fantasy in which nothing is quite as it seems.

Schizophrenia runs in India Morgan Phelp's (aka Imp) family. Her mother committed suicide because of it, and she still struggles on a daily basis -- especially since she can't trust her own memories. It also gives her some oddities, including a fascination with the Red Riding Hood fairytale, drowning victims and a painting called "The Drowning Girl."

But one night, she finds a naked woman named Eva Canning out by the river. Much to the dismay of her girlfriend Abalyn, Imp brings her home to shower off.

From then on, Imp is haunted by Eva Canning, who may be a mermaid, a werewolf, or two different women altogether. As her relationship and her sanity crumble, Imp must somehow put the fragmented pieces of her psyche together and discover the secrets of Eva Canning, and how much of this magical sea woman comes from insanity...

Reading "The Drowning Girl" is akin to slowly being pulled into a crystalline whirlpool, only to be just as slowly swept out onto a moonlit beach. Caitlin Kiernan immerses you into Imp's mind until -- like her -- you can't tell fantasy from reality, magic from madness. Memories are unreliable, truth becomes fluid.

The plot revolves around four very different women. Imp is a brilliant, fragmented woman haunted by countless things, and she's being tugged between the world of sanity (Dr. Ogilvie) and the world of enthralling, magical madness (Eva).
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By @Julia_ATUF on March 7, 2012
Format: Paperback
Review courtesy of All Things Urban Fantasy.

By the purest definition of the rating, THE DROWNING GIRL is indisputably 5bats. A few chapters in, I was already reading passages aloud to friends. I already knew who would be receiving my own copy, budgeting for who I could send others. This had less to do with any enjoyment of the book than a sense of haunting that perfectly mirrors the main character's own experiences. Does anyone else see what I see? Am I crazy, am I alone?

THE DROWNING GIRL introduces concepts and stories and images that are impossible to shake, and the thought of being able to discuss them with others is comforting. Even more so, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred more in this book than any other I've read. Which of the "facts" relayed by Imp are from our world, which from hers? While the fantasy elements of this story are arguably the product of Imp's illness, the way she expresses her story is so beautifully crafted as to make me doubt even that. This charismatic but unreliable narrator, like any true artist, is able to convey the feeling of her own insanity without ever giving me the sense that I had unraveled it's mystery. As I read, trying to match dates and references to reality, I realized I was falling into Imp's own habits, desperately trying to impose order on fragmented and flawed mind. Like Russian dolls, stories and paintings and quotes nest themselves into the narrative in a way that is as enthralling as it is inscrutable.

Kiernan creates a new definition for "haunting", while at the same time infecting me with the same. With so much discussion of different types of art (short stories, paintings, sculpture, content...), THE DROWNING GIRL delivers it's own message with a slight of the hand that is devastating.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Soronia on March 31, 2012
Format: Paperback
This is a ghost story, and this is not a ghost story.

How two things can be simultaneously true and real, true and factual, is at the core of this haunting (yes, literally) novel, Kiernan's latest forray into the weird and fringe. Imp--India Morgan Phelps--is a schizophrenic woman living in Providence, RI with her girlfriend when she finds a naked woman standing by the side of the road. She does what a any good citizen might, except that maybe she didn't--because she meets the woman Eva months later once again, as if it's the first time. We might chalk this up to the unreliable narrator, but Imp is so candid and clear that it would be hard to disbelieve her entirely. That's one of the strengths of this novel, that we think we can see the delusions for what they really are and divide them from the truth, while all the while Imp confesses her unsurety. Eva's uncanny presence and the tethering sanity of Imp's practical girlfriend pull us in yet more directions, elegantly blurring the truth.

Kiernan not only toes the line between "reality" and "delusion" (while asking what those categories really mean, I might add), she shaves that line so thin it all but dissolves, and like any razor's edge, it's sharp enough to cut you.

Certainly Kiernan bled into this novel. It positively drips with her devotion and painstaking effort, and yet the narrative voice is effortless. Is this a paradox? Perhaps so, but just as there are two Evas and two meetings, there are two authors here: the earnest and lonely Imp, and the haunting Kiernan behind her, puling all the strings until they snap. Imp is so real it hurts; she's not a character, she's a person, with all the attendant contradiction and doubt and yes, even humor.
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