Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl

Good ghost stories are hard to find these days.  Though there is much wonderful horror out there to read (and watch), in my opinion there are few authors that capture the ghostly sense of dread as well the early 20th century masters such as M.R. James and E.F. Benson.     I’ve often wondered about this: has the world simply become too modern, too crowded, and even too connected to make ghost stories as effective as they once were?

Such stories don’t even have to be about a literal ghost; it’s hard to say exactly what characterizes a ghost story, by these stories always have a sense of the eerie, of the unnatural — and of death.

This month, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s newest novel, The Drowning Girl, was published, and it meets all the criteria of a ghost story, even if it may not be one:

The Drowning Girl is a memoir written by an insane young woman, and it is about her encounters with a mermaid, a werewolf, a siren, and a ghost — or perhaps none of these, or perhaps all of these at once.  It is a compelling and haunting story which kept me reading from pretty much the very first page.

“Haunting” is a good word.  The memoir is narrated by India Morgan Phelps, “Imp” to her friends, who is a schizophrenic from a family of mentally disturbed women.  She is writing the memoir to try and reconcile, understand, and simply remember a collection of clearly horrifying events that happened to her, involving a woman named Eva Canning, that she met either once in July or November, or twice in July and November.  Tied into this story is a 19th century painting called “The Drowning Girl”, by a local artist named Saltonstall, and another painting called “Fecunda Ratis” by a more modern author named Perrault.  The former depicts a naked young woman entering a body of water, looking back over her shoulder at a dark and ominous forest, and the latter is an abstract interpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood”, with a scarlet slash of a girl surrounded by what might be wolves or something more.

Works of art are ghosts of a sort themselves — paintings, just like ghosts, represent the emotions and desires of the living, and these passions can be passed on to those who encounter them.  I was pleasantly satisfied to see India suggest this early in the novel, as I have explored similar ideas in a crude manner in my “Madness on canvas” blog post some time ago.  Imp is herself haunted by the images of “The Drowning Girl” and “Fecunda Ratis”.

It is unclear at first how these works of art tie into Imp’s story, and in fact it is never completely certain.  From the very beginning India admits that she cannot be relied on to speak honestly about what has happened to her and, due to her illness, her own memories cannot be trusted.  She is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and a large part of the story’s mystery is trying to discern the monstrous from the madness.

This is a memoir, however, and it is as much concerned with India’s relationship with her girlfriend Abalyn as it is about her horrific experiences.  In fact, Abalyn is inextricably intertwined in the events that happen, and plays a pivotal role in India’s tale.

The story is enhanced by the inclusion of a pair of “stories within a story”: short stories written by India that give important insight into the rest of the novel.  One of these, “The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean”, is so powerful that it easily stands on its own, and is one of the most unsettling and fascinating short stories I’ve read in quite some time.

It is really hard to do justice to the novel in simple terms.  It is a confusing jigsaw puzzle of ideas, events and history, and though in the end the pieces come together, they do so imperfectly.  Just like Imp, we suspect we understand what happened but will never truly be sure.  This is what makes the novel truly haunting, and the ideas within haunted me for days.

I was not surprised to see that the novel was dedicated “to Peter Straub, master of the ghost story”.  If I were to try and compare the book to another with similar tone and style that I’ve read, I would choose Straub’s classic Ghost Story.  Kiernan’s novel is truly unique, though, and it would be an injustice to say it is really “like” any other.

I really, really enjoyed The Drowning Girl: it is an elegant, complex, and haunting story.  It  is an excellent demonstration that ghost stories (and more generally horror fiction) can and do rise to the level of artistry.  Recommended.

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