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Tales of Pain and Wonder Hardcover – March 25, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Each story in this definitive third edition of Kiernan's loosely linked collection stands alone as a visceral slice of life. While Anamorphosis and To This Water rely on the overdone menaces of pedophilia and rape, Bela's Plot (a four-time IHG award winner) establishes a delicate balance between the romance of decay and deliberately undercutting characters' gothic pretensions. Glass Coffin, Salammbô, Salmagundi, ...Between the Gargoyle Trees and the previously unpublished Salammbô Redux relate the history of sisters Salmagundi and Salammbô Desvernine and their disturbed and disturbing extended family. Paedomorphosis and Rats Live on No Evil Star approach closest to classic horror, driven by revulsion and fear of the alien, while in Estate, a human terrorizes a supernatural creature, and San Andreas relies on pure human nature for its shuddery effect. Together, the impact of these stories is stunning: glancing collisions between psychics, runaways, junkies, artists and whores (who, as in Kiernan's Silk, function as a loose alternative to a family) add up to a portrait of something broken and beautiful. (Mar.)
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Top customer reviews
I wouldn't like to offer you a story-wise review, since that would do great injustice to Kiernan's writing. Although these 22 stories are somewhat loosely related, as we find some of the characters coming back to their own unique hells (and occasionally heavens), you may read them in whatever order you wish. Readers of "Threshold" would especially appreciate the "Into the Water Works", a prequel to that novel, and other stories leading to the introduction of the character of Deacon. But most importantly, this book should be read and treasured by all lovers of fiction, irrespective of the genre preferred: dark fantasy, horror, urban angst, surrealism, poetry.... Wholeheartedly recommended.
I have lately come to refer to Kiernan as the 'last of the great horror writers.' Partially as a lament for a genre that currently spends far too much time specializing in hot, romantic vampire novels, but also because she really is good enough that writers of her caliber are far and few between. Hers is a horror that leaks out of the spaces between things and pervades the atmosphere surrounding her characters, clinging to them like a faint scent of doubt and rot. Yet when its time finally comes, it is sure and brutal, sparing no unkindness.
Kiernan's characters exist on the fine edge of self-destructiveness, whether they come from wealth like the sisters Salammbo and Salmagundi, hypnotized by the beauty of death like Lark and Crispin, or, like Jimmy de Sade, have both feet firmly planted in terror so real it is an aesthetic experience. The confront things they cannot understand, or know far too well, living the kind of homeless or disconnected lives that make them lightning rods for real horror, not the candy-coated-sip-your-blood kind.
Kiernan admits in her forward that the book has two narratives, one is the accident of the order of writing, and the other is a natural order where the interconnections among the tales is more obvious. I chose to read in the latter order, which reveals the most about how the story arcs develop, rather than the former, which says more about Kiernan than her tales. Both, though, are legitimate approaches, and produce equally valid if different experiences.
The writer has a knack for creating symbols and only half filling them in. Eerie twins, cold presences, wounds that never heal, and barren landscapes come and go, but the reader is expected to do part of the work - to construct a narrative at least partially his own. Part of the horror is that it is my terror that lurks about, as well as Caitlin Kiernan's. Each of these stories is a opportunity to look in a place you desperately don't want to go, and to succumb to a nightmarish glamour. And above everything stands Jimmy de Sade, judge and jury in a gothic world.
This is top grade stuff. Kiernan's writing style is excellent - each word is carefully selected for its purpose, nothing is extra. Characters quickly step out of the shadows and assume an unexpected reality. This is what contemporary horror should be.