Caitlin R. Kiernan, Low Red Moon (ROC Books, 2003)
A long habit of mine, when I encounter a new book, is to read any Acknowledgments or Author's Notes first. Once in a great while, this can result in spoiling some plot details, but that's rarely the case, and many times, I find that such bits of "authorial housekeeping" can actually whet the appetite. Sometimes it's even better at whetting the appetite than the blurb on the back of the book or the various bits of critical praise scattered about the cover or frontispiece. In this case, I read Kiernan's Acknowledgments, in which she notes her indebtedness to scholars of H.P. Lovecraft; the poetry of William Blake, Tennyson and Yeats; the cultural anthropology of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung; Lewis Carroll and the annotations to Carroll by Martin Gardner; and the paranormal studies of Charles Fort. How could anyone not want to read further, and discover what kind of novel could be inspired by and indebted to sources like those?
Low Red Moon is the story of Deacon Silvey, a psychic who is an alcoholic and who is trying to not use his abilities any more, and his wife Chance, who is pregnant with their first child. These two make a strange pair: they are one of those couples whom you can't really imagine partnered with each other, but then you can't imagine them with anyone else, either. Chance is a paleontologist who tries to be rational about everything; Deacon is seemingly unemployed and is struggling to leave behind the vestiges of his former life. They live in Birmingham, Alabama, where Chance is trying to leave behind her troubling family history and build a new life with Deacon, and where Deacon is likewise trying to leave behind his own troubling life, with less successful results.
Gradually, though, both are pulled into the same circle of darkness, although from different ends. The police want Deacon to help them in a brutal murder investigation, while Chance has hallucinations in which she sees blood covering nearly everything. And interspersed through the narratives of Chance and Deacon is the story of Narcissa Snow, a deeply violent and horrifying creature whose brutal actions also reflect a troubling history of her own.
Low Red Moon is what I like to call an "atmospheric horror story." It is quite unnerving, but Kiernan achieves the effect not through a lot of gore and "things going bump in the night" (although there is a fair amount of each), but by constantly developing an impending sense of doom. The entire novel feels like a study on the emotion of disquiet, which eventually gives way to urgency as the pages go by. Atmospheric horror novels aren't the kind that make you want to leave your hallway light on and sleep with a baseball bat under the pillow; they're the kind that make you have dreams about being the lead car in a freeway pileup in really slow motion.
Kiernan shows a number of literary gifts in this book, two of which -- dialogue and description -- are on special display. There isn't a conversation in Low Red Moon that feels forced (well, actually, there is one: a scene early on when Chance's paleontology class is interrupted by a Biblical literalist-Creationist). Deacon Silvey comes off particularly well in the dialogue: he's a character with such a distinctive voice that you almost know what he's going to say at any time. Kiernan's descriptions are excellent, as well; she has a knack for homing in on the exact details of her scenes that enhance the dolorous atmosphere. Reading Low Red Moon, I did actually feel like I was in a sticky-hot southern city in the midst of summertime, and during certain scenes I could feel some of the physical pain endured by characters as they suffered unspeakable-fates-in-progress. About the only fault I would name with the book is that things at the end aren't really explained all that well; I know what happened, but I was a bit foggy as to why.
Incidentally, Kiernan has maintained a weblog during the writing of Low Red Moon. This journal is interesting in its own right. One of the most exciting things about the weblog format, for me, is the opportunity to follow writers on the real-time journey of creation that is the writing of a novel. Kiernan says, in her 11-3-03 entry, that she will keep the blog going despite the release of its eponymous novel. I hope she makes good on that promise.