Theoretically, my hands are engaged in typing up an actual new review, so you get this old one from July 5, 2010.
Review: Threshold, Caitlin R. Kiernan, 2001.
Having been impressed by a couple of her Lovecraftian stories and her appearance as one of those interviewed for Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, I decided to give one of her novels a try – particularly after hearing it was not only Lovecraftian but featured geology and paleontology.
Chance Matthews, grad student in paleontology, is alone in the world. Orphaned at a young age, she’s now without the grandparents, also geologists and paleontologists, who raised her. Her friend Elsie committed suicide. Grief stricken and trying to concentrate on her studies, she’s in no mood to see ex-boyfriend Deacon, present gothish girlfriend in tow along with one Dancy Flammarion (evidently a character in several Kiernan works). As if Dancy’s albino looks and freakish insistence on seeing her wasn’t enough, Dancy also insists Chance has to help her kill some monsters. It’s all a lot of mental patient crazy talk until Chance finds some strange fossils her grandmother secreted away before killing herself. And it may just have to do with whatever Chance, Deacon, and Elsie saw one strange night, at novel’s beginning, in the waterworks of Birmingham, Alabama.
Like most of the best Lovecraft inspired authors, Kiernan does no slavish imitation of Lovecraft. The plotting owes as much to Beowulf as Lovecraft though Lovecraft gets an explicit mention (as does Algernon Blackwood, Lewis Carroll, and the poet Longfellow). No characters, places, monsters, or books show up from Lovecraft. The inspiration is more subtle in the physical appearance of the novel’s menace and, particularly, in the promise of the novel’s subtitle: “A Novel of Deep Time”. For the menace is from deep time. There is one beautiful passage where Chance has a vision of Alabama’s Silurian age. (And, for those who need it, Kiernan, formerly a professional paleontologist, provides a glossary of terms.)
And that beauty is part of another subtle promise Kiernan makes on the copyright page: “The book is best read aloud.” Kiernan does provide read-aloud prose — carefully paced, sonorous, and sprinkled with occasional coinages of her own.
Lovecraft characters almost always seem divorced from any life with family and friends, and that is definitely not the case here. The trinity of Chance, Deacon, and Sadie are most definitely attached to other people – even if only their memories.
Kiernan tells her story with an interesting technique of describing a scene, often leaving the scene before its climax, and then going to another scene in the past which provides answers to the resolution of other scenes.
The one thing that may frustrate readers is the novel’s end. This story does not neatly resolve all the loose ends and mysteries. As one character says, “Some stories don’t have endings. In some stories, there aren’t even answers.” Kiernan’s resolution is not neat, perhaps too messily like real life for some. But it’s obviously a considered choice not incompetence. While I think not resolving major questions is a sin in some genres, I think it can be appropriate to a mystery horror novel of deep time, and it worked for me the more I think about it.
In other words, I was impressed by Kiernan the novelist as much as Kiernan the short story writer, and I’ll be reading more of her.