Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Threshold

I just finished Caitlin Kiernan's shortish novel Threshold, which was a very intriguing, intriguing book. I'm not sure that I can recommend it or not, or even if I liked it, but it certainly very much intrigued me.

In fact, my overall impression is uncertainty, and that's also my reaction to the novel. While not exactly a Lovecraftian story, at the same time, it's almost quintessentially Lovecraftian. It features impossible geometries, characters who's lives are broken by their encounters with "the Mythos" (including two suicides, several other suspicious deaths, a descent in alcoholism, and the book's final scene is set in an insane asylum), horrors that predate humanity by hundreds of millions of years (and seem to be chronologically associated with various trilobites; the first time I've ever heard of them being used as an icon of horror) and seem to come from elsewhere than our earth.

Yet despite all this, like Total Recall or Inception, at the end of it, you wonder if perhaps the whole thing was a hallucination of characters who's elevator don't go all the way to the top floor, if you know what I mean. There's little that's explained satisfactorily, no evidence left behind to corroborate the beliefs of the characters, and perhaps most frustrating of all, a seminal plot point that takes place in the prologue is never actually described; characters refer to it obliquely while Kiernan refuses to ever tell us what happened to them exactly; both to the frustration of some other characters and to the readers.

I've said before and probably will again, that there's a fine line between holding back information about your monsters and revealing them. Reveal them too soon and too clearly and you manage to deflate much of their ability to actually cause any fear; refrain from doing so at all, and you've managed to pull a bait and switch on your audience, who comes to supernatural horror fiction precisely because they want to be exposed to supernatural monsters, and they want to see them and understand them, and be goggling at how cool a concept they are. Lovecraft himself frequently botched this execution; he overexposed some monsters (crinoid Elder things most spectacularly), never really exposed others at all, so that we're not even really sure that they're supposed to be scary or not (whatever's at Kadath in At the Mountains of Madness) and frequently revealed creatures that were underwhelming when their big reveal actually happens (ironically, Cthulhu itself, and shoggoths, among others.) Kiernan both does and does not fall into this trap--her horrors are shown and described, but never explained, and their nature is nearly as mysterious at the end of the book as it was at the beginning. And much like with Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, I think the end suffered from rushing breathlessly through a conclusion that is vague and suggestive without actually satisfying the readers very much.

One thing I'll give Kiernan--we're never supposed to believe that Threshold is scary because she tells us that it is--she very effectively does cultivate an atmosphere of dread. Well; two things--although I'm still not sure that I even liked this book, I can't deny that it lodged itself in my brain quite well and inspired an awful lot of thinking about things; about Lovecraftian horror, how to do it correctly, about weird extradimensional creatures outside of time and space and what their relationship to humanity might or might not be, and about freaky teenaged girls that might be heroes of a secret war that most of humanity is protected from for its own good, or might be merely insane, psychotic murderers. While I don't know that any fan of Lovecraftian horror would necessarily like this book just like I didn't necessarily like it, I'm confident that any fan of Lovecraftan horror will find it fascinating nonetheless.

2 comments:

Shane Mangus said...

I am a fan of Caitlin's work, but haven't picked this one up. It sounds interesting, and it will go on my 'wish list'.

On the "botch" comment about Lovecraft, I think we have to keep the era his stories were written in mind when casting a critical eye on them. Cthulhoid creatures are so passé now that I believe if the Great Old One himself walked down Time Square most everyone would think it was the Macy's Day Parade or something. I guess my point is that we have been so over exposed to weird stuff that Weird fiction is no longer shocking or horrific at first blush. The trick now is to use these elements to create an atmosphere and slowly build the creep factor. I believe Lovecraft was a master at doing just that.

Joshua said...

I think Lovecraft was pretty hit and miss at it, and actually missed more often than he hit. While I don't disagree with you that overexposure has made the Mythos into more of a comfy in-joke than an object of horror, I never did think it was scary, even when first exposed to it as a teenager many...ahem, a few years ago.

Lovecraft's work is often plagued by issues of writing craft; his use of language is often campy and humorous (and would have been even in the '20s and '30s) rather than creepily atmospheric, his ideas of monstrous horrors are often just silly rather than scary, and his characters are sometimes bizarre.

And much of Lovecraft's best work was openly imitative of someone else, to the point where it's almost a pastiche.

And yet I still love reading Lovecraft, and I find myself gravitating more and more towards Lovecraftiana and Yog-Sothothery in some respects as the years go on. I think Lovecraft's brilliance was in the ideas behind the stories he wrote more than in the stories themselves. Often, it's the untold story peeking out "between the lines" of the story we actually got that is the most intriguing element of Lovecraft's writing. To me, that was certainly true of Threshold as well.

One thing Kiernan did was take a lot of those elements and transform them via a higher degree of writing craft into elements that worked. In particular, seeing how the effects of unnatural things on the human mind could really, without a lot of fainting and writing of dry, depressing memoirs, as Lovecraft's characters all tend to do, was fascinating. Seeing one character's obsession with the unnatural angles of a weird fossil lead to frantic notes and ledgers, and finally a sudden suicide; one character becomes an alcoholic in denial, another a workaholic in denial; both refusing to confront or admit to things that happened in their past, another character who commits suicide because the aforementioned two keep blowing her off with, "it was dark, we were high, nothing really happened" assurances, etc.

To me that was one of the most fascinating elements of Threshold. That, and the use of actual paleontological details (the author is a trained paleontologist, so when the book speaks of, for example, Silurian strata, it does so authoritatively) to make the horrors waiting in the tunnels come to life, even as we are denied actually understanding what they are.