What I’m Reading: Caitlín Kiernan – Silk

The author clearly loves language, and loves descriptions and every reader who loves those too will enjoy Silk immensely. It is a first novel, so there is some tendency to overindulge herself – there is hardly a sentence here that does not contain at least one metaphor or two similes, but Caitlín Kiernan’s prose is so luscious and sensuous that complaining about this in the face of so much too enjoy would seem rather petty.

Kiernan is usually classified as an author of  horror fiction, and for good reasons, I am sure; but in this particular novel the horror seems almost incidental and marginal, while the main focus of the story rests on the lives of a group of people in a small town in the United States, all of them young, all of them mentally scarred in some way and existing on the fringes of society. For  most of Silk, it is not even quite sure whether the horrors they experience have any external source besides drugs; but while the visions they live through might not be real, their tragic consequences very much are. Interestingly, even though all of the novel’s main characters are misfits and outsiders, the narrative’s conflicts are not about them versus the mainstream of the society whose margins they live on (although Kiernan does not leave any doubt that they are being marginalized) but rather about the characters either battling with or surrendering to their own inner demons, whether it is by taking drugs, by repeatedly falling in love with the wrong kind of person or any of the countless other possibilities of hurting oneself.

While the novel’s catastrophe is initialized by a group of town bullies, that enounter is entirely random, and in the end it are the characters themselves who bring about their downfall – there is not a single character in Silk who is not in way or another bent on self-destruction, and while some manage to escape that urge, it proves fatal for others. Even when events take a turn from psychological and drug-induced horror towards the distinctly supernatural at the end the demons still remain largely internalized, or appear as the external expression of a damaged interior (that might be a disturbed psyche as well as a conflicted community).

But – and this, I think, is where Silk gets really interesting – if it appears that all the novel’s characters are severely damaged and can relate to their own self only by self-destructing, it becomes clear (for some characters soon, for others later in the novel) that all of them have been traumatized in some way, that the original damage was done to them by outside forces, and the deformations of their psyche are the scars of that damage; the misfits and outcasts were made not born, and born by the structures (mostly familial) of the very society that stigmatizes them. This might not be the most original of insights, but it is no less true for that, and what makes Silk so good a novel is that it never needs to make any of this explicit to get it across, but keeps it implied in the story, in the characters, and in the imagery woven through the novel. And of course above all in Caitlín Kiernan’s superbly evocative writing that conjures up an atmosphere of slowly thickening claustrophobia, gradually closing in on the characters like a spider-spun cocoon. She is already such a skilled and accomplished writer in her debut novel that it is easy to forgive her the occasional swerve into overly purple prose, and I am very keen on reading more of her works.

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