“Be careful,” she says and smiles again. “You’re starting to taste like regret.”
“And how does regret taste? I imagine it’s bitter.”
She shakes her head. “Then you’re mistaken. It’s not bitter. Regret tastes like dead roses and stale bread. Regret tastes like dust.”
I’ll admit it; I’ve been in kind of a rotten mood lately, what with the gloomy weather, multiple unfinished projects, and the daily train wreck that constitutes the national news. Last week I decided hell with it, I’m just going to grab a review copy of another collection of short stories, one with the darkest, most depressing title I could find, so there.
Dear Sweet Filthy World is the latest collection by Caitlín R. Kiernan. The twenty-nine stories (horror, fantasy, a little bit of sci-fi and a lot of erotica) were first published in Kiernan’s online ‘zine “Sirenia Digest”, so this is the first time they’ve been made available to anyone other than subscribers.
Readers looking for nice straightforward stories with a beginning-middle-end format should probably skip this one. Kiernan’s writing meanders all over the place, jumps backward and forward in time, and sometimes obsessively fixates on one particular topic, like the lonely hitchhiker in “Charcloth, Firesteel, and Flint” with her unexplained origin and her encyclopedic knowledge of all things fire.
In “Werewolf Smile” the narrator reminisces about a former lover and her growing obsession with an artist’s latest project, one that merges the Black Dahlia murder and a certain 18th century monster. This one appealed to me, partly because I’d just finished rewatching a movie about one of those topics (I won’t say which one), but I also liked the gradually increasing sense of unease, and the description of the final artwork.
Many of entries here are less stories and more vignettes, like “Down to Gehenna” a detailed study of Hell, or “Scylla for Dummies” about a lady in an aquarium tank, her worshippers and the sacrifices offered to her. And then there’s “Drawing from Life” and “Apsinthion”, both about men who redefine the word “cursed”, trapped in a toxic relationship, obsessing over what happened to them, trying to figure out how the hell they got into this in the first place.
If you want little snippets of horror without so much plot, “The Eighth Veil” is a first-person account of a no-nonsense woman waiting for information on a “job”. We never find out what that job is, because the entire point of the story is the awful bar she’s forced to wait in, and the gruesome show she’s forced to watch, and the horrible things people do when having enough entertainment to dull our misery becomes the only important thing in the world. Similarly, “The Carnival is Dead and Gone” is decadent, lavish, and gruesome, lingering over the details of a freakshow where science has a wide range of what it can transform people into.
“Three Months, Three Scenes, With Snow” reminds me of a Neil Gaiman short story, with impossible things being accepted as just another inconvenience, although a strange one, ending with an unexplained, satisfyingly Lovecraftian image.
Some of the stories didn’t appeal to me as much as others. “Shipwrecks Above” is a horrifying Gothic tale of rape and a curse that will last forever, and the only meaning it seems to have is that sometimes horrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it. Ditto with the unhappy story of a dryad in “Figurehead” (three guesses what happens to her and her tree). And “Here Is No Why” just kind of annoyed me; so much effort setting this epic stage of a post-modern Faerie in the midst of a new Industrial Revolution and then it just…stops. It feels like a daydream, and it’s not that I mind stories that are daydreams, I’d just rather that they be something more.
“The Granting Cabinet” is another daydream, but one that’s more interesting since it challenges the reader to to create their own vision for what the cabinet opens onto. There are also no fewer than five stories of a willing bride and/or sacrifice to something not at all human, (complete with sex; Kiernan doesn’t skimp on the erotica in any of her stories) and several others that involve a transformation of some kind, like the girl in a cage and her captor in “Hauplatte/Gegenplatte” (although that one is left ambiguous as to what the girl was originally transformed from, and whether she is or is not crazy.)
And then there’s “Another Tale of Two Cities”. A tribute to (and possibly inspired by) H.R. Giger – with maybe a cautionary tale thrown in – it’s filled with images of a woman willingly giving herself over to an impossible microscopic civilization creating an impossible microscopic city.
If you have to have a more traditional story, “-30-” feels like a folk tale set in modern day. Many authors get asked “Where do you get your stories?” , but this is about an author who has a story, and what she does to get an ending. It’s one of the more coherent tales in this book, and uses one of my favorite literary tropes: the magical shop cluttered with random things, each one very likely the heart’s desire of the next person who wanders inside.
For my two favorites, “Sanderlings” is Lovecraftian horror with the details left disturbingly vague. Something washed up on the beach, and now the narrator is so horrified (and drunk, trying to drink away the horror) that her narration wanders and stumbles around whatever it was that happened, and whatever it is she thinks is going to happen. And the final story, “259 Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)” is a new take on the trope of the serial killer couple prowling the highways. Kiernan tells you exactly how it all ends right from the start, but then takes the entire story to get around to telling you how it happens.
So did I like the collection? It’s hard to say; there were some stories that I wish hadn’t ended so abruptly, a few of them feeling like they were either the prequel to a novel, or they just stopped when the author wanted to move onto something else. But in just about every one of those cases it’s because I was sitting there going, “Yeah? And THEN what happened?!” That’s helped by the fact that this comes across as an intensely personal collection: many of the protagonists were artists or writers, and there were so many cases of a desperately wanted transformation, or an unearthly lover who will only accept one person who then becomes the most important person in the entire world.
Even the last story about the serial killers feels like something powerful, like getting a little revenge on the whole entire world for all the terrible things that can happen to women, simply by making a couple of females the most horrible thing you can ever imagine running into.