A while ago, I bought a number of books in a Subteranean Press clearance sale. Eleven books with a huge discount, but I didn’t know what I would be getting. As it happened, the package contained a lot of short fiction collections, mostly of authors whose work I’m not too familiar with. The Ammonite Violin and Others by Caitlín R. Kiernan was one of these. Kiernan was completely new to me, but The Ammonite Violin and Others turned out to be a beautifully written collection of very dark short stories.
The collection contains 20 short stories as well as an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer (which, unless you have previous experience with Kiernan’s writing, I recommend you read after finishing the stories; he lost me halfway through the first time). As usual, Subterranean’s packaging is wonderful; this is a very nice high quality hardcover with plenty of attention to the cover art. I like the author picture (taken by Kathryn A. Pollnac) on the back of the book in particular. The Ammonite Violin and Others contains too many stories to review individually but there are some comments I’d like to make on a few of them and the collection in general.
Subterranean calls these stories dark fantasy, but I have a hard time pinning them down to a genre. Some of them could be horror, some have a post-apocalyptic feel to them, some borrow heavily from Greek and Celtic mythology. Kiernan herself does not feel she is a horror writer but some of the details from her stories do show influences of Edgar Allan Poe (although H.P. Lovecraft is also frequently mentioned in discussions of Kiernan’s work). “A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills,” for instance, shares some of Poe’s obsession with death and decay. The stories also often display a sense of helplessness and inevitability. Characters are intellectually aware that they are heading for disaster but unable to help themselves.
Most of these stories are very brief pieces, and the entire collection is only 230 pages long. They are snapshots of a moment or event crucial to the character but, as VanderMeer points out in the introduction, contain very little action. Kiernan presents many of them as riddles, leaving a lot of room for the reader to interpret the story. There’s no coddling the reader; you have to actively give meaning to the images she presents. It makes these tales fascinating, sometimes mysterious, and not something to be read cover to cover in one sitting.
The stories are written in a beautifully descriptive style. Long, flowing sentences and lots of imagery mark many of these stories. To give a random example:
It’s not a wild place — not some bottomless, peat-stained loch hidden away between high granite cliffs, and not a secret, deep spring bubbling up crystal clear from the heart of a Welsh or Irish forest where the Unseelie host is said to hold the trees always at the dry brittle end of autumn, always on the cusp of a killing winter that will never come.
With this one sentence, the opening sentence of “Bridle,” Kiernan conjures up an image that completely contrasts with the urban setting of the story. Kiernan goes on to create a synthesis of the classic Kelpie myth in a modern setting. The power, glamour and eroticism of this mythological creature is combined with a decaying corpse in an abandoned park in the city. This coupling between the mythological and horrific returns in many of these stories.
The story that gave the collection it’ name is something different entirely, though. “The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4)” combines two other elements that figure frequently in this collection: fossils (an occupational hazard given her education in palaeontology) and the sea. In fact, I don’t think I know of any other writer who uses the word “brine” as much as Kiernan does. The main character in this story considers himself a collector. His two collections consist of Ammonites and suffocated women, and now his is looking for a way to combine his two passions. It’s incredibly creepy how he discusses these collections without any sense of guilt or regret. Despite this lack of emotion in the main character, the story has a very emotionally charged ending.
The type of work Kiernan writes is not material I read often; although I try to read a decent amount of short fiction, most of it is science fiction and however you choose to label Kiernan’s work, science fiction most likely isn’t it. I had absolutely no idea what to expect of this collection, and I guess you could say it was a bit of a gamble — one that paid off handsomely. I very much enjoyed reading The Ammonite Violin and Others. I may have to check out one of Kiernan’s novel-length works. I would be interesting to see how Kiernan’s approach would work in a longer piece. I can feel that to-read stack growing again.
FanLit thanks Rob Weber from Val’s Random Comments for contributing this guest review.