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Caitlin R. Kiernan: Using Dreams to Crack Your Head Open

Caitlin R. Kiernan

Our first stop on the road of my Not-A-Top-5 for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Novelists That Use Dreams to Crack Your Head Open In All the Right Ways…

Caitlín R. Kiernan‘s story world has a thread in it which could be said to “start” with Threshold: A Novel of Deep Time. Threshold itself is precisely about the sheer horror and terror of learning that there is more to the world around you than you ever suspected, that there are lasting consequences to every action you take, and that theme continues through every story set in that world. Each of the stories thereafter puts the reader into the mind of any of the vast number of broken and slightly deranged personalities to be found in… well… Reality, really. Each of her characters has distinct histories, flaws, needs, drives, fears, outright phobias and aversions, all of which bring them to full, nuanced life, making them a part of the fabric of the world. Even her “villains” have complex motivations. And they all dream.

In the book Daughter of Hounds, eight-year-old Emmie Silvey and a deeply instinctively violent young woman named Soldier find their paths crossing with increasing frequency. A warren of Lovecraftian ghouls raised Soldier from her youth, and taught her various skills of survival. Gun fighting, when to keep your head down, and how to assert your place in the pack are all first nature to Soldier, but she was always a bit of a disappointment in the area of magical facility–except for a very particular trick with the nature of time and space… But Emmie, the strange too-smart little girl with the golden eyes, has always led something of a charmed life; her stepmother is even a witch. As they travel in their ever-tightening concentric spirals around each other, Emmie and Soldier find themselves dreaming stranger and stranger things. Dreams of the future, dreams of the past, dreams of conversations, dreams of metaphors for other dreams, and dreams of things that never happened but always continue happening–they all wend their ways through each of their heads, girl and woman, and bind them ever closer.

[ad#longpost]The purpose of every dream in Daughter of Hounds is a lesson. Each time someone dreams, they have the opportunity to learn something: either about themselves, about the nature of the world in which they live, or both. Their dreams are by turns symbolic, convoluted, complex, and worryingly banal, and the mere fact of the opportunity with which they are presented–the opportunity to see what’s coming their way–is no guarantee that they’ll succeed in fully recognising it. Most people in Kiernan’s world (as in ours) are screw-ups of some variety. They often feel something in their dreams, something just out of reach, something tantalisingly familiar or meaningful, if only they could just Understand…but often they don’t. They don’t see and they don’t understand, and later, when the revelation is apparent, they usually don’t have the luxury of time to say to themselves, “Oh, so This is what those dreams were about.” But we, as readers, understand. Kiernan’s strength is in her knowing when something needs to not be shown; she knows that the half-formed echoes of an experience are often more revelatory than a perfect analogue. The borders of “Dreaming” and “Waking” are as easily crossed as those of “mental” and “physical,” with people walking into the fabric of a dream and exiting somewhere else, or being unable to do exactly that, or inverting a spell in a fever dream to destroy the caster. Each dream has, within its structure, a deeply important meaning for the dreamer and/or the weaver of the dream. In Daughter of Hounds, they are not necessarily the same.

The Red Tree book cover art

And this is only one of Kiernan’s many works, and the Dreams in it are not necessarily in the forefront. Her newest novel, The Red Tree, spends much more time considering the dreams of its protagonist–one Sarah Crowe–and delving into them as they become so intricately woven into the fabric of her waking life that we are quickly unable to distinguish which is which. Unlike Daughter of Hounds, the character in The Red Tree, from whose perspective we see the events, doesn’t start out being directly acquainted with Really Weird Shit Happening. Except for one: a strange encounter in a quarry, when she was a teenager, which she has half-convinced herself was a dream. Crowe is thrust into a widening abyss of madness borne either out of the events around her or her own internal mechanisms, or some inextricable blending of the two, and her dreams are what serve as the barometer by which we judge the progress of this metamorphosis. When you read The Red Tree, or any Kiernan novel or story collection, read the preface, first. You’ll miss too much if you don’t and there’s already too much there, potentially, to miss. I don’t want to say too much about The Red Tree as getting there, reading the connections between dreams, waking, failing memories, and misremembrances are all essential parts of what you gain from the book, but its triumph lays in the symbolic importance people place on things which may not have any meaning outside of us–and in knowing that sometimes that internal importance is the only thing that matters.

Finally, Kiernan’s collection A is for Alien uses dreams most superbly in the stories “The Pearl Diver,” and the novella “Bradbury Weather.” In each of these, we are thrust into the dreams of two people seeking to remake themselves and trying to recapture something they’ve only recently realised was lost. As they travel closer to the attainment of these goals, their dreams–their unconscious guides–reflect the nearness and utmost importance of what it is they are trying to find. In each case, the dreams are eventually seen for what they are: externalised perspectives on internal processes; internalisation of the forces driving the protagonist in the external world. Both of these things are true, because that’s what dreams do in Kiernan’s universe, and what they are. They are brain salad, they are “sub-processing,” they are a way for us to take in the inputs of our lives and rearrange them, reshape them, connect and disconnect them, and symbolically align them, until they frame the world. Until things make sense. But maybe they never do, to anyone else. Maybe we can’t communicate our dreams, and our goals. And that, I would argue, is precisely the point.

Carl Jung believed that the waking life and the unconscious life were two points on a continuum of experience, and that we would either bring them into our understanding and reconcile them, or they would be our undoing. In Kiernan’s universe, these outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

For more information, check out Kiernan’s official site. And you can find her on Twitter here.

Author image.

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