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Home » Queering the Genre » The Yellow Book by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The Yellow Book by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Kiernan’s work normally straddles genres; among her favourites are horror, fantasy, psychological thriller, and character studies tinged with, well, horror. The Yellow Book, a chapbook released by Subterranean Press as an accompaniment to Kiernan’s collection Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, proves no exception to this…

Ex Libris

It’s hard to describe the first story in this diptych. Kiernan combines elements of a number of genres, including horror, literary fiction, and lesbian romance, into what turns into a beautifully, brilliantly, disturbingly powerful story; each element is dark and perfectly done, so that each moment builds up to the awful conclusion. This isn’t graphic torture porn or overwrought, overwritten Lovecraftian horror, although the influence of the latter is clear; rather, it is strange, other, an alien force assaying into our world, an incursion of the abnormal. Kiernan’s story also contains with it an awful lot more; Ex Libris brings in ideas about thought, about words, about story, and about books, all twisted slightly, viewed sideways, and thrown into a kind of dark light that reveals an awful lot about language and about humanity.

The other core of the story is that romance; part of the horror of this story is the creeping otherness of Maggie, the narrator’s lover, the way she changes from someone we can see why the narrator loves, someone human and rich in that humanity, into something utterly different. The withdrawal will be familiar to anyone who has had a failing relationship; and yet Kiernan turns it from international emotional problems into external existential threats, from normal human interaction into abnormal alien horror. It’s a beautifully turned piece of work, and gives Ex Libris a powerful pathos to combine with the pure horror it also draws on.

The Yellow Alphabet

This is where Kiernan’s fundamentally slipstream approach really comes to the fore. The Yellow Alphabet is twenty-six pieces of flash fiction, less than 30 pages in all, unconnected to each other on the surface but with a certain thematic resonance running through many of them, a fascination with certain things; the unexplained, the inexplicable, and the monstrous other. Each is headed, in children’s picture book style, “[Letter] is for [word]”, but this is an alphabet from a dark, twisted mind; full of horror, strangeness, and alienation, it also has a fascinating rhythm to it when read in one go from beginning to end, a certain flow from story to story, and some completely depart from the letters around them, Q most notably with both a fantastic playing with language but also an almost poetic quality. This is hard to review as a single document, but impossible to review otherwise; all I can say is that if you’re lucky enough to have a copy of The Yellow Book, then The Yellow Alphabet really is worth reading… and I’d love to hear your opinions on it!

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