Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart
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Dust jacket illustration by Lee Moyer
Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart is the follow-up to Caitlín R. Kiernan’s World-Fantasy Award nominated The Ammonite Violin & Others, a collection that drew comparisons to the writings of such luminaries of the macabre and surreal as Angela Carter, Thomas Ligotti, Shirley Jackson, and Harlan Ellison. Here, again, in her eighth collection, we visit the borderlands where the weird, horrific, mythic, and erotic intersect. Once again, Kiernan sets her masterful, intoxicating prose to the task of retelling fairy tales, spinning sensual post-Lovecraftian yarns, and blurring the lines between pain and pleasure. Here is a celebration of the bizarre and beautiful, and a marriage of unlikely worlds. From a reverence of the dead to the sacrifices the living make to unspeakable gods, from clockwork dreams to tales of merciless revenge, Kiernan blurs the artificial lines of genre, and shows us a world where there is no division between the light and dark.
The signed limited edition of Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart includes not only the collection proper, it’s accompanied by an entirely separate bonus hardcover collection (approximately 80-100 pages). If you’d like the same numbered copy as for the limited edition of Two Worlds and in Between, please send us an email letting us know your number after you order.
Trade: Fully cloth bound hardcover edition
Limited: 600 signed numbered leatherbound copies, including the bonus hardcover collection, The Yellow Book
- Introduction: Sexing the Weird
- The Wolf Who Cried Girl
- The Bed of Appetite
- The Collector of Bones
- Untitled Grotesque
- Regarding Attrition and Severance
- Rappaccini’s Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)
- Unter den Augen des Mondes
- The Melusine (1898)
- I Am the Abyss and I Am the Light
- Dancing With the Eight of Swords
- Murder Ballad No. 6
- Lullaby of Partition and Reunion
- Derma Sutra (1891)
- The Thousand-and-Third Tale of Scheherazade
- The Belated Burial
- The Bone’s Prayer
- A Canvas for Incoherent Arts
- The Peril of Liberated Objects, or the Voyeur’s Seduction
- Pickman’s Other Model (1929)
- At the Gate of Deeper Slumber
- Fish Bride
The Yellow Book (Limited Edition Only)
- Ex Libris
- The Yellow Alphabet
From Publishers Weekly:
“This impressive collection of 25 'weird romance' stories…is laden with dark little gems that blur the boundaries between pleasure and pain and between reality and fantasy. The stories are intensely and often graphically erotic, and explore transgression, transformation, and transcendence. The seductively dark lyricism and thematic profundity of this collection will appeal to anyone who shares Kiernan's longing for 'desire without boundaries.'”
“This collection is an incredible accomplishment by one of the best horror writers our there. There is not a single disappointing story, and they never feel repetitive or familiar. Each tale is unique, a difficult feat in a genre often drawn to reusing familiar tropes. Kiernan's stories get under your skin; the emotions she conjures up refuse to stay constrained to the page. Reading this book might lead to a few sleepless nights; but readers willing to take the risk won't be disappointed.”
Fish Bride (1970)
We lie here together, naked on her sheets which are always damp, no matter the weather, and she’s still sleeping. I’ve lain next to her, watching the long cold sunrise, the walls of this dingy room in this dingy house turning so slowly from charcoal to a hundred successively lighter shades of grey. The weak November morning has a hard time at the window, because the glass was knocked out years ago and she chose as a substitute a sheet of tattered and not-quite-clear plastic she found washed up on the shore now, held in place with mismatched nails and a few thumbtacks. But it deters the worst of the wind and rain and snow, and she says there’s nothing out there she wants to see, anyway. I’ve offered to replace the broken glass, a couple of times I’ve said that, but it’s just another of the hundred or so things that I’ve promised I would do for her and haven’t yet gotten around to doing; she doesn’t seem to mind. That’s not why she keeps letting me come here. Whatever she wants from me, it isn’t handouts and pity and someone to fix her broken windows and leaky ceiling. Which is fortunate, as I’ve never fixed anything in my whole life. I can’t even change a flat tire. I’ve only ever been the sort of man who does the harm and leaves it for someone else to put right again, or simply sweep beneath a rug where no one will have to notice the damage I’ve done. So, why should she be any different? And yet, to my knowledge, I’ve done her no harm so far.
I come down the hill from the village on those interminable nights and afternoons when I can’t write and don’t feel like getting drunk alone. I leave that other world, that safe and smothering kingdom of clean sheets and typescript, electric lights and indoor plumping and radio and window frames with windowpanes, and follow the sandy path through gale-stunted trees and stolen, burned-out automobiles, smoldering trash-barrel fires and suspicious, under-lit glances.
They all know I don’t belong here with them, all the other men and women who share her squalid existence at the edge of the sea, the ones who have come down and never gone back up the hill again. When I call them her apostles, she gets sullen and angry.
“No,” she says, “it’s not like that. They’re nothing of the sort.”
But I understand well enough that’s exactly what they are, even if she doesn’t want to admit it, either to herself or to me. And so they hold me in contempt, because she’s taken me into her bed—me, an interloper who comes and goes, who has some choice in the matter, who has that option because the world beyond these dunes and shanty walls still imagines it has some use for me. One of these nights, I think, her apostles will do murder against me. One of them alone, or all of them together. It may be stones or sticks or an old filleting knife. It may even be a gun. I wouldn’t put it past them. They are resourceful, and there’s a lot on the line. They’ll bury me in the dog roses, or sink me in some deep place among the tide-worn rocks, or carve me up like a fat sow and have themselves a feast. She’ll likely join them, if they are bold enough and offer a few scraps of my charred, anonymous flesh to complete the sacrifice. And later, much, much later, she’ll remember and miss me, in her sloppy, indifferent way, and wonder whatever became of the man who brought her beer and whiskey, candles and chocolate bars, the man who said he’d fix the window, but never did. She might recall my name, but I wouldn’t hold it against her if she doesn’t.
“This used to be someplace,” she’s told me time and time again. “Oh, sure, you’d never know it now. But when my mother was a girl, this used to be a town. When I was little, it was still a town. There were dress shops, and a diner, and a jail. There was a public park with a bandshell and a hundred-year-old oak tree. In the summer, there was music in the park, and picnics. There were even churches, two of them, one Catholic and one Presbyterian. But then the storm came and took it all away.”
And it’s true, most of what she says. There was a town here once. A decade’s neglect hasn’t quite erased all signs of it. She’s shown me some of what there’s left to see—the stump of a brick chimney, a few broken pilings where the waterfront once stood—and I’ve asked questions around the village. But people up there don’t like to speak openly about this place, or even allow their thoughts to linger on it very long. Every now and then, usually after a burglary or before an election, there’s talk of cleaning it up, pulling down these listing, clapboard shacks and chasing away the vagrants and squatters and winos. So far, the talk has come to nothing.
A sudden gust of wind blows in from off the beach, and the sheet of plastic stretched across the window flaps and rustles, and she opens her eyes.
“You’re still here,” she says, not sounding surprised, merely telling me what I already know. “I was dreaming that you’d gone away and would never come back to me again. I dreamed there was a boat called the Silver Star, and it took you away.”
“I get seasick,” I tell her. “I don’t do boats. I haven’t been on a boat since I was fifteen.”
“Well, you got on this one,” she insists, and the dim light filling up the room catches in the facets of her sleepy grey eyes. “You said that you were going to seek your fortune on the Ivory Coast. You had your typewriter, and a suitcase, and you were wearing a brand new suit of worsted wool. I was standing on the dock, watching as the Silver Star got smaller and smaller.”
“I’m not even sure I know where the Ivory Coast is supposed to be,” I say.
“Africa,” she replies.
“Well, I know that much, sure. But I don’t know where in Africa. And it’s an awfully big place.”
“In the dream, you knew,” she assures me, and I don’t press the point further. It’s her dream, not mine, even if it’s not a dream she’s actually ever had, even if it’s only something she’s making up as she goes along. “In the dream,” she continues, undaunted, “you had a travel brochure that the ticket agent had given you. It was printed all in color. There was a sort of tree called a bombax tree, with bright red flowers. There were elephants, and a parrot. There were pretty women with skin the color of roasted coffee beans.”
“That’s quite a brochure,” I say, and for a moment I watch the plastic tacked over the window as it rustles in the wind off the bay. “I wish I could have a look at it right now.”
“I thought what a warm place it must be, the Ivory Coast,” and I glance down at her, at those drowsy eyes watching me. She lifts her right hand from the damp sheets, and patches of iridescent skin shimmer ever so faintly in the morning light. The sun shows through the thin, translucent webbing stretched between her long fingers. Her sharp nails brush gently across my unshaven cheek, and she smiles. Even I don’t like to look at those teeth for very long, and I let my eyes wander back to the flapping plastic. The wind is picking up, and I think maybe this might be the day when I finally have to find a hammer, a few ten-penny nails, and enough discarded pine slats to board up the hole in the wall.
“Not much longer before the snow comes,” she says, as if she doesn’t need to hear me speak to know my thoughts.
“Probably not for a couple of weeks yet,” I counter, and she blinks and turns her head towards the window.
In the village, I have a tiny room in a boardinghouse on Darling Street, and I keep a spiral-bound notebook hidden between my mattress and box springs. I’ve written a lot of things in that book that I shouldn’t like any other human being to ever read—secret desires, things I’ve heard, and read; things she’s told me, and things I’ve come to suspect all on my own. Sometimes, I think it would be wise to keep the notebook better hidden. But it’s true that the old woman who owns the place, and who does all the housekeeping herself, is afraid of me, and she never goes into my room. She leaves the clean linen and towels in a stack outside my door. Months ago, I stopped taking my meals with the other lodgers, because the strained silence and fleeting, leery glimpses that attended those breakfasts and dinners only served to give me indigestion. I expect the widow O’Dwyer would ask me to find a room elsewhere, if she weren’t so intimidated by me. Or, rather, if she weren’t so intimidated by the company I keep.
Outside the shanty, the wind howls like the son of Poseidon, and, for the moment, there’s no more talk of the Ivory Coast or dreams or sailing gaily away into the sunset aboard the Silver Star.
Much of what I’ve secretly scribbled there in my notebook concerns that terrible storm that you claim rose up from the sea to steal away the little park and the bandshell, the diner and the jail and the dress shops, the two churches, one Presbyterian and the other Catholic. From what you’ve said, it must have happened sometime in September of ‘57 or ‘58, but I’ve spent long afternoons in the small public library, carefully pouring over old newspapers and magazines. I can find no evidence of such a tempest making landfall in the autumn of either of those years. What I can verify is that the village once extended down the hill, past the marshes and dunes to the bay, and there was a lively, prosperous waterfront. There was trade with Gloucester and Boston, Nantucket and Newport, and the bay was renowned for its lobsters, fat black sea bass, and teeming shoals of haddock. Then, abruptly, the waterfront was all but abandoned sometime before 1960. In print, I’ve found hardly more than scant and unsubstantiated speculations to account for it, that exodus, that strange desertion. Talk of overfishing, for instance, and passing comparisons with Cannery Row in faraway California, and the collapse of the Monterey Bay sardine canning industry back on the 1950s. I write down everything I find, no matter how unconvincing, but I permit myself to believe only a very little of it.
“A penny for your thoughts,” she says, then shuts her eyes again.
“You haven’t got a penny,” I reply, trying to ignore the raw, hungry sound of the wind and the constant noise at the window.
“I most certainly do,” she tells me, and pretends to scowl and look offended. “I have a few dollars, tucked away. I’m not an indigent.”
“Fine, then. I was thinking of Africa,” I lie. “I was thinking of palm trees and parrots.
“I don’t remember any palm trees in the travel brochure,” she says. “But I expect there must be quite a lot of them, regardless.”
“Undoubtedly,” I agree. I don’t say anything else, though, because I think I hear voices, coming from somewhere outside her shack—urgent, muttering voices that reach me despite the wind and the flapping plastic. I can’t make out the words, no matter how hard I try. It ought to scare me more than it does. Like I said, one of these nights, they’ll do murder against me. One of them alone, or all of them together. Maybe they won’t even wait for the conspiring cover of nightfall. Maybe they’ll come for me in broad daylight. I begin to suspect my murder would not even be deemed a crime by the people who live in those brightly painted houses up the hill, back beyond the dunes. On the contrary, they might consider it a necessary sacrifice, something to placate the flotsam and jetsam huddling in the ruins along the shore, an oblation of blood and flesh to buy them time.
Seems more likely than not.
“They shouldn’t come so near,” she says, acknowledging that she too hears the whispering voices. “I’ll have a word with them later. They ought to know better.”
“They’ve more business being here than I do,” I reply, and she silently watches me for a moment or two. Her grey eyes have gone almost entirely black, and I can no longer distinguish the irises from the pupils.
“They ought to know better,” she says again, and this time her tone leaves me no room for argument.
There are tales that I’ve heard, and bits of dreams I sometimes think I’ve borrowed—from her or one of her apostles—that I find somewhat more convincing than either newspaper accounts of depleted fish stocks or rumors of a cataclysmic hurricane. There are the spook stories I’ve overheard, passed between children. There are yarns traded by the half dozen or so grizzled old men who sit outside the filling station near the widow’s boardinghouse, who seem possessed of no greater ambition than checkers and hand-rolled cigarettes, cheap gin and gossip. I have begun to believe the truth is not something that was entrusted to the press, but, instead, an ignominy the town has struggled, purposefully, to forget, and which is now recalled dimly or not at all. There is remaining no consensus to be had, but there are common threads from which I have woven rough speculation.
Late one night, very near the end of summer or towards the beginning of fall, there was an unusually high tide. It quickly swallowed the granite jetty and the shingle, then broke across the seawall and flooded the streets of the harbor. There was a full moon that night, hanging low and ripe on the eastern horizon, and by its wicked reddish glow men and women saw the things that came slithering and creeping and lurching out of those angry waves. The invaders cast no shadow, or the moonlight shone straight through them, but was somehow oddly distorted. Or, perhaps, what came out of the sea that night glimmered faintly with an eerie phosphorescence of its own.
I know that I’m choosing lurid, loaded words here—wicked, lurching, hungry, eerie—hoping, I suppose, to discredit all the cock and bull I’ve heard, trying to neuter those schoolyard demons. But, in my defence, the children and the old men whom I’ve overheard were quite a bit less discreet. They have little use, and even less concern, for the sensibilities of people who aren’t going to believe them, anyway. In some respects, they’re almost as removed as she, as distant and disconnected as the other shanty dwellers here in the rubble at the edge of the bay.
“I would be sorry,” she says, “if you were to sail away to Africa.”
“I’m not going anywhere. There isn’t anywhere I want to go. There isn’t anywhere I’d rather be.”
She smiles again, and this time I don’t allow myself to look away. She has teeth like those of a very small shark, and they glint wet and dark in healthy pink gums. I have often wondered how she manages not to cut her lips or tongue on those teeth, why there are not always trickles of drying blood at the corners of her thin lips. She’s bitten into me enough times now. I have ugly crescent scars across my shoulders and chest and upper arms to prove that we are lovers, stigmata to make her apostles hate me that much more.
“It’s silly of you to waste good money on a room,” she says, changing the course of our conversation. “You could stay here with me. I hate the nights when you’re in the village, and I’m alone.”
“Or you could go back with me,” I reply. It’s a familiar sort of futility, this exchange, and we both know our lines by heart, just as we both know the outcome.
“No,” she says, her shark’s smile fading. “You know that I can’t. You know they’d never have me up there,” and she nods in the general direction of the town
And yes, I do know that, but I’ve never yet told her that I do
The tide rose up beneath a low red moon and washed across the waterfront. The sturdy wharf was shattered like matchsticks, and boats of various shapes and sizes—dories and jiggers, trollers and Bermuda-rigged schooners—were torn free of their moorings and tossed onto the shivered docks. But there was no storm, no wind, no lashing rain. No thunder and lightning and white spray off the breakers. The air was hot and still that night, and the cloudless sky blazed with the countless pin-prick stars that shine brazenly through the punctured dome of Heaven.
“They say the witch what brought the trouble came from someplace up Amesbury way,” I heard one of the old men tell the others, months and months ago. None of his companions replied, neither nodding their heads in agreement, nor voicing dissent. “I heard she made offerings every month, on the night of the new moon, and I heard she had herself a daughter, though I never learned the girl’s name. Don’t guess it matters, though. And the name of her father, well, ain’t nothing I’ll ever say aloud.”
That night, the cobbled streets and alleyways were fully submerged for long hours. Buildings and houses were lifted clear of their foundations and dashed one against the other. What with no warning of the freakish tide, only a handful of the waterfront’s inhabitants managed to escape the deluge and gain the safety of higher ground. More than two hundred souls perished, and for weeks afterwards the corpses of the drowned continued to wash ashore. Many of the bodies were so badly mangled that they could never be placed with a name or a face, and went unclaimed, to be buried in unmarked graves in the village beyond the dunes.
I can no longer hear the whisperers through the thin walls of her shack, so I’ll assume that they’ve gone, or have simply had their say and subsequently fallen silent. Possibly, they’re leaning now with their ears pressed close to the corrugated aluminum and rotting clapboard, listening in, hanging on her every syllable, even as my own voice fills them with them loathing and jealous spite.
“I’ll have a word with them,” she tells me for the third time. “You should feel as welcome here as any of us.”
The sea swept across the land, and, by the light of that swollen, sanguine moon, grim approximations of humanity moved freely, unimpeded, through the flooded thoroughfares. Sometimes they swam, and sometimes they went about deftly on all fours, and sometimes they shambled clumsily along, as though walking were new to them and not entirely comfortable.
“They weren’t men,” I overheard a boy explaining to his friends. The boy had ginger-colored hair, and he was nine, maybe ten years old at the most. The children were sitting together at the edge of the weedy vacant lot where a traveling carnival sets up three or four times a year.
“Then were they women?” one of the others asked him.
The boy frowned and gravely shook his head. “No. You’re not listening. They weren’t women, neither. They weren’t anything human. But, what I heard said, if you were to take all the stuff gets pulled up in trawler nets—all the hauls of cod and flounder and eel, the dogfish and the skates, the squids and jellyfish and crabs, all of it and whatever else you can conjure—if you took those things, still alive and wriggling, and could mush them up together into the shapes of men and women, that’s exactly what walked out of the bay that night.”
“That’s not true,” a girl said indignantly, and the others stared at her. “That’s not true at all. God wouldn’t let things like that run loose.”
The ginger-haired boy shook his head again. “They got different gods than us, gods no one even knows the names for, and that’s who the Amesbury witch was worshipping. Those gods from the bottom of the ocean.”
“Well, I think you’re a liar,” the girl told him. “I think you’re a blasphemer and a liar, and, also, I think you’re just making this up to scare us.” And then she stood and stalked away across the weedy lot, leaving the others behind. They all watched her go, and then the ginger-haired boy resumed his tale.
“It gets worse,” he said.
A cold rain has started to fall, and the drops hitting the tin roof sound almost exactly like bacon frying in a skillet. She’s moved away from me, and is sitting naked at the edge of the bed, her long legs dangling over the side, her right shoulder braced against the rusted iron headboard. I’m still lying on the damp sheets, staring up at the leaky ceiling, waiting for the water tumbling from the sky to find its way inside. She’ll set jars and cooking pots beneath the worst of the leaks, but there are far too many to bother with them all.
“I can’t stay here forever,” she says. It’s not the first time, but, I admit, those words always take me by surprise. “It’s getting harder being here. Every day, it gets harder on me. I’m so awfully tired, all the time.”
I look away from the ceiling, at her throat and the peculiar welts just below the line of her chin. The swellings first appeared a few weeks back, and the skin there has turned dry and scaly, and has taken on a sickly greyish-yellow hue. Sometimes, there are boils, or seeping blisters. When she goes out among the others, she wears the silk scarf I gave her, tied about her neck so that they won’t have to see. So they won’t ask questions she doesn’t want to answer.
“I don’t have to go alone,” she says, but doesn’t turn her head to look at me. “I don’t want to leave you here.”
“I can’t,” I say.
“I know,” she replies.
And this is how it almost always is. I come down from the village, and we make love, and she tells me her dreams, here in this ramshackle cabin out past the dunes and dog roses and the gale-stunted trees. In her dreams, I am always leaving her behind, buying tickets on tramp steamers or signing on with freighters, sailing away to the Ivory Coast or Portugal or Singapore. I can’t begin to recall all the faraway places she’s dreamt me leaving her for. Her nightmares have sent me round and round the globe. But the truth is, she’s the one who’s leaving, and soon, before the first snows come.
I know it (though I play her games of transference), and all her apostles know it, too. The ones who have come down from the village and never gone back up the hill again. The vagrants and squatters and winos, the lunatics and true believers, who have turned their backs on the world, but only after it turned its back on them. Destitute and cast away, they found the daughter of the sea, each of them, and the shanty town is dotted with their tawdry, makeshift altars and shrines. She knows precisely what she is to them, even if she won’t admit it. She knows that these lost souls have been blinded by the trials and tribulations of their various, sordid lives, and she is the soothing darkness they’ve found. She is the only genuine balm they’ve ever known against the cruel glare of the sun and the moon, which are the unblinking eyes of the gods of all mankind.
She sits there, at the edge of the bed. She is always alone, no matter how near we are, no matter how many apostles crowd around and eavesdrop and plot my demise. She stares at the flapping sheet of plastic tacked up where the windowpane used to be, and I go back to watching the ceiling. A single drop of rainwater gets through the layers of tin and tarpaper shingles and lands on my exposed belly.
She laughs softly. She doesn’t laugh very often anymore, and I shut my eyes and listen to the rain.
“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be, when they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea,” she whispers, and then laughs again.
I take the bait, because I almost always take the bait.
“But the snail replied ‘Too far, too far!’ and gave a look askance,” I say, quoting Lewis Carroll, and she doesn’t laugh. She starts to scratch at the welts below her chin, then stops herself.
“In the halls of my mother,” she says, “there is such silence, such absolute and immemorial peace. In that hallowed place, the mind can be still. There is serenity, finally, and an end to all sickness and fear.” She pauses, and looks at the floor, at the careless scatter of empty tin cans and empty bottles and bones picked clean. “But,” she continues, “it will be lonely down there, without you. It will be something even worse than lonely.”
I don’t reply, and in a moment, she gets to her feet and goes to stand by the door.