Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week we’ll look at Dear Sweet Filthy World (Subterranean Press, March 2017), a collection of weird and fantastical short stories by Irish-American author Caitlín R. Kiernan. Kiernan has written several novels and collections of strange stories, including the World Fantasy Award-winning The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories.
The stories in Dear Sweet Filthy World are drawn from Kiernan’s subscriber-only zine Sirenia Digest. These twenty-eight dark tales examine what it means to be human and inhuman through a hearty mix of fantasy and horror. Kirkus calls the collection “sinister and beguiling in equal measure, tracing the border between fear and obsession and asking powerful questions about desire along the way.”
This is the sort of fiction where the monsters don’t always look like monsters, though sometimes they do. Kiernan narrows in on the grotesque, the strange, and the things we do not understand. She asks what it means to be a monster and to not be a monster in direct prose that’s descriptive enough to paint a mental picture, but sparse enough to leave room for ambiguity and uncertainty. She writes in the story, “Shipwrecks Above,”
She has been hardly more than a shade drifting between undulating stalks of kelp, and she has worn flickering diadems of jellyfish, anemones, and brittle stars.
The sea features prominently in a handful of these stories, becoming both the underworld and a womb, a place that takes life away and a place that births it. Sea creatures mythologize the ordinary and tell their offspring stories to scare them into good behavior. In “Sanderlings,” the sea spits the world’s flotsam and jetsam back onto the shore, turning the beach into a sensory example of everything wrong with modern man—carelessness, wastefulness, laziness.
But there are vampires, too, and werewolves, and even a writer who sells memories for new ideas. If nothing else, these stories demonstrate that there’s more than one way to be a monster.
Logo art by Max Winter.