Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #96: A review of "Tears Seven Times Salt" by Caitlin R. Kiernan


Pelan must really, really, really like this story. It’s not the first time he’s chosen it for an anthology (although he doesn’t seem to mention that in his intro). He edited an excellent book called DARKSIDE, which also contains a great Edward Lee story called “The Stick Woman.” But the real question is, does this story deserve the attention?

Jenny Haniver is a troubled young woman . . . or is she? When we first meet her, she’s sitting on a soggy mattress in a dank apartment room, surrounded by a bunch of aquariums. There is something wrong with her legs, as pus constantly oozes from beneath the bandages wrapped around them.

We then learn that she hangs out with a goth crowd, except she really hasn’t been out in a while. She runs into a friend who wonders why she hasn’t been around, but Jenny remains stand-offish. Almost lost in the moment is a reference to someone named Ariadne, who disappeared into the tunnels, where no one ever comes back . . . .

Next, we learn about Jenny’s past. Her grandmother has an odd ability to speak to the fish people who live under the city by talking into drains. The old lady then tells a young Jenny that she will be able to do it, too, when she gets her first period. Apparently, Jenny’s father, a sewage worker, actually found her underground when she was a baby and raised her as his own. Her grandmother believes she’s one of the fish people who live in the sewers.

Is this true? Who knows? Maybe it’s just the ranting of an old lady, but it’s enough to haunt Jenny for the rest of her life. It even reaches the point where she, too, can speak with the fish people.

It turns out that Ariadne helped Jenny work out some of her issues by hanging her from piercings and cutting on her. The infection, it would seem, came from when Ariadne unzipped Jenny’s legs with a scalpel and sewed her back together. Apparently, Ariadne is the only one who knows about Jenny’s past, and now she’s disappeared beneath the city. Jenny wants to find her friend and see if she’s discovered anything.

SPOILER ALERT: Big surprise. It’s all true. There are, indeed, fish people under Manhattan. (Do you think they ever ran into the beast creatures from Johnson’s “Far Below”?) Ariadne has been living among them, her body a necrotic mess of rotting flesh. It’s also apparent that she’s a junkie from her track marks. Jenny has, in fact, brought some heroin with her to bribe her friend with for info on the fish people and whether or not she belongs with them.

Ariadne tells her to go fuck herself and then bites, her, infecting her with whatever it is that’s killing her. Jenny flees, but it’s no use. The infection burns through her, and soon she can’t move her legs. At the very end of the tale, she crawls toward the river and drops herself in, letting the current take her where it will. END OF SPOILERS.

It’s a very moody, very well-written tale. Kiernan hits all the right notes, and she has a great handle on disturbing images. She even tells the tale in present tense, making it all the more immediate (which none of the other tales have done yet in this anthology). The drawback: Aside from the fish thing, Jenny isn’t all that different from many ‘Nineties horror protagonists. Many writers gave their characters an alternative environment to capitalize on the goth scene. It paid off pretty well for them, but it watered down the genre considerably with imagery that was supposed to unsettle readers, but through familiarity, had very little effect.

That’s not to say that Kiernan’s story isn’t effective. She stands a head and shoulders above many of the writers who did this. It is a really good read, but Lee’s “The Stick Woman” would have been a much better choice for 1996.

[This story, as noted above, first appeared in DARKSIDE and cannot be read online at this time.]

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