The Dinosaur Tourist – Caitlín R. Kiernan

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This is the fifteenth collection of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s short fiction, according to the blurb, and about the fourth or fifth I’ve read cover to cover. But prolific as she is, the quality of these stories doesn’t suffer from their quanity, and the Kiernan has established herself as a preeminent writer of the weird. These stories share more than a passing resemblance to the likes of Clive Barker and Peter Straub, and owe no small debt to H.P. Lovecraft. Yet Kiernan has a voice that’s uniquely her own: her tales follow helpless protagonists through shadowed planes of death and lust, encountering dark wonders shrouded in ambiguity. These stories are modern neo-Lovecraftian takes on humans encountering things beyond our comprehension, full of mysteries better left unknown that scarred psyches, transform the body or mind, and are sure to leave an imprint on readers.

Subterranean Press – 2018 – cover by Ray Troll

Kiernan is chillingly effective at psychological horror; her stories present scenes laced with dread, fragmented by memory, told from deep within the headspace of doomed and helpless characters. Take the pair of “Untitled Psychiatrist” tales where characters recall unsettling scenes from their past. Others, like “Year Without a Summer” and “Far From Any Shore,” follow doomed protagonists whose minds may have already snapped from seeing the indescribable Lovecraftian horror in the other room—these tales are beautiful but mercurial, raising more questions than they answer.

In stories like these, Kiernan takes to heart the concept to keep horror mysterious and unknown, instead circling around and describing it through shrouded implication, and ending without any grand revelation or dénouement. This is great for creating and sustaining a sense of dread unknown, leaving your mind to imagine a myriad of horrible possibilities… but it will be frustrating if you need some sense of finality, of knowing what occurred. I also feel like I’ve read twenty of Kiernan’s variations on this theme by now, but she handles it so exquisitely that this is like complaining Picasso did too much with cubism. And upon reflection this may be because I’ve read several of these stories before in their original anthologies/collections.

“The Cats of River Street (1925)” is like nothing I’ve seen Kiernan write before, yet in theme and execution it fits in well with this collection (and with the rest of her works). The setting is Lovecraft’s old haunt of Innsmouth, where this story weaves between some of the town’s normal inhabitants going about their everyday lives in 1925. I don’t want to give away too much, and if you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s work—especially The Cats of Ulthar and The Shadow Over Innsmouth—then you probably know where this is going. It’s a delightful homage to Lovecraft. If you’re looking for a darker Lovecraft tale, Kiernan has you covered with “Excerpts from An Eschatology Quadrille.” This one jumps across four narratives in different time periods, each one dealing with the same jade artifact that foreshadows madness and death. As each story has a different writing style and themes that loosely match their decade, it’s a great example of Kiernan’s range and ability to craft strong growing unease.

“Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still” is another standout in my eyes. The descendants of colonists abandoned on Mars revel in an annual celebration, retelling the tortured history when their desperate ancestors were forced to begin anew on the planet. On a world where every resource must be recycled or preserved, where waste and destruction have become anathema, its inhabitants have developed their own society and religious beliefs that bear less resemblance to their ancestors than to a seasonal Pagan ritual. The story reads like one of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles by way of Clark Ashton Smith, with excellent SF cultural world-building that’s used for a realistic but deeply unsettling future society.

With her use of dark, horrific, and sexual themes, I can’t say that YA is something I associate with Caitlín Kiernan. And yet this collection has a fine YA story in “Fake Plastic Trees.” The setting resembles J. G. Ballard’s bizarre apocalypses, where a scientific experiment with nanites gone awry unleashed a plastic plague that turned everything it touches into PVC. The protagonist has grown up in world where foliage, roads, structures, and living things were all turned into plastic statues akin to the plaster citizens of Pompeii. The science is detailed and realistic, and the story acts as an interesting metaphor for our irresponsible use of technology and throwaway consumerism. I’d love to see this expanded upon, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

Of the stories I’d read in other collections, “The Road of Needles” is one of my favorites, a loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set aboard a terraforming spaceship. Due to an accident the ship’s compartments are now overgrown with verdant rainforest; The sole human crew member must trudge to the other end of the ship to restart the computer core. Along this path, she’s pursued by both a lupine assailant and memories of her daughter and life back home. “The Road of Needles” shows nature at its wildest; with its imaginative setting and unnerving tension, I’m not surprised that it won a Locus award.

The Dinosaur Tourist collects 19 of Kiernan’s short stories from recent years in one place. A few of these stories I found a bit vague or meandering, too slow or ambiguous for me to really sink my teeth into them. But this collection is overall quite strong; the low points are still quality stuff, and the high points are some of the best being published in the genre today. This is one of the most varied of Keirnan’s collections in recent years, and it’s also one of the most accessible (compared to, say, the more explicit content in Dear Sweet Filthy World). Readers of horror, gothic, and weird tales owe it to themselves to give Kiernan’s writing a try, and this collection is an excellent starting point.

Contents List:

  • The Beginning of the Year Without a Summer
  • Far From Any Shore
  • The Cats of River Street (1925)
  • Elegy for a Suicide
  • The Road of Needles
  • Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still
  • Ballad of an Echo Whisperer
  • The Cripple and the Starfish
  • Fake Plastic Trees
  • Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)
  • Animals Pull the Night Around Their Shoulders
  • Untitled Psychiatrist No. 2
  • Excerpts from An Eschatology Quadrille
  • Ballad of a Catamite Revolver
  • Untitled Psychiatrist No. 3
  • Albatross (1994)
  • Fairy Tale of Wood Street
  • The Dinosaur Tourist (Murder Ballad No. 11)
  • Objects in the Mirror

Book Details
Title: The Dinosaur Tourist
Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan
First Published: 30 November 2018
What I Read: Subterranean Press ebook, 2018
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and SubPress)
MSRP: $40 hc / $60 signed LE / $4.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-1596068827 / B07K76JDDY