There are least a few passages in her new novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir in which Caitlín R. Kiernan seems determined to reinvent the terms of Gothic fiction from the ground up, and she comes amazingly close to succeeding. Her protagonist Imp (short for India Morgan Phelps) is a narrator so unreliable she doesn’t even trust her own accounts – she tells us up front that she’s schizophrenic, that ‘‘My family’s lunacy lines up tidy as boxcars,’’ and that she’s only escaped hospitalization herself through a medley of medications. She sometimes refers to herself in third person, and whenever she goes off her meds it’s a signal that we’re in for one of those remarkably visceral and visionary passages that may get us closer to the core truth of the novel than anything in Imp’s acutely self-conscious attempts to make a narrative out of what’s happening to her (she also keeps reminding us of the crucial distinction between truth and fact). But instead of the fevered Gothic you-will-think-me-mad-but-I-swear-it’s-true voice which we’ve heard from Poe to de Maupassant to Lovecraft, Imp’s voice is disarmingly engaging, sometimes remarkably sensual, and always self-questioning. She’s a remarkable character – probably Kiernan’s best – whose truth we want to believe in even as we question her facts. ‘‘My stories shape-shift like mermaids and werewolves,’’ she tells us, and she’s right.
As in much of Kiernan’s fiction, art plays a significant role in The Drowning Girl. Imp is herself an artist and occasional short story writer (we get a couple of interpolated examples of her stories), and since childhood she’s been obsessed with a painting called ‘‘The Drowning Girl’’ by a minor 19th-century Boston artist named Saltonstall. The painting – which doesn’t depict a drowning girl at all, but one simply wading into the water – seems to her to offer a window into a hidden world, and she tries to learn everything she can about its origins. Not long after Imp meets Abalyn, a transsexual video game reviewer who becomes her new lover, the two of them visit a gallery show of a recently deceased painter named Albert Perrault (who we’ve encountered before in Kiernan’s fiction), whose work disturbs her in a different way, suggesting a kind of Angela Carter-ish revisioning of ‘‘Little Red Riding Hood’’, which Imp hated as a child. Still later, lines from Lewis Carroll’s ‘‘The Lobster Quadrille’’ are used as an absolutely chilling omen of Imp’s spiraling breakdown.
The proximate cause of that crisis happens one evening when Imp finds and brings home a pale, soaked, and naked woman wandering along the highway near the Blackstone River, and who seems to know Imp and even Abalyn. She says her name is Eva Canning, but vanishes later that night. Imp begins having a series of nightmares, is convinced she sees Eva Canning on the street one day, and grows so erratic that Abalyn breaks up with her. Always the obsessive researcher, Imp begins to find or draw connections that involve not only Eva Canning, Perrault, and Saltonstall, but even the Japanese ‘‘suicide forest’’ Aokigahara, accounts of the last wild wolf killed in Massachusetts, ‘‘Little Red Riding Hood’’, and a California suicide cult which Kiernan readers will recognize from her story ‘‘Houses Under the Sea’’. What these connections are, how real they are, and how they unpack ever deeper layers of Imp’s psychology and spirituality, is something best left for readers to discover, rather stunningly, for themselves. But Eva Canning herself is one of the most compelling ghost-story figures I’ve seen since Peter Straub’s Eva Gallo in Ghost Story, with whom she shares some characteristics, and The Drowning Girl (which is dedicated to Straub) is one of the most complexly moving and richly layered tales I’ve read since that classic work. It’s fitting that what is easily Kiernan’s best novel to date should earn a place in that company.