Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Cover Artist: Lee Moyer
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press Deluxe Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596064737
Date: 31 July 2012
Caitlin R. Kiernan's collection of short stories Confessions of a five chambered heart is subtitled "25 tales of weird romance"; and it delivers on this promise. Those who have read Kiernan's work before will be unsurprised to learn that this romance is mixed with horror, disturbing eroticism, and a myriad varieties of twisted and dysfunctional relationships. Nevertheless, there is always a core of romance in even the strangest and most disturbing of these stories. Combined with Kiernan's scalpel-precise use of language, her masterful control of pacing, and her ability to surprise and shock even the most jaded horror fan, and we have a collection that is not for the faint of heart, but that will reward the reader with some of the best horror short stories out there.
Most of the twenty five stories collected here are quite short, with the bulk of them between five and fifteen pages long. However, unlike many shorter stories, none of them rely on gimmicks for their effect. Even the shortest manage to include a depth of characterization and subtlety of effect that shames many much longer pieces. Kiernan has an amazing mastery of the short story form; all of her stories are exactly as long as they need to be, not a single word longer or shorter.
Kiernan's prose is incredibly effective. Her prose is evocative without ever feeling cluttered, and she varies it masterfully to produce exactly the effect she seeks to elicit, playing the reader's emotions like an instrument. She manages to immerse the reader in every story, so that instead of standing back and observing, the reader feels implicated in the story. As well as achieving these impressive effects, the prose is also beautiful in its own right. The more of Kiernan's work I read the more impressed I become with her prodigious talent.
The stories in this volume range widely in setting, style, and mood. Some are supernatural horror, others have only a whiff of the unnatural to them. There are a few Lovecraftian horror stories as well; Kiernan is matched, in my opinion, only by Laird Barron as the best writer of Lovecraftian horror now writing. The one thing that most of these stories have in common is that they tend to focus on two principle characters. These two characters are often related sexually, or violently, or both; but always they are linked in intimacy. Thus, the common thread of this anthology is how it explores various dimensions of intimacy, from the tender to the tragic to the disturbing. The true impact of these stories is the way they force the reader to share in this intimacy, for better or for worse.
This collection is an incredible accomplishment by one of the best horror writers our there. There is not a single disappointing story, and they never feel repetitive or familiar. Each tale is unique, a difficult feat in a genre often drawn to reusing familiar tropes. Kiernan's stories get under your skin; the emotions she conjures up refuse to stay constrained to the page. Reading this book might lead to a few sleepless nights; but readers willing to take the risk won't be disappointed.