Reviewed by Shane Douglas Keene
Unique, original, singular, exceptional, extraordinary. These are all words that us reviewers use frequently, to the point of cliché sometimes. And sometimes they apply, but often they’re just hype. In the case of Kirsten Alene’s new double novella collection from Eraserhead Press, they apply in spades, and you’re going to see them used in one synonymous form or another throughout this review. When you read Moon Snake, you’re likely to find yourself frequently saying, “what the hell did I just read?” And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Just the opposite, in fact. Because what Alene has done here is create something both remarkable and memorable, taking us on a surreal, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes quite dark, journey through fairy-tale worlds that bear some resemblance to, but aren’t quite our own.
As the titular story in this strange and mesmerizing book ensues, a people who live in avocado tree houses have just finished building a red bridge stretching off into the distance and culminating in mystery. Because nobody seems to know where the bridge goes. This is where the darkness of the story starts to leak through the seams as we learn of people who have set off across the bridge, never to return. The prose is poetic and magical from the onset of the book and holds steady and beautiful throughout the book:
“On the day the red bridge is finished, they catch a blue shark in Seawater Bay. It is the largest blue shark on record and the first to be caught in seven years from the rocky ocean waters of Seawater Bay. When they pull up the blue shark people gasp and sigh. It is what people do when they are pleased and amazed.”
Kirsten Alene’s use of the English language is at once haunting and lyrical, drawing us in and holding us, awe-filled captives throughout the strange, sometimes eerie, and often poignantly sad tale of loss, broken relationships and, in the end, a small spark of hopeful intention. She wields her pen like a warrior does a sword, cutting straight to the heart of her readers. In the chapter about James, the dog who is a lion, you may find yourself alternating between laughter and tears as Alene draws on achingly human emotions to paint lifelike pictures on her surreal, cerebral canvas:
“We fed table scraps to James in the evenings. We ran around with James in the day. For a time this carried on. And it turned out James was not so much a dog as a lion cub who one day grew into a lion. We were foolish then and small and a dog is a dog is a dog to anyone as foolish as Pecan Black and myself.
James’s taste for human flesh became apparent around the same time as his beard.”
James doesn’t play a very long part in the story, but in a way, he plays a quite large one as Alene manages to subtly and masterfully make his present felt throughout the story. And she does this with most of the characters dead, missing, or exiled, as James is in a brief and sad little vignette early in the story.
And the magic of Kirsten Alene’s mesmerizing prose doesn’t stop there. As with “Moon Snake,” so with “Cathedral Bones.” She takes us on another poetic journey here, as we follow another unnamed narrator who lives in a house of mastiffs. We’re presented with a story that is, I think, ultimately about losing and finding oneself, and it’s rife with the same kind of brilliance we were met with in the title story:
“Now I live in the shape of a triangle and the third point of the triangle is a point in the middle of the university. When we all go together, I leave a trail of mastiffs, pecans, and the occasional blackbird behind me in a triangle shape that ends at the university, at a large brick commons with a fountain in the center.”
In the end, though there are many elements of excellence in both stories, the standout for me was—to state what should be obvious by now—Kirsten Alene’s amazing eloquence. In my mind and heart, language was what the book was about and it was executed with absolute perfection cover to cover. But I’m certain everyone will have a different experience with this work, taking away, as I did, something uniquely personal. There are things to think on here and the book will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Moon Snake is a kind of bizarro, fairy-tale, horror mashup that isn’t easily defined or categorized, and to try and assign a genre to it would be pure folly. Packed with beautiful, dark imagery, captivating settings, and quirky, delightful characters, it’s a collection that will rock your world in strange and wonderful ways. If you haven’t read the sweet black magic of Alene’s words, you should fix that. Start here.