'Tales of Pain & Wonder' is a collection of Caitlin Kiernan's earlier work (if one is allowed to speak of the late 1990's as 'late'). As such, it presents many of Kiernan's important themes as they appear for the first time. Characters surface for the first time as well, in particular Deacon Silvey who will show up again in two novels, 'Threshold' and 'Low Red Moon.' This makes the collection 'important' if you are a Kiernan aficionado, but all that aside, what really makes this collection important is that it is very, very good.
I have lately come to refer to Kiernan as the 'last of the great horror writers.' Partially as a lament for a genre that currently spends far too much time specializing in hot, romantic vampire novels, but also because she really is good enough that writers of her caliber are far and few between. Hers is a horror that leaks out of the spaces between things and pervades the atmosphere surrounding her characters, clinging to them like a faint scent of doubt and rot. Yet when its time finally comes, it is sure and brutal, sparing no unkindness.
Kiernan's characters exist on the fine edge of self-destructiveness, whether they come from wealth like the sisters Salammbo and Salmagundi, hypnotized by the beauty of death like Lark and Crispin, or, like Jimmy de Sade, have both feet firmly planted in terror so real it is an aesthetic experience. The confront things they cannot understand, or know far too well, living the kind of homeless or disconnected lives that make them lightning rods for real horror, not the candy-coated-sip-your-blood kind.
Kiernan admits in her forward that the book has two narratives, one is the accident of the order of writing, and the other is a natural order where the interconnections among the tales is more obvious. I chose to read in the latter order, which reveals the most about how the story arcs develop, rather than the former, which says more about Kiernan than her tales. Both, though, are legitimate approaches, and produce equally valid if different experiences.
The writer has a knack for creating symbols and only half filling them in. Eerie twins, cold presences, wounds that never heal, and barren landscapes come and go, but the reader is expected to do part of the work - to construct a narrative at least partially his own. Part of the horror is that it is my terror that lurks about, as well as Caitlin Kiernan's. Each of these stories is a opportunity to look in a place you desperately don't want to go, and to succumb to a nightmarish glamour. And above everything stands Jimmy de Sade, judge and jury in a gothic world.
This is top grade stuff. Kiernan's writing style is excellent - each word is carefully selected for its purpose, nothing is extra. Characters quickly step out of the shadows and assume an unexpected reality. This is what contemporary horror should be.