Book Review: Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan By Emma Rae Curtis
Synopsis: They are the young misfits...society's castoffs...urban strays looking for a thrill. Something cheap, anything to get them through the night. Sleepwalking on caffeine, nicotine, and drugs, they wait out the dawn in death-rock clubs and shadowy back alleys... Then into their midst comes the enigmatic Spyder. A patron saint of the alienated and lost, she invites them into her mesmerizing world-but has she been sent to redeem them or destroy them?Caitlin Kiernan doesn’t like people calling her a horror writer. She said in a 2007 interview, “I think ‘horror’ is surely the most indefensible of all genre categories. It’s an emotion you may try to elicit, but it’s not a genre. And my novels are always about a lot more than ‘horror.’” However you may feel about Kiernan’s take on the classification of horror, her debut novel Silk definitely lives up to her claim about her own work.
Silk takes place among a group of outcasts and misfits in Birmingham, Alabama. Daria Parker is struggling to get somewhere with her rock band Stiff Kittens and to make her guitar-playing junkie boyfriend Keith straighten up and fly right. Lila “Spyder” Baxter wrestles with the memories of her traumatic childhood and acts as a mother of sorts to a small circle of “shrikes”: prissy drama queen Byron, slumming suburban spawn Robin and awkward, love-struck drug dealer Walter. Niki Ky arrives in town from Georgia, hoping to escape the guilt of her boyfriend committing suicide (she withdrew from him after he told her that he wanted to go through a sex change). The plot really gets rolling when Robin arranges her own version of a Native American Ghost Dance ritual in the basement of Spyder’s house using some peyote that Walter has procured. This starts a chain of events that sets all of these people on a collision course with each other.
In the hands of a lesser writer, all of this might have turned groaningly melodramatic or sensationalistic—some snickering, throwaway piece of exploitation. In Kiernan’s hands, however, Silk becomes so much more. It’s an effective horror story, sure, but it’s also a fiercely empathetic portrait of lonely, damaged people.
A good deal of the novel’s power stems from the specific, concrete details that Kiernan layers in about her characters’ lives. They have families, jobs they have to go to, co-workers they can’t stand, etc. In addition to this, Kiernan shows how, as members of a subculture that allows a broad range of preferences and experimentation (chemical, sexual, etc.), living in a fairly conservative community leaves her protagonists open to ridicule and potentially worse from jocks and others in the mainstream. By grounding Silk so firmly in the real world, Kiernan makes the supernatural elements of her story that much scarier.
However, this brings up a big question regarding the storyline of Silk: does anything supernatural actually happen? Going over it again, it occurred to me that all of the horrifying stuff could just be occurring in the characters’ minds (as I mentioned earlier, they experiment with quite a few substances). Indeed, Kiernan indicates as much by starting the book with an epigraph by Schopenhauer about objectivity and subjectivity. She also drops little hints throughout the novel (“Can’t even tell the difference between a goddamn dream and what’s real.”).
While you can debate whether the novel’s events have a supernatural or a psychological basis, you can’t deny the “reality” of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, Kiernan goes to great lengths to make her characters and the world that they inhabit feel real. She goes a step beyond that, however: she clearly cares about her characters (even the less appealing ones like Keith and Robin), and she makes you care about them too. This is even true—especially true, in fact—of Spyder, the character who may or may not cause the deaths of some of her friends. Instead of serving as a two-dimensional villain, she comes across as a human being who desperately craves what we all want and need: love, understanding, acceptance.
In some ways, Silk reminds me of Cat People (the Val Lewton original, not the Paul Schrader remake). Both feature realistic characters caught up in ambiguous, terrifying situations. Both center on a tormented figure who is both unsettling and heartbreaking. Both transcend the boundaries of genre and haunt you long after they finish.