Kaaron Warren’s 2015 collection, The Gate Theory, is a slim volume. I’m glad. Since I first read its six stories late last year, the images and feelings they evoked have clung to me like a persistent dream. Or a haunting. Any more would have been too much.
To confess: I avoided reading The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall for a long time after first picking up the book, almost entirely due to its kooky, hooky title (which, of course, makes perfect sense once you finish the story). As is so often the case with things we avoid, it is now hands-down my favourite story in the collection, embodying so many of the things I love about Warren’s writing: the spare, vivid prose; the descent from a dark everyday to an even darker fantastic; and, above all, the skewed perspective of a narrator who is, at best, amoral, contaminating the reader with their toxic point of view.
Gaze Dogs is the story of Rosie McDonald, a morally destitute rare dog dealer, who takes a commission to find and capture vampire dogs for a corrupt doctor. She goes with her sister-in-law, Gina, animal psychologist and psychic, to the island of Viti Levu in Fiji, where they discover that the vampire dogs and their giant yellow alpha can be found at the lowest, darkest point of an interconnected series of waterfalls.
The descent through the nine waterfalls is like a journey into hell. From the brightness and gaiety of the tourist picnic spot at the first, past ponds where the fish are precooked by volcanic currents, past giant toxic mushrooms and pools bloated with the roe of a submerged leviathan, lower and lower, to the realm of the bloodsucking vampire dogs and their mythic, demonic leader.
In spite of all the horrors and grotesqueries that we witness—from the hawkers selling beetle carapaces the size of turtle shells (that made me think of the black meat of the giant centipede in Naked Lunch), to the dreadful confrontation with the great yellow alpha—the darkest corner of this tale lurks within Rosie herself.
Rosie is not afraid to lie. She pretends that her husband is the boss and she just his gofer, a self-serving deception that both comforts her male clientele and divorces her from any sense of responsibility. In reality, her husband is a paraplegic in a care home, victim of a savage biting attack by one of their dogs. You get the impression that all of Rosie’s perceptions are warped by denial. At one point, describing her husband’s condition, she says, ”Bobble head, I’d call him if I were a cruel person.” A sentence that perfectly captures her desire to both do the thing she knows to be bad and distance herself from it at the same time.
Throughout, Gina acts as a sort of external conscience for Rosie. She feels deeply the pain of all the animals they encounter, is physically and psychically oppressed by her empathy. But this strength of Gina’s, which Rosie has clearly used to great advantage throughout her career, will prove to be her undoing in their encounter with the alpha at Nine Waterfall.
How Rosie responds to Gina’s predicament is, to me at least, the central horror of this story. You can assume a certain level of moral bankruptcy in someone in this line of work, but her detachment from what she does is almost sociopathic. Almost. While she is not afraid to lie, cheat or deceive, you can’t help feel that Rosie’s not all bad; there is a sense of slippage, of veering off the path one bad decision at a time. At the story’s beginning there is still some hope that Rosie may be able to redeem herself in some way, to cleave to some remaining fragment of inherent goodness. “You’re not so tough,” says Gina, as Rosie stuffs wide-eyed gaze dogs into her jacket. But when we find out what they are really for, all hope of redemption is lost. And Rosie has still further to fall before the story’s end.
One review quoted on the back of the collection describes Warren’s prose as “elliptical”. I wonder how long they searched to find that wonderfully specific word. It is the perfect adjective for prose that is both precise and ambiguous, concise and amorphous. We are led by measured steps along a clearly defined path, feeling all the while that we are in safe hands. Yet, outside the range of our narrow lens, all is in shadow. And, in the shadows, dreadful things are lurking.
Gaze Dogs, like the other stories in this fine collection, captures the elusive quality of a dream: the strong, darkly surreal images, but also the resonant feeling. So often—in stories, as in dreams—the feeling dies away and only the image remains, a husk that has lost reference to its once-valuable contents. The power of Warren’s stories is to hold onto both simultaneously, giving us the image–feeling complex in all its potency, and nightmares all the more frightening for being only half glimpsed.
You can connect with Kaaron at her website or on Twitter @KaaronWarren. Or, even better, you can go ahead and buy The Gate Theory from Cohesion Press.