CANDLES FOR ELIZABETH
Caitlín R. Kiernan
Meisha Merlin Publishing / 60 pages / (May 1998)
Did you look at the number of pages and raise an eyebrow? No mistake; Candles For Elizabeth is a chapbook, a collection of only three short stories. But, they are Caitlín R. Kiernan stories, and that makes them vitally important to the horror genre.
There is no need to repeat the list of woes striking the horror fiction field. Suffice it to say, things are looking sad. Before they can begin to look up again, true originals like Kiernan are going to have to get the credit — and readers — they deserve.
The world Kiernan’s characters inhabit is one most folks would like to ignore. They are the people you make fun of on the street or in the mall or huddled in a doorway, when you deign to notice them at all. Goths, drag queens, the young and homeless and hopeless. They are the throw-aways, and no one cares when bizarre and chilling things happen to them.
“The Last Child of Lir” opens the book with a perfect example of Kiernan’s approach to horror. Many of the atrocities that befall her characters are of the mundane, tragic kind that the children of the streets face and fall prey to every day. But, somewhere in the tale, strange and unexplainable things, terrifying things lurk. These are the shadows that appear in your dreams and petrify you for no discernible reason, but petrify they do.
Glitch, Jamie, and Ladybird are at the bottom of society’s barrel. Once the members of a mediocre band, they are now merely part of the homeless army. Their grip on that grim survival is weakening. And their last hope may be worse than what waited on the streets.
“A Story for Edward Gorey” seeks to emulate the nameless menace that haunts Gorey’s artwork. Erica, another young street person, meets that terror in what appears to be her rescue. It’s a story of uneasiness taken to the level of dread.
The closing story, “Postcards from the King of Tides,” presents a slightly more tangible threat, but is it any worse than Lark and Crispin’s daily existence? What awaits on the forgotten hillside is scarcely less appalling than the fractured relationship between Magwitch and Tam.
That may be the most disturbing element of Kiernan’s work: the conditions of everyday life are tragedy and revulsion enough. The threats that are heaped upon this sad existence are the final, unseen straw that shatters their fragile grasp on life, or sanity.
It’s scary stuff, all the more so because of the believability. And, the narrow gap between us and them, if you can be honest with yourself.