Caitlín R. Kiernan

Caitlín R. Kiernan Caitlín Rebekah Kiernan (1965- ) is an author and paleontologist best known for writing dark fantasy and science fiction novels, short stories, and comic-book scripts, several of which take place in Birmingham, Jefferson County. Although known primarily for her creative work, she has written scholarly articles on mosasaurs and other prehistoric animals recovered from sites in Alabama. Her notable works of fiction include her award-winning novels Silk (1998) and The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (2012) as well as her 2014 collection The Ape's Wife and Other Stories, which won the World Fantasy Award. She has also received accolades for her comic books and graphic novels, including the Vertigo series The Dreaming. Kiernan's writing typically embraces many genres, including folklore, fairy tales, and elements of the romantic and poetic as well as the macabre. In interviews, she has cited such disparate influences as authors Shirley Jackson and John Steinbeck, Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany, the Appalachian folklore stories of Manley Wade Wellman, the films of David Lynch, and the music and lyrics of Michael Stipe, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith.

Kiernan was born Kenneth R. Wright on May 26, 1964, in Dublin, Ireland, but moved with his mother to Alabama as a small child. They settled in the municipality of Leeds outside Birmingham, where Wright developed interests in paleontology and herpetology as well as fiction-writing. Wright's mother was an avid reader of "weird fiction" such as Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker and encouraged him in his interest in the genre. As a teenager, he lived in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville and started volunteering at the now-closed Red Mountain Museum. This institution, located adjacent to the road cut for the Red Mountain Expressway, allowed staff and visitors to directly inspect the exposed rock and yielded many paleontological discoveries, including Cretaceous mosasaurs, extinct seagoing reptiles that Wright would later specialize in as a scientist. By the time Wright graduated from Hewitt-Trussville High School in 1983, he had spent several summers on archaeological and paleontological digs. Kiernan has noted that she began struggling with gender identity during this period and transitioned some time later in her mid-twenties.

Wright studied geology and vertebrate paleontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and then at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then returned to Alabama to work at the Red Mountain Museum, holding both museum and teaching positions. In 1988, she collaborated (as Kenneth R. Wright) with Samuel Wayne Shannon in describing a newly discovered species of mosasaur, co-authoring "Selmasaurus russelli, a New Plioplatecarpine Mosasaur (Squamata, Mosasauridae) from Alabama" in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Now identifying as Kiernan, she wrote her first novel, The Five of Cups, in late 1992 and early 1993, although it remained unpublished until 2003. She soon focused on writing fiction in 1994 and published the short story "Persephone" in Aberrations, a magazine specializing in horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy, in 1995. It was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award by the Horror Writers of America. In 1996, author Neil Gaiman and the editors of DC/Vertigo Comics approached her to write The Dreaming, an anthology comic book spun off from Gaiman's popular Sandman, featuring both existing supporting characters from Gaiman's title and new ones of Kiernan's own creation. The series concluded in 2001.

Keirnan's first published novel, Silk, was issued in 1998. Drawing on both the Southern Gothic literary tradition and the "outsider" subcultures of Birmingham's punk and goth music scenes, Kiernan told an allusive and hallucinatory story of disenfranchised youth and the inner and (possibly) external demons that prey on them. It was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and British Fantasy Award and won the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel. The novel won praise from such established authors as Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Poppy Z. Brite. And Gaiman, after reading the novel, referred to Kiernan as the poet and bard of the wasted and lost.

Her first short story collection, Tales of Pain and Wonder, was published by Gauntlet Press in 2000. And her next-published book, Threshold: A Novel of Deep Time, was issued in 2001 and won the International Horror Guild Association Award for Best Novel. Again set in Birmingham, this sophomore effort mixed Kiernan's young outsider characters with her interest in paleontology and a concept of geological time influenced by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft.

Kiernan continued her scientific work, as well. In 2002, she published a monograph on the biostratigraphy of Alabama mosasaurs in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2002 and collaborated with fellow paleontologist David R. Schwimmer, a faculty member at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, in research on dromaeosaurs, which they published in The Mosasaur in 2004.

In 2012, Kiernan returned to comics, scripting the graphic novel Alabaster: Wolves (featuring her character Dancy Flammarion from Threshold), which won a Bram Stoker Award in 2013. It was followed by four more incarnations of the series, including Alabaster: The Good, the Bad, and the Bird in 2014.

Her most acclaimed novel to date is The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, published in 2012 and set in Providence, Rhode Island. The novel is written in the form of a fictionalized memoir. It concerns the relationship between unreliable narrator India Morgan Phelps, who is suffering from mental illness, and her obsession with a young hitchhiker named Eva Canning, whose past she investigates after Eva mysteriously vanishes. Unable to tell fact from fiction, India's mental state disintegrates after she stops taking her medication, causing friction between her and her transgender lover Abalyn. With Abalyn's help, she discovers that Eva's mother belonged to a mass suicide cult, of which Eva was the only survivor, and becomes convinced that Eva is either a ghost or a supernatural sea creature in human disguise. The novel was nominated for numerous science fiction awards, winning the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for works of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores perceptions of gender, and the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel. Kiernan's work has been translated into German, Italian, French, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Korean, and Japanese.

Kiernan lived for many years in Providence, Rhode Island, with her partner, photographer and doll-maker Kathryn A. Pollnac. In 2019, however, they relocated to Birmingham, and Kiernan took a position as a research associate and preparator at the McWane Science Center; Kiernan also continued to do research on Cretaceous marine life. In 2021, she became a research associate in vertebrate paleontology at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County.

Selected Works by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Silk (1998)

Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000)

Threshold (2001)

The Five of Cups (2003)

Low Red Moon (2003)

Murder of Angels (2004)

Alabaster (2006)

Daughter of Hounds (2007)

The Red Tree (2009)

Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One) (2011)

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (2012)

The Ape's Wife and Other Tales (2013)

Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume Two) (2015)

Agents of Dreamland (2017)

A Little Yellow Book of Fever Dreams (2019)

The Tindalos Asset (2020)

Further Reading

  • Gentry, A. D., J. A. Ebersole, and C. R. Kiernan, 2019. Asmodochelys parhami, a new fossil marine turtle from the Campanian Demopolis Chalk and the stratigraphic congruence of competing marine turtle phylogenies. Royal Society Open Science 6(12);
  • Jones, Jeremy L. C. "Finding the Language I Need: A Conversation with Caitlín R. Kiernan." Clarkesworld 45, June 2010.
  • Kiernan, Caitlín R. "Stratigraphic Distribution and Habitat Segregation of Mosasaurs in the Upper Cretaceous of Western and Central Alabama, with an Historical Review of Alabama Mosasaur Discoveries." Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22 (March 2002): 91-103.
  • Kiernan, Caitlín R., and David R. Schwimmer. "First Record of a Velociraptorine T (Tetanurae, Dromaeosauridae) from the Eastern Gulf Coastal United States." The Mosasaur 7 (January 2004): 89-93.
  • Wright, Kenneth R., and Samuel Wayne Shannon. “Selmasaurus russelli, a New Plioplatecarpine Mosasaur (Squamata, Mosasauridae) from Alabama.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 8 (March 1988): 102-107.

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