Dear Sweet Filthy World
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Cover Artist: Tran Nguyen
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596068193
Date: 31 March 2017 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Dear Sweet Dirty World is Caitlyn R. Kiernan's 14th(!) collection of short stories. This number actually understates her output of short stories, given all the stories she writes for anthologies and for her own newsletter, Sirenia Digest. The author herself calculates that she has written and sold a stunning 242 short stories, all while producing a steady stream of novels. But sheer prolificacy is not itself all that impressive; what is impressive is the quality of all of this flood of short fiction, and the way in which Kiernan continues to find new and innovative ways to explore and illuminate her central themes. Dear Sweet Filthy World continues Kiernan's trend of producing some of the most powerful, imaginative, and emotionally wrenching fiction being written in SF and horror today.
Kiernan may be best known for her Lovecraftian horror fiction, and this collection contains some choice examples of her work in this mode. "Drawing from Life" is obviously in dialogue with "Pickman's model", although it does not share the particular mythos elements of that story. 'Latitude 41°2145.89", Longitude 71°29’0.62"' echoes "The Call of Cthulhu" both in its maritime precision of the co-ordinates provided and in its plot, although in both cases the echo is distorted and transformed to serve Kiernan's own distinctive style. "Evensong" and "Scylla for Dummies" both explore from the inside cults worshipping strange aquatic monster deities.
But Kiernan's fiction is never a pastiche of Lovecraft, nor are mythos monsters scattered around merely to provide a kind of taxonomic thrill of identifying a shoggoth here and a deep one there. Indeed, there are few of the familiar Lovecraft bestiary in evidence here. Nor does Kiernan rest content with recreating the sense of cosmic horror and insignificance that Lovecraft evokes. Instead, for Kiernan, the cosmic horror is somehow also deeply personal. The confrontation with the alien and the incomprehensible threatens, but also promises, to pull us outside the confines of our own lives and our own minds. It holds out the possibility of radical transformation, of which death is only one form. In this way, Kiernan makes us feel the pull, the appeal, of seeking out the Lovecraftian horrors that populate her fiction. She makes us yearn for the transformation on offer, even as we fear the loss of self it entails. Unlike Lovecraft himself, who could only look with fear and racist-tinged dismay at those who would seek out and court the horrors of his cosmos, Kiernan makes us sympathize with this pull, even as we fear it.
Lovecraftian horror is only one of Kiernan's modes. The stories in this collection display a range of other approaches. In "The Granting Cabinet" we get strange and multi-branched story of desire, experimental and engaging. In "Another Tale of Two Cities", dedicated to H.R. Giger but reminding me strongly of Clive Barker, we have a story that blends body horror with loneliness and the possibility of connecting to others. In "Sanderlings", dedicated to Ramsey Campbell, Kiernan captures the feel of his focus on ordinary people. She also does an excellent job of capturing his technique of intensifying the horror through subtle suggestion and the withholding of information.
The stories in this collection explore the themes that Kiernan returns to again and again; Love, transformation, human cruelty and human connection. But she always finds new angles on these themes, and her writing is as powerful and as original as ever. Any fan of dark fiction should be reading Kiernan, and if you haven't discovered her yet this collection is a chance to see what you have been missing.