Subterranean Press’s edition of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Variegated Alphabet combines seven alphabets Kiernan wrote over a period of fourteen years. Each one consists of twenty-six vignettes, with one piece in each set illustrated by John Kenn Mortensen. Some of them are complete stories in the vein of flash fiction; others are character studies or mood pieces.
The production values on this book are remarkable. The wraparound jacket, the textured liners of the cover interiors, and the printing are all impeccably done. The art is macabre and exquisitely detailed.
Of course, the most important part of a book is the story—or, in this case, stories. Kiernan’s background as a paleontologist comes into play in many of the stories here. Sometimes, characters find an unusual fossil or artifact, or compare something they’ve witnessed to long-extinct organisms. Since Kiernan is genderfluid, themes of metamorphosis and self-discovery often appear in their stories, and many of the pieces here feature characters who must confront some unexpected aspect of their own bodies or identities.
Kiernan is well-known for writing stories that intersect with the Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, they’ve written enough Mythos stories to form a separate collection, the excellent Houses Under the Sea. A number of the stories in Alphabet are Mythos tales as well, particularly those in the “Eldritch Alphabetos” section. One even occurs as a supplement to the title story from Houses. But Kiernan draws on a wider selection of inspirations as well. I was particularly happy to see a reference to the sinister circus from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in the “N is for Nyarlathotep” entry from the Eldritch Alphabetos.
Subterranean Press produced two editions of The Variegated Alphabet, and neither one is cheap. But the unique stories, beautiful construction, and wonderful art make it worth the price.