For horror to thrive and evolve we constantly need new voices possessing originality and the power to confront us with their dark visions. They must have a genuine passion for writing, and an ability to entrance us with language. Such writers usually do not endear themselves to the staid and conventional, nor should they be expected to do so -- vitality is found on the edge.
Caitlin R. Kiernan, with Silk, shows that she possesses originality, power, passion, and magic far beyond what one could expect from a first novelist. Her voice is one of extraordinary resonance, deep sensitivity, and disturbing intensity.
The first one hundred pages of Silk introduce its characters: alienated young people -- musicians and freaks -- living on the ragged border of society. Urban punks and Goths, junkies and queers -- they are not charming bohemians who will appeal to those blithely comfortable with society. But for readers with an understanding of the misfit and sympathy for the outsider they are fascinating creations one quickly regards with acceptance and even affection.
The plot -- although intricately structured and clearly defined as the spiders' webs integral to it -- is as indescribable as music by Philip Glass, as impossible to synopsize as a Frank Zappa guitar riff. Music, in fact, is not only a metaphor, but an authentic and important part of the novel. Three of the main characters comprise the punk band Stiff Kitten. Mentions of an assortment of music from Tom Waits to Dead Can Dance become a soundtrack running through the novel. Set in Birmingham, Alabama, Silk pivots around Spyder Baxter, her companions and those who become ensnared in the web of her existence. Spyder is an enigma -- charismatic, spooky, psychotic -- haunted and powerful at the same time.
Spyder's home is a funky substitute for a decaying ancestral home full of family secrets. Since Kiernan's rich descriptive style often verges on the poetic, there is a sense of the literary Gothic pervading Silk -- although it's romanticism is replaced with Modernist perception and style.
As the story develops, the reader is never quite sure if its source is supernatural or madness. In this realm of the unknown Kiernan does not so much build suspense as evoke an atmosphere of fear, a miasma of uncertainty and dread. As Lovecraft knew, it is that atmosphere that most effectively creates the sensation we call "horror."
Inevitable parallels will be drawn with Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls, but just as apt are comparisons with the work Peter Straub. Like Straub and Brite, Kiernan is a vastly intelligent and superlatively imaginative. If Silk is the beginning of Kiernan's journey, we can anticipate a magnificent trip into the new millennium.