“Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“Oh,” Annie said and sat down on the rug, grateful for something between her and the concrete. “Where are you from, anyway?”

The loose flap of cloth falling back in place, once again concealing the crack, and “Massachusetts,” Elise replied, “but no place you’ve probably ever heard of.”
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 93

Music, lesbians, a muggy Georgia summer, and white blind things in the dark. “Paedomorphosis” is a story of mood and affect, intimation almost to the point of deliberately hiding things. If it wasn’t published in a Mythos anthology…if it wasn’t published by Caitlín R. Kiernan…there are certain connections which might not be made at all. Like “She Flows” by Takeuchi Yoshikazu (竹内義和) the story lives in that liminal space between telling and showing and knowing. It’s not a horror story by any stretch, but there are the bones of horror story technique there: the way the story and characters are built up, like fossils emerging from dry rock of an ancient river bed, and there are only a few people that can read those old bones and reconstruct something of what happened.

To a degree, all stories are reflections of their authors. We read about Lovecraft’s life and we look for the echoes of events and ideas in his fiction; as his life becomes more well-known through biographies, Lovecraft himself has become a kind of character in the fictional universe, fragments of his life and thought cropping up here and there in stories, some more explicit than others.

With “Paedomorphosis,” readers may well ask how much of Kiernan herself is reflected in the story. The setting of Athens, Georgia, where she lived. Elise-from-Massachusetts with her interest in paleontology; Kiernan herself a paleontologist. The imagery of drowning, repeated in some stories, especially her later novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (2012). The lesbian characters and her own sexuality.

“I thought dykes were supposed to be all tough and fearless and shit,” she said.

Annie shook her head, swallowed before she spoke. “Big ol’ misconception. right up there with the ones about us all wanting dicks and pickup trucks.”
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 93

The story has the feel of something cribbled together from bits of life; people and places known rather than imagined. A bit of sexual longing, fulfilled. Drugs and rock and roll. And it takes Annie…and the audience…somewhere they never expected, gives them a glimpse of a world they never imagined might exist, those strange caverns measureless to man, the porous world spoken of so cryptically in “Machines Are Digging” (2009) by Reza Negarestani.

The title is never explained; look up the definition on your own time. The story ends with, of all things, a quote from Tolkien:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains…
—J. R. R. Tolkien, quoted in “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 98

But not the whole of it:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains: fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again, while their eyes grew bigger and bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness; also there are other things more slimy than fish. Even in the tunnels and caves the goblins have made for themselves there are other things living unbeknown to them that have sneaked in from outside to lie up in the dark.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter V “Riddles in the Dark”

The story captures a mood, but the mood itself is almost inexpressible in anything less than the story. There are things to think about, long after the last page is turned. What might have happened, if Annie had been fearless enough to take the plunge? Who is the subject of paedomorphosis in the story? These are questions that Kiernan doesn’t answer in this story…but in some of her other stories, we catch hints of what might have happened, in love affairs that lasted a little longer and got a little weirder.

“Paedomorphosis” was first published in The Urbanite #10 (1998), it has been reprinted in Kiernan’s collection Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000, 2002, & 2008); Song of Cthulhu (2001); and Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction & Fantasy (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One thought on ““Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

  1. Just reread it last night. I’d forgotten about the gills in Elise’s armpits! Thanks for featuring this one.

    Like

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