In life, there are two kinds of places. The places of everyday life. The apartment. The workplace. The hospital. The marketplace. These are the locations of normal reality. Where our everyday dramas and tragedies take place in the light. Careers and relationships. Social standings and money making. But then there is another place. A dark place of occulted knowledge. In the unseen places. Tunnels, lakes, ocean floors, old houses, and dark planets. Places where things creep, decay, survive, desire, and most of all… change. This is the country of madmen and poets. And from this place is where Caitlín Kiernan whispers their stories.
Caitlín Kiernan is one of the premier writers of fiction working today. Their work includes collections like The Ammonite Violin and Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart and novels like The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl. Their work is a blend of the weird, sci-fi, erotica, and horror genres. Their work explores the strange existence of creatures of flesh and bone living in a world where change and perversion is the norm. In their work, the dark touch is desired not feared.
This world is a bleak place to live. The sun is too bright and our time is limited. Kiernan’s characters know this all too well. They are wounded, sad, and disenfranchised. And any salvation is better than the slow rot we have to us. In most horror, something invades our happy homes. Something seeks to destroy or subvert the status quo and the monstrous is a horrible thing that can happen even to the innocent. In Kiernan’s work, everyday life is a horrible thing. And we can only wish that there are “dark powers” to find.
In their story “Metamorphosis A,” we find a woman waiting for her lover to return to their apartment. There has been some kind of intrusion upon the world by an alien force. A creature has arisen that lives deep in the earth that offers change to any who come to her. And her lover has gone down to receive that change. Seeking a dark salvation, she comes home bearing a mark of penetration that marks her as a recipient of the dark gift from the “being” and a cylinder containing a transforming disease, which you need to be marked to be able to have the disease affect you.
"Your bare feet are black with soot or dirt or whatever filth you’ve tracked back up from the deep places below the city. There are long scrapes on your legs, like maybe you ran into a patch of brambles along the way. And then I notice the welt beneath your chin, flesh gone puffy and purple and already turning necrotic. I might think it was only a bad spider bite, if I didn’t know the better. If I didn’t know about the stingers and the venom, the kiss of Athena to switch off your immune system. To make you receptive to what’s still to come."
These are horrors of watching your loved ones change and the loss of being left behind. And as with all journeys, the outcome is uncertain. Her lover has decided to accept a chance to become something… other. And the main character was scared to go with her and is scared of what is going to happen. One significant hurdle facing doctors is the apparent willingness of many people to be infected, despite these horrific consequences. Her lover lies on their bed and opens the canister and begins the change. The narrator passes out. Dreams of the dark places fill her head. An underground sea and a disease-birthing mother. And they do their dark work on her lover.
"How many countless generations were conceived while I slept in my chair and dreamed of that black lake? How many were born and nurtured deep within the hive of you and how many billions must have done their determined, busy work and perished when their time was done?"
The nature of this change is mysterious. But the desperation of the unhappy is not. Thomas Ligotti said in his story “Vastarien,” “The only value of this world lay in its power – at certain times – to suggest another world.” Anything would be better than this world of rain and rot. We only wish dread Cthulhu lay dreaming under the sea. Mystery and darkness comfort us. In a sequence that reads like Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs, writing a remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the lover is changed into a tentacled horror seething and writhing in their bed.
"And I’m on my knees then, as if I’d worship what they have made of you, as you must have worshipped in those secret underground temples, offering your grace of this change, praying to shed your furtive prayers and supplications to ancient bacterial gods for the unwanted and unyielding humanity."
The universe is ruled by chaos and breakdown. And these are the only gods who answer. These are the only gods who are in plain sight. And the only salvation is a dark one.