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The Ammonite Violin & Others by Caitlin R. Kiernan

1/10/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer

Buy The Ammonite Violin & Others in the USA - or Buy The Ammonite Violin & Others in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 231 page deluxe hardrback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-305-1.

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The twenty stories in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ‘The Ammonite Violin & Others’ were first published in ‘Sirenia Digest’, a subscription only journal and this is the first time that they have been made more generally available to the public.

Author, editor and critic Jeff VanderMeer opens the collection with a typically fine piece of writing on the beauty, lyricism and truths found within Kiernan’s writing. I enjoy good critical writing and so do tend to read introductions. If, however, you tend to prefer to skip these, I would say that it is worth making an exception here.

The stories in ‘The Ammonite Violin & Others’ are concerned with death, decay, eroticism, age and the inevitability of all of these. For example, in the tale ‘Metamorphosis A’, the narrator watch a loved one transformed into something unrecognisable as human, though I can’t decide if it is necessarily degeneracy. The loss of humanity is something, I think, to be feared and this is recognised in places. However, there is narrative propulsion towards the inevitable acceptance of the agent which brings on the metamorphosis by the narrator.

Kiernan’s academic background informs much of the writing in this collection. Her studies of geology and palaeontology have some obvious influences in terms of the aesthetic of the writing. The title story, in which the main character collects both fossils and suffocated women is an example of this. In combining the construction of a violin from a fossilised sea creature and his far less savoury passion Kiernan creates – despite the uncomfortable nature of the story – something which has a deep emotional resonance. No mean feat.

I believe that the influence of geology and palaeontology upon this work goes deeper than simply cool settings and set dressing. The great sense of time that the fossils evoke in the writing works well with the shorter time frames that death and decay of the human form suggest. It also, for me, further implies the inevitability of both. That time will master us all in the end.

Among the other tales is a charming subversion of the vampire story in ‘Ode To Edvard Munch’, another ‘For One Who Has Lost Herself’ which draws on northern European folklore to create rather lovely tale based around the idea of the selkie. There is also lycanthropy, the story ‘Skin Game’, and a fascinating tale set almost outside time this being, ‘The Lovesong Of Lady Ratteanrufer’. The final tale ‘The Madam Of The Narrow Houses’ rounds the collection of well. The theme of solitude is given a fine outing with a beautiful and well-judged portrayal of a woman, an unmarried dressmaker, whose loneliness is interrupted by many visitations as she becomes the object of the attentions of the dead.

‘Metamorphosis B’ is interesting to me, in the context of the rest of the collection. It contains many of the ideas and themes of the rest of the stories. As implied by the title, it features mutability and the writing itself is mutable, lending itself to as much or as little interpretation as the reader might desire. However, although often I feel that there is a neutrality to the way that some events are portrayed as someone who is most definitely human, I can enjoy and immerse myself in the prose and the stories, the loss of humanity ultimately feels wrong, however fascinating it might be. In this tale, however, as once again, it features the change of a human into another form, the change feels less of an affront. In this a mermaid is regaining her true form and is able to be true to that which she is.

Quite a number of the tales, as I implied earlier, involve and indeed celebrate sexuality. Often there is a twisted beauty to this but, in many cases, Kiernan subjects her characters to emotional torment, further lending the stories a sense their characters inability to prosper at the hands of an infinite and infinitely indifferent universe. Despite the lingering on sexuality and the sexual act, I think it is testament to Kiernan’s ability as a writer that the reader is never embarrassed to read any of it. To be clear, although there is eroticism and adult content it never feels as though titillation was the author’s intent.

A note of caution, though, the stories within this book are mostly excellent and there is no denying Kiernan’s ability and distinctive voice. However, if you read a number of these in quick succession, they do start to cloy and the depth and intricacy of the tales can become treacle thick and hinder the progress of the reader. This is something to enjoy in bite size morsels.

This doesn’t fit easily into any particular genre classification although some tales are clearly horrific, others fantastical and still more have a definite post-apocalyptic SFnal flavour, Kiernan is someone who just writes and writes well. I recommend this to all fans of the weird and twisted.

Richard Palmer

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