Tonight’s Read: “Houses Under the Sea”—A Story by Caitlín R. Kiernan, reprinted in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 8, May 2013


Houses Under The Sea

Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2003


Originally published in 2003 in Thrillers 2,
edited by Robert Morrish.

When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.

I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.

I close my eyes, and she’s standing in the surf at Moss Landing, gazing out into the bay, staring towards the place where the continental shelf narrows down to a sliver and drops away to the black abyss of Monterey Canyon. There are gulls, and her hair is tied back in a ponytail.

I close my eyes, and we’re walking together down Cannery Row, heading south towards the aquarium. She’s wearing a gingham dress and a battered pair of Doc Martens that she must have had for fifteen years. I say something inconsequential, but she doesn’t hear me, too busy scowling at the tourists, at the sterile, cheery absurdities of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Mackerel Jack’s Trading Post.

“That used to be a whorehouse,” she says, nodding in the direction of Mackerel Jack’s. “The Lone Star Cafe, but Steinbeck called it the Bear Flag. Everything burned. Nothing here’s the way it used to be.”

She says that like she remembers, and I close my eyes.

And she’s on television again, out on the old pier at Moss Point, the day they launched the ROV Tiburon II.

And she’s at the Pierce Street warehouse in Monterey; men and women in white robes are listening to every word she says. They hang on every syllable, her every breath, their many eyes like the bulging eyes of deep-sea fish encountering sunlight for the first time. Dazed, terrified, enraptured, lost.

All of them lost.

I close my eyes, and she’s leading them into the bay.

Those creatures jumped the barricades
And have headed for the sea

All these divided moments, disconnected, or connected so many different ways, that I’ll never be able to pull them apart and find a coherent narrative. That’s my folly, my conceit, that I can make a mere story of what has happened. Even if I could, it’s nothing anyone would ever want to read, nothing I could sell. CNN and Newsweek and The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Harper’s, everyone already knows what they think about Jacova Angevine. Everybody already knows as much as they want to know. Or as little. In those minds, she’s already earned her spot in the death-cult hall of fame, sandwiched firmly in between Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate.

I close my eyes, and “Fire from the sky, fire on the water,” she says and smiles; I know that this time she’s talking about the fire of September 14, 1924, the day lightning struck one of the 55,000-gallon storage tanks belonging to the Associated Oil Company and a burning river flowed into the sea. Billowing black clouds hide the sun, and the fire has the voice of a hurricane as it bears down on the canneries, a voice of demons, and she stops to tie her shoes.

I sit here in this dark motel room, staring at the screen of my laptop, the clean liquid-crystal light, typing irrelevant words to build meandering sentences, waiting, waiting, waiting, and I don’t know what it is that I’m waiting for. Or I’m only afraid to admit that I know exactly what I’m waiting for. She has become my ghost, my private haunting, and haunted things are forever waiting.

“In the mansions of Poseidon, she will prepare halls from coral and glass and the bones of whales,” she says, and the crowd in the warehouse breathes in and out as a single, astonished organism, their assembled bodies lesser than the momentary whole they have made. “Down there, you will know nothing but peace, in her mansions, in the endless night of her coils.”

Tiburon is Spanish for shark,” she says, and I tell her I didn’t know that, that I had two years of Spanish in high school, but that was a thousand years ago, and all I remember is sí and por favor.

What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?

I close my eyes again.

The sea has many voices.
Many gods and many voices.

“November 5, 1936,” she says, and this is the first night we had sex, the long night we spent together in a seedy Moss Point hotel, the sort of place the fishermen take their hookers, the same place she was still staying when she died. “The Del Mar Canning Company burned to the ground. No one ever tried to blame lightning for that one.”

There’s moonlight through the drapes, and I imagine for a moment that her skin has become iridescent, mother-of-pearl, the shimmering motley of an oil slick. I reach out and touch her naked thigh, and she lights a cigarette. The smoke hangs thick in the air, like fog or forgetfulness.

My fingertips against her flesh, and she stands and walks to the window.

“Do you see something out there?” I ask, and she shakes her head very slowly.

I close my eyes.

In the moonlight, I can make out the puckered, circular scars on both her shoulder blades and running halfway down her spine. Two dozen or more of them, but I never bothered to count exactly. Some are no larger than a dime, but several are at least two inches across.

“When I’m gone,” she says, “when I’m done here, they’ll ask you questions about me. What will you tell them?”

“That depends what they ask,” I reply and laugh, still thinking it was all one of her strange jokes, the talk of leaving, and I lie down and stare at the shadows on the ceiling.

“They’ll ask you everything,” she whispers. “Sooner or later, I expect they’ll ask you everything.”

Which they did.

I close my eyes, and I see her, Jacova Angevine, the lunatic prophet from Salinas, pearls that were her eyes, cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o, and she’s kneeling in the sand. The sun is rising behind her and I hear people coming through the dunes.

“I’ll tell them you were a good fuck,” I say, and she takes another drag off her cigarette and continues staring at the night outside the motel windows.

“Yes,” she says. “I expect you will.”


The first time that I saw Jacova Angevine—I mean, the first time I saw her in person—I’d just come back from Pakistan and had flown up to Monterey to try and clear my head. A photographer friend had an apartment there and he was on assignment in Tokyo, so I figured I could lay low for a couple of weeks, a whole month maybe, stay drunk and decompress. My clothes, my luggage, my skin, everything about me still smelled like Islamabad. I’d spent more than six months overseas, ferreting about for real and imagined connections between Muslim extremists, European middlemen, and Pakistan’s leaky nuclear arms program, trying to gauge the damage done by the enterprising Abdul Qadeer Khan, rogue father of the Pakistani bomb, trying to determine exactly what he’d sold and to whom. Everyone already knew—or at least thought they knew—about North Korea, Libya, and Iran, and American officials suspected that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups belonged somewhere on his list of customers, as well, despite assurances to the contrary from Major-General Shaukat Sultan. I’d come back with a head full of apocalypse and Urdu, anti-India propaganda and Mushaikh poetry, and I was determined to empty my mind of everything except scotch and the smell of the sea.

It was a bright Wednesday afternoon, a warm day for November in Monterey County, and I decided to come up for air. I showered for the first time in a week and had a late lunch at the Sardine Factory on Wave Street—Dungeness crab rémoulade, fresh oysters with horseradish, and grilled sanddabs in a lemon sauce that was a little heavy on the thyme—then decided to visit the aquarium and walk it all off. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I spent a lot of my time at the aquarium on Coney Island, and, three decades later, there were few things a man could do sober that relaxed me as quickly and completely. I put the check on my MasterCard and followed Wave Street south and east to Prescott, then turned back down Cannery Row, the glittering bay on my right, the pale blue autumn sky stretched out overhead like oil on canvas. …

Click here to read the remainder of the story at Nightmare Magazine…

About the Author & Author Spotlight-Interview from Nightmare Magazine

D00AAFDD-104F-4E10-9D87-EEE14C91F22DCaitlín R. Kiernan is the author of several novels, including World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson award-nominated The Red Tree and the Nebula and Bram Stoker award-nominated The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. She is a very prolific short-story author, and her stories have been collected in Tales of Pain and Wonder; From Weird and Distant Shores; To Charles Fort, With Love; Alabaster; A is for Alien; The Ammonite Violin & Others; Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart; and the forthcoming The Ape’s Wife and Others. Subterranean Press has released Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One), with a second volume planned. Kiernan was recently proclaimed “One of our essential dark fantasy authors” by the New York Times. Her current projects include her critically acclaimed Dark Horse comic, Alabaster. She lives with her partner in Providence, Rhode Island.

Author Spotlight / Nightmare Magazine

Nightmare Magazine (NM): I loved “Houses Under the Sea.” You’ve mentioned that it was inspired by R.E.M.’s song “Belong,” which you briefly quote in the story. Could you tell us a little more about the genesis of the idea and how it evolved from that initial inspiration?

Caitlín R. Kiernan (CRK): Sometimes . . . often, really . . . I’ll hear a lyric, a line or two from a song, and it’ll lodge itself in my consciousness, where it sits and ferments. Which is what happened with “Belong.” I’m a great fan of R.E.M. I have been since the eighties. When the album Out of Time was released in 1991 and I first heard “Belong,” that one line—“Those creatures jumped the barricades and have headed for the sea”—I heard it and immediately saw the image of people walking into the sea. I have no idea what the band meant, but that’s what I saw. Those lines, they struck me as simultaneously beautiful, sorrowful, filled with awe, somehow terrifying, but also joyful. And the image stayed with me for years. That was actually back years before my career as an author began, but it stuck. It didn’t coalesce into a story until 2004, but it was always, always there, germinating for those thirteen years. So, yeah. I doubt the story would ever have happened had I not been inspired by the band. Actually, R.E.M. have often inspired me. Their lyrics taught me a lot about writing.

NM: I was surprised and pleased to see this story was partially set on Cannery Row. What kind of an influence has John Steinbeck had on your work?

CRK: Steinbeck was actually a tremendous formative influence. I began reading him in high school, and he was one of those eye-opening authors for me. He’s one of the writers who taught me invaluable lessons about characterization; that stories, novels, are not about events. They’re about people. When they stop being about people, you’re writing shit. Steinbeck also introduced me to the importance of profoundly flawed characters and their importance to literature. Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men, for example, or the cast of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. These aren’t characters many people would see as heroic or virtuous or strong, because too often readers are, I think, too afraid of their own weaknesses to sympathize or empathize with characters they deem “unsympathetic.”

In the two Cannery Row books, Steinbeck gives us bums, whores, and a marine biologist who exists outside academia. Beautiful, beautiful people. And, I don’t know, years and years ago, I was looking through a book of photographs of Cannery Row before it was essentially turned into the Disneyland attraction it is today. That exquisite, weathered, decaying desolation, what it became after the sardines were overfished and poverty set in and all the people moved on, leaving behind that shell. As with the line from the R.E.M. song, I filed those images away, knowing I’d need them someday. And when I finally found the story of Jacova Angevine, I knew the Row was the perfect setting. It exists—or at least once existed—as man’s fragile interface with the ocean. It exists in “Houses Under the Sea” as a parable of man’s simultaneous ruthless exploitation and awe of the sea, and, too, of humanity’s constant, idiotic romanticization of the past. The characters are not truly walking along Cannery Row. They’re walking along a theme-park zombie that once was the Row.

NM: What research did you do for this story? Did you reread any Lovecraft stories before or while you wrote it?

CRK: When I’m writing, research is always a combination of what I already have in my head—which is sort of a disorganized encyclopedia—and on-the-fly research. In this case, I think that hard part was getting the science and technology concerning deep-sea submersibles as right as I possibly could without going to Monterey and climbing aboard the ships. Now, that’s how the story should have been researched, yes, but there aren’t many authors who have the luxury of that sort of thing, and I’m sorry to say that, Mr. Hemingway. So, I don’t know how many hours I must have spent studying ROV schematics and specs and whatnot, but a lot of hours. That, I would say, was the bulk of the research done immediately before and as I wrote the story.

As to Lovecraft, no, I didn’t read any of his stories while I was writing “Houses Under the Sea,” but I’d already read every bit of fiction he ever wrote, over and over again. I live in fear of pastiche, so if an author or authors—in this case Lovecraft, also Steinbeck—serves as an inspiration, I avoid reading them while I write the story they’ve inspired. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, his Deep Ones and Dagon, and especially Mother Hydra, they were all jumping off points—as were Steinbeck and R.E.M.—but I also wanted the story to be its own thing, not just some “mythos” tale.

By the way, Lovecraft wrote virtually nothing about Mother Hydra, which is one reason I’ve used that deity repeatedly. She’s really nothing more than a shadow in his work, a force he hints at. Makes her a lot more interesting to me than, say, Cthulhu. Also, it’s an opportunity to feminize the Weird. “Houses Under the Sea” is a tale of goddess cult gone . . . maybe gone wrong. Maybe gone exactly right. Probably, the story could have ended no way except the mass drowning. Willing sacrifice to that which is vastly greater than humanity. Or, conversely, it’s about mass hysteria and the danger of charismatic personalities. Regardless, “Mother Hydra” becomes a metaphor for, a personification of, the sea.

NM: When you write stories like this that include pieces of news reports and found documents, do you start with them first, add them as you go, or construct them at the end after discovering where the plot takes you? How do you strike the right tone with each fragment?

CRK: I don’t know I’m going to need them until I get to that part of the story. Well, usually not. Here, our narrator is a journalist, so I had a pretty good idea those snippets were coming. But I didn’t write them or sketch them out before hand. I don’t use outlines, anything like that, when I write. But when I reached, say the CNN clip, I had to stop and spend a day or so reading CNN reports to get the feel of the voice down, because if I’m going to employ that sort of device, it absolutely has to be authentic. Same with those excerpts from Theo Angevine’s novels, and that was actually much more difficult than the news reports. I had to pause to create the voice of an author who isn’t me, whose work isn’t mine. Otherwise, I’ve failed. And I have to be able to sustain that voice across more than one excerpt, so they appear to have been written by the same author. This was something I had to do extensively in The Red Tree. Truthfully, this is one of the things I love to do, creating “found” artifacts within stories and novels—found film, books, paintings, whatever. It’s a fascinating device, and one I expect I’ll employ for many years to come.

NM: We see the Open Door of Night cult again in your Tiptree-Award-winning novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and meet someone else whose life it has changed. Did this story inspire the novel, or did the link between them grow in the writing?

CRK: No. The story didn’t inspire the novel. I didn’t even see the connection until I was very deep into writing The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. Then, well, it was just obvious to me. I don’t want to say too much about that, though, because I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it, and, too, the Open Door of Night is, I think, a fairly minor element in the novel. By the way, the cult also makes an appearance in a story I wrote with Sonya Taaffe, “In the Praying Window.” It might crop up in still other stories, as well. I can’t recall offhand.

NM: What can readers expect to see from you next?

CRK: At the moment, I’m finishing up the second Siobhan Quinn novel, Red Delicious, the sequel to Blood Oranges. These three novels came about after writing The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, because I was emotionally exhausted, and I needed to do something fun. So, I decided to poke fun at the mess “paranormal romance” and “shifter” porn has made of urban fantasy, to rip apart those conventions, deconstruct and disembowel them. So, yeah . . . I’ll finish Red Delicious this spring, and then write the last book in that trilogy, Cherry Bomb, this summer. Also, I’m scripting Alabaster, a series for Dark Horse Comics, a reboot of my Dancy Flammarion character who first appeared—in a rather different incarnation—in my second novel, Threshold. Subterranean Press will be releasing my ninth short fiction collection, The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories, this summer, or maybe this autumn, so I’ve been editing that. And I think that’s quite enough for one year.<

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