-- Biblio --

Reviews

 


Booklist Review, Starred Review

Hand, Elizabeth. Generation Loss. Apr. 2007. 296p. Small Beer, $24.95 (1-931520-31-6).

Hand, mainly known for sf/fantasy stories, veers off in a new and exciting direction, drawing on but going well beyond the crime genre. Three decades ago, Cassandra Neary was an avant-garde photographer whose book, Dead Girls, was published to acclaim. But her hard-driving lifestyle, in concert with the rapid collapse of the counterculture, led to a downward spiral. Salvation appears in the form of an editor who offers her the chance to interview a reclusive photographer, Aphrodite Kamestos. But when Cass arrives at the photographer’s private island, she finds that Kamestos had no idea she was coming. Rather than turn around and go home, Cass decides to use the opportunity to find out what she can about Kamestos, uncovering a few shocking secrets and one old mystery in the process. Hand combines elements of the traditional amateur-sleuth mystery with a visceral story of personal redemption, and her pulsating prose smacks us in the face with frank, fascinating discussions of sex and drugs and with staccato dialogue peppered with expletives. The utterly compelling protagonist, whose self-loathing competes with her hatred of life to see which can beat her into submission first, wins us over almost in spite of herself. Brilliantly written and completely original, Hand’s novel is an achievement with a capital A.

—David Pitt


Entertainment Weekly Review

Generation Loss

Thirty years ago, Cassandra Neary's grim photos of punks and corpses briefly made her the toast of the downtown art scene. Now an alcoholic wage slave, Neary accepts a magazine assignment to interview one of her reclusive photographer heroes on a Maine island, where a rash of missing-teenager cases and an off-kilter populace grab her attention. It takes time to warm to the self-destructive, sour-tempered protagonist --she drives drunk, pops Adderall and Percocet, and generally tries to not stick out her neck. Luckily, Hand's terse but transporting prose keeps the reader turning pages until Neary's gritty charm does, finally, shine through.

--Sean Howe


Locus Review

Generation Loss review by Nick Gevers.

Elizabeth Hand, author of stylish, poetic, and myth-saturated literary fantasies, has written a thriller about a serial murderer, with only tangential supernatural elements: *Generation Loss*. Certainly, when Cassandra Neary begins telling her life story, one may expect it to develop into another of Hand's excellent analyses of artistic obsession married to ghostly influence: Cass's early years are studded with visions, premonitions, a sinister voice murmuring her name (Shepard's Sadie started that way, and look what happened to her!) But these episodes, swiftly narrated, are essentially aesthetic and psychological background, explaining Cass's preoccupation with death, her alienation from diurnal emotions, her preternatural understanding of image and atmosphere. Cass becomes a professional photographer in New York, and her destiny, however tied up with illusion and delusion, lies in the secular world, and in the thriller domain of Thomas Harris and his gory ilk. Still...

Cass originates in Kamensic, a village in New York State familiar from *Black Light* and other of Hand's fantastic works. Perhaps she carries thence some burden of transcendent enlightenment, informing (for example) her instinctive recognition of damage in others, a necessary prompt to get her camera ready to capture the essence and outcome of that quality. Possibly Hand, always subtle, has penned in *Generation Loss* a text subliminally supernatural. But that's speculative. The thriller outline is clear. Cass, a disciple of Diane Arbus and the punk movement, becomes briefly famous for her photos of the dead and dying, the injured, the afflicted. She publishes a well regarded book of these. But trends change, and she is relegated to obscurity, her craft in collapse, her subsistence dependent on work in a bookstore. She is promiscuous, drug-addled, emotionally stunted. For decades she lives an empty half-life, careless of her safety (she is raped in horrifying yet numbed circumstances) and with few friends or lasting lovers (one, to make things worse, dies on 9/11.) She is a Luddite in photographic terms, scorning the digital technologies her peers employ. But in the midst of this stagnation, she receives an intriguing offer.

The assignment is to visit and interview Aphrodite Kamestos, another famous but washed-up photographer living on Paswegas, a small island off the coast of Maine. Hesitant because the commission comes from a dubious source, Cass nonetheless drives up to Maine, meeting several interesting characters in and around the small community of Burnt Harbor before venturing on to Paswegas. Cass gradually becomes conscious of two disturbing facts: first, teenagers have a tendency to disappear in this depressed area of Maine, some as runaways, but others less easily explained; and second, Aphrodite stood once at the center of a Sixties bohemian commune, relicts of which are still around, aging, frustrated, and in one case murderous. If Cass is ever to come to terms with her own damaged and malicious self, ever resurrect her own photographic genius, she will have to solve and resolve these and associated perplexities. "Generation loss" assumes at least three crucial meanings—the fading or diminished quality of photos as they are reproduced over and over (time and declining integrity and definition, in Cass as in others); the loss of the younger generation of local inhabitants (matching Cass's own loss of self when young); and the decay of creative power in the aesthetes lingering from Aphrodite's commune (they were artists and poets too; will Cass share the dying of their fires?) Grappling with these tendencies and meanings, Cass in a sense murders someone herself, but her sin is as nothing compared with that of the serial killer at work nearby, a monster practicing bloody and arcane rites in attempted re-ignition of his own departing inspiration. Genre thriller expectations are abundantly sated, and yet Hand's complex themes are triumphantly catalyzed and elaborated thereby, making for that rare thing: a thriller that means something. This one means a lot…

So *Generation Loss* is a fine "associational" book: something of a departure for the author, but fully as elegant and significant as her overtly fantastic works. There is grave beauty here, and great thematic power.


Journal Sentinel Review

A Click in Time

GENERATION LOSS, By Elizabeth Hand, Small Beer Press 265 pages $24.

"Generation Loss" by Elizabeth Hand has been rightly compared with the sort of crime fiction turned out by the late, great Patricia Highsmith. Of course, Hand's sensibilities are much more in tune with the time, making it an easy read.

Having had her time in the sun - taking photographs of once-famous Punk Rockers in the 1970s - Cass Neary is a has-been who chomps at the bit when an assignment to photograph Aphrodite Kamestos, one of the '60s great photographer/artists, lands in her lap.

Of course, Cass discovers that her idol isn't nearly as noble as the art she created. What's more, the reader discovers that amorality (and morality, for that matter) is all in the eye of the beholder. Cass' actions after meeting Aphrodite - and checking out a commune she created - led to the discovery of who might be behind a decades-old murder mystery. And judging by the fresh bodies, it's a mystery that could be ongoing.

Hand ("Mortal Love," "Black Light") expertly ratchets up the suspense until it's at the level of a high-pitched scream near novel's end. And her characters are expertly drawn.

- Dorman Shindler, Special to the Journal Sentinel


Publishers Weekly Review

Generation Loss, Hand, Elizabeth (Author), ISBN: 1931520216 Small Beer Press, Published 2007-04, Hardcover, $24.00 (320p), Fiction | Mystery & Detective - General- Reviewed 2007-02-19 -PW

Hand (Mortal Love ) explores the narrow boundary between artistic genius and madness in this gritty, profoundly unsettling literary thriller. Cass "Scary" Neary, a self-destructive photographer, enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame snapping shots of the punk scene's most squalid moments. Now forgotten and aging gracelessly, Cass gets a shot at rehabilitation when a friend assigns her to interview Aphrodite Kamestos, a photographer from the fringe of the '60s counterculture, whose morbid vision influenced Cass herself. On remote Paswegas Island off the coast of Maine, Cass finds a dissipated and surly Aphrodite who sees in Cass the darkest aspects of herself. Worse, Cass discovers that a remnant of a commune Aphrodite helped found has taken her bleak aesthetic to the next level in an effort to penetrate mysteries of life and death. Cass is a complex and thoroughly believable character who behaves selfishly-sometimes despicably-yet still compels reader sympathy. The novel's final chapters, in which Cass confronts a horrifying embodiment of the extremes to which her own artistic inclinations could lead, are a terror tour-de-force that testify to the power of great fiction to disturb and provoke.(Apr.)

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Fantasy Magazine Review 2006

SAFFRON AND BRIMSTONE

This collection consists of both the type of fine stories expected from Elizabeth Hand and stories showing a fascinating new direction. A "typical" Hand story is novella length, written in rich language, and full of human details of daily life that allow an intimate knowledge of characters. These damaged beings are often overtaken by darkness, but that doesn't mean death, loss, and loneliness ultimately triumph. The fantastic provides the possibility that darkness can be illumined and reality realigned by magic. When Hand does allow doom, it usually serves a higher justice as in the horrific "Cleopatra Brimstone", in which an American student lepidopterist recovering from rape winds up in London as an uncanny serial killer. Faith triumphs in "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" when a woman who has faith in nothing and a modern tribe of aging ex-hippies who believe in just about anything deal with the difficult death of a once-vibrant friend. The narrator's world in "The Least Trumps" has become confined almost completely to an island within an island, but she discovers the world need not necessarily remain mundane. (These first three stories were collected in the limited edition Bibliomancy [PS Publishing, 2003], but the earlier collection's excellent "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" is inexplicably missing here.) The narrator of "Wonderwall" learns there are other ways to gouge a hole in the wall of reality than self-destructive hedonism. Grouped as "The Lost Domain", the four final stories all center on love and memory. But memory here is mutable and love vacillates or is illicit. It abides, but is transitory. Lovers meet but cannot share a life. An immortal learns to deal with inevitable loss in the entrancingly mythic "Calypso in Berlin". "Echo" is the eternally lonely story of a woman who waits. In "Kronia" love may not even have existed. The scintillating "The Saffron Gathers", original to the collection, ends the book on a note of uncertainty and disaster. This quartet is shorter, more sparsely written, less fantastic, than "old" Hand; the stories also seem more personally relevant. The entire collection further confirms Hand as an author of extraordinary vision who is unafraid to dream in new directions.


Library Journal, starred review

SAFFRON & BRIMSTONE

Hand, Elizabeth. Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories. Milwaulkie Pr:. Nov. 2006. c.275p. ISBN 1-59582-096-5 [ISBN 978-1-59582-096-9]. pap. $14.95. F

Lovely and unsettling, these eight stories by Hand (Maze of Deception) give a sensual and apocalyptic perspective on modern society, with art, death, and sex all swirled together. Lines between human and animal, past and future, and imagination and action become blurred, as in "Cleopatra Brimstone," in which a young entomologist finds that she may have some traits in common with her research subjects, or as in "The Least Trumps," in which a tattoo artist discovers a mysterious deck of tarot cards that may be able to alter reality. The stories are beautifully crafted but are not simply an exercise in style—they reveal deeper themes and connections, echoing one another in subtle ways that enhance the collection as a whole. Hand is often classed as a fantasy writer, but this book also belongs in literary fiction collections. Highly recommended for larger libraries.

[This is an expansion of the limited U.K. release Bibliomancy, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2005.—Ed.]—Jenne Bergstrom, San Diego Cty. Lib


Locus Review

SAFFRON & BRIMSTONE REVIEW, 2006

Elizabeth Hand seems to have an issue with walls. A wall in a Manhattan loft turns into an immense slab of rock in 1999’s Black Light; a wall in a hidden London lane in 2004’s Mortal Love reveals to the poet Swinburne a seductive green world; the dissolute narrator of 2004’s “Wonderwall”—one of eight stories in her new collection Saffron and Brimstone—obsesses over how to “tear through the wall that separated me from that other world, the real world, the one I glimpsed in books and music, the world I wanted to claim for myself.” In fact, “Wonderwall”, which may turn out to be one of the iconic works in Hand’s oeuvre, is full of walls, but none of them are quite the happy knotholes-to-faerie that fantasy tradition might lead us to expect; in fact the first time a wall disappears on the narrator all it reveals to her is the overcrowded men’s room in tough gay disco in D.C. More to the point, perhaps, is the wall of her dorm room, where she paints in foot-high letters a line from Rimbaud, which she learns decades later would “bleed through each successive layer of new paint”, like a dream constantly trying to reassert itself. In “The Saffron Gatherers”, one of a new suite of stories included in the volume, a real Minoan fresco from the island of Santorini serves as another window into a lost world, preserved almost entirely through its art (Santorini was the site of perhaps the worst volcanic eruption on record); by the end of the story we’re left wondering what images might preserve our own civilization. In other words, walls may be a key metaphor for the sense of immanence that pervades Hand’s work, but it’s a complex metaphor: they can both separate us from the world of art and be art, and what they reveal when they disappear may be a transcendent landscape or a bunch of guys at a urinal.

Saffron and Brimstone includes three of the four stories from Hand’s World Fantasy Award-winning collection Bibliomancy, published in a small edition by PS in 2003, omitting “Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol” (now available as a chapbook from Beccon Press in England) and adding “Wonderwall” and the new story suite “The Lost Domain”, which includes four variations on themes of muses and nymphs: “Kronia”, “Calypso in Berlin”, “Echo”, and “The Saffron Gatherers”. Of the three stories from that earlier collection, the most famous is “Cleopatra Brimstone”, which seems on its way to becoming a kind of classic of the sort of seriously literary horror which has emerged increasingly in the last few years. Concerning a young student entomologist who is brutally raped and flees to London, where she alternates her days as a volunteer in the insect collection of the London Zoo with an ominous alter ego haunting the clubs of Camden Town under the name Cleopatra Brimstone (from the butterfly species), the story elegantly balances a kind of supernatural revenge fantasy with an acute awareness of the real horrors of women’s lives. As with all her fiction, the sense of place is palpable, though it’s interesting, given the autobiographical bits that show up here, that it’s one of only two stories not to use a first-person narrator. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”, a heartbreaking fictionalized account of a friend’s death from cancer surrounded by aging flower children and mystics, becomes also a meditation on the usefulness and futility of belief. In “The Least Trumps”, the emotionally damaged daughter of a famous children’s book writer sets herself up as a tattoo artist in her mother’s remote island cottage in Maine. At a rummage sale she comes across a strange deck of mostly blank Tarot cards which may have belonged to another famous author whose young adult novels had guided the narrator through her adolescence, and whose final unfinished novel had made cryptic references to “the least trumps”. At the end, when the narrator tentatively achieves an emotional connection with an old friend, there’s a hint (well, more than a hint) of the John Crowley idea of immanent secret histories (and of course it’s from Crowley’s Little, Big that the idea of the least trumps is borrowed in the first place).

This leaves us with the remarkable variations on a theme that make up “The Lost Domain”, a notion borrowed from the 1913 Alain-Fournier novel (also translated as The Wanderer) by way of John Fowles, whose fascination with the idea of a hidden realm of imagination was detailed by Hand in a revealing essay she wrote for The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts in 1994 (the same essay in which she noted the poet Laura Riding’s description of this idea as “the false wall”). Representing an adventurous new direction in Hand’s writing, these four pieces range freely from fantasy to SF to postmodern narrative fragmentation; the brief opening overture, “Kronia”, explores a muse-like relationship through isolated, sometimes contradictory memories, at the center of which is the fall of the towers on 9/11. The more fully plotted “Calypso in Berlin” transforms Odysseus’s sea-nymph into a New England painter living in Berlin who entraps her favorite subject both literally—in a very creepy way--and through her art. Both “Echo” and “The Saffron Gatherers” move toward apocalyptic SF, the former story an aching parable of loneliness in a dying world—again told from the point of view of an isolated island in Maine—which casts the muse relationship in a variation of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, the latter concerning a science fiction novelist in Maine planning to move to the west coast where her lover has relocated. He’s sent her a book on the Thera frescoes from Santorini, which she once visited and which are practically the only evidence of the daily life of a destroyed civilization. But as her plane takes off from San Francisco, she witnesses another huge natural catastrophe, another world lost. The world may not be kind to muses in Hand’s beautifully orchestrated tales, but it’s a world whose gorgeous fragility, like the pistils of those tulips that are gathered for saffron, positively glows in these radiant tales.


SFX Review

GLIMMERING, by John Courtney Grimwood

A novel of the coming millennium, announces the cover. It isn't. At least it isn't a novel about our coming millennium, though the references are current (hip New York shops, britpop, retro Lou Reed, cable TV)

What this is though, is a very serious book. You know it's serious because Elizabeth Hand keeps quoting TS Eliot. And then there are the acknowledgements which credit Italian philosopher/novelist Italo Calvino, not to mention dead rock-dude Kurt Kobain and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. (There's also an interesting credit to SF authority John Clude for showing her 'true north', mmm.)

Glimmering is what you'd get if you asked classic US novelist Henry James to write Neuromancer but take in Nostradamus and Japanese war atrocities, a clash of style against content that occasionally clambers up towards sheer genius only to fall flat on its face.

The basic plot is simple. Take rich, literate HIV+ Jack and white trash Christian rock star Trip Marlow and make circumstance inexorably bring the two together, while US society collapses around them and Jack's old lover, the death artist and mephistopheles-character Leonard tours the world recording its end.

The apparent complexity comes from that old (but good) trick of adding depth by making sure events conflict. So that two incidents are described as happening but the reader knows - perfectly well - that one of them can't have done.

Depending on how you look at it, this book is either three years or thirty years out of date. Thirty years too late, because John Fowles did the complex, lets-not-make-sense routine in the Magus - with which this book has startling (but probably absolutely accidental) stylistic similarities. And three years too late, at least as elegiac cyberpunk because the Millennium is currently old hat.

We're not in 1998 yet close enough to be laying in booze for the parties and we've already digested and discarded the magazine articles about millennial fever, weird cults and crystal gazing.

The whole back plot also gives problems, since the whole novel turns on a new fuel being invented in 1996 and gutting out the ozone layer a year later, leading to the destruction of effective communications, the Glimmering. Even starting out in 1987 there's not enough time between 87 and 99 for all the new technology to be realised.

Bits of this book are beautifully written. There's a density of information that isn't about info-dumping but just describing places and situations down the last intricate detail. From the dense flowers that recur as a motif throughout the book; to the Mongolian corporation that rules Wall Street and it elegant metal covered, talking brochures (kind of Java-rich Web-pages but on paper); to the tender, doomed love affairs (the main characters are either gay, HIV + or dysfunctional).

Beautifully styled, literary rather than literate, this is the kind of SF novel that wins mainstream prizes. A Booker-contender that is SF almost by accident... In fact, if you stripped away Glimmering's often clumby overlay of technology what you have left is ghosts, myth, big houses and damaged people. A perfect Henry James for the next century.


Kirkus Review — starred review

MORTAL LOVE

In fantasist Hand's crowded seventh novel, the collision of our known world with the lushly erotic, magic-inflected one of "faerie" bedevils mortal protagonists. A perilously seductive eternal feminine figure- variously, the Iseult of medieval legend, or a kind of Lamia, or Undine- delights, entrances, and effectively destroys the generations of men who fall under her spell. For example, there's 19th-century American painter Radborne Comstock (obviously modeled on N.C. Wyeth), who while studying in London accepts employment at Sarsinoor, an asylum on the Cornish coast run by art collector Thomas Learmont. Among Learmont's patients are "mad" painters Jacobus Candell and (an incarnation of "The Woman" herself) beautiful Evienne Upstone. Radborne's infatuation with the latter is recapitulated by his grandson Valentine, a deranged and troubled painter whose ghostly encounter with a naked woman in a painting colors his life and work, inspiring a rich fantasy world reminiscent of the classic Arthurian tales and their recurrence in the Welsh story cycle Mabinogion. And, contemporary journalist Daniel Rowlands, while researching a study of the romantic story of Tristan and Iseult, becomes smitten with Larkin Meade, a former mental patient whose power over Daniel leads him to the ruins of Sarsinoor, as Hand (Black Light, 1999, etc.) deftly plaits her three narrative strands together for a smashing denouement and finale. Mortal Love contains numerous echoes of A.S. Byatt's Possession and Peter Straub's Ghost Story, but it's an original work of considerable sensuous force-thanks to entertaining cameo appearances by amusingly libidinous and hysterical poet A.C. Swinburne and truculent historian-folklorist Lady Wilde (Oscar's mother), as well as Hand's detailed mastery of the gorgeously overstuffed milieu of the pre-Raphaelite artists, whose own tangled sexual history helps to maintain this novel's engagingly humid temperature. Great fun, in an impressive synthesis of bygone times and forgotten lore.

Agent: Martha Millard/Martha Millard Literary Agency


People Review

MORTAL LOVE, August 2, 2004

SECTION: PICKS & PANS/BOOKS; Pg. 47

LENGTH: 183 words

HEADLINE: Mortal Love;
by Elizabeth Hand

Jim Baker

A literary page-turner, this deeply pleasurable eighth novel by the author of the cult classic Waking the Moon is composed of interwoven narratives about three men: Radborne, a poor Edwardian painter; Valentine, his bipolar grandson; and Daniel, a contemporary journalist who is writing a book about Tristan and Iseult, the mythical couple destroyed by their own love. The men share an obsession with the same woman--an immortal femme fatale (is she a ghost? a demon? a goddess?) who both inspires and tries to destroy them. (She's a muse for Radborne, a trigger for Valentine's illness and a lover for Daniel.) Hand ambitiously (and deftly) explores the complex connection between art and madness, sex and death, love and mortality. Despite the divergent narrative strands and the absence of anything resembling a traditional plot, Hand's lushly worded tale is consistently gripping. It may not always make perfect sense, but logic is beside the point: Like all great fantasy fiction, Love inhabits a world between reason and insanity-- it's a delightful waking dream.

[4 STARS]


Washington Post Review

Victorian Secrets, Reviewed by Lawrence Norfolk — Sunday June 27, 2004

MORTAL LOVE •By Elizabeth Hand. Morrow. 364 pp. $24.95

We know the images created by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Victorian England too well. Seen through modern eyes, the ethereal femmes fatales beloved of Edward Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti appear now as little better than projected male fantasies, vacuous and sentimental, visual clichés on a par with Canaletto's Venice.

But are we seeing the pictures themselves, or only our reductive preconceptions of them? Elizabeth Hand has reclaimed the ur-impulses of the pre-Raphaelites -- their delight in arcane folklore, fascination with nature and openness to supernatural experience -- and created a pre-Raphaelite work of her own. Mortal Love is at once a painting in prose, an investigation into artistic obsession and a re-evaluation. We may see the strange, attenuated women of pre-Raphaelite art rather differently after reading Mortal Love. And, if the book's strange tale is to be believed, they may see us differently, too.

The story begins in England in the 1870s with that most unblushing and Victorian of opening gambits: a letter. One director of an insane asylum, Dr. Hoffmann, has written to another, Thomas Learmont, of the spontaneous combustion of a young woman in his care. Hoffmann's name, one presumes, is Hand's sly salute to the German folklorist; we never meet him in person. Learmont will prove pivotal, but it is the dead woman who will link the different times and locales in which Mortal Love is set. Reduced to ashes before the novel begins, then reincarnated as numerous women within it, she is the enigmatic object of quests ranging from Victorian England to an island off the coast of Maine in the 1980s, and from a remote coast in rural Cornwall to present-day London.

Learmont is only the first of a series of protagonists, all male, who encounter a strange and alluring young woman, become drawn in by her, and then are mysteriously damaged and discarded. She is pictured for us initially in the late works of an eccentric and reclusive American painter, Radborne Comstock, who seems to have been inspired by a meeting with her during a trip to England in the 1880s. Comstock's obsessively detailed canvasses show a fairy world that, a century later, enchants the painter's young grandson, Valentine, who is compelled to create his own vision of such a world and the mysterious woman at its center. Valentine names the woman "Vernoraxia." In a hallucinatory scene, she visits him in the guise of another woman, takes his virginity and disappears, leaving Valentine in a state of catastrophic mental breakdown.

Twenty years later, in present-day London, a 44-year-old journalist named Daniel Rowlands has taken a sabbatical to write a novel, or "an exploration of mythic love," about Tristan and Iseult. Its working title: Mortal Love. Soon Daniel's understanding of both those terms is being vigorously redefined by the mysterious Larkin Meade, a possibly schizophrenic young woman with a penchant for absinthe, offal and exotic underwear. She introduces Daniel in turn to the wealthy Russell Learmont (descendant of Thomas), who is bargaining to buy a late painting by Radborne Comstock.

Mortal Love negotiates cleverly between its 20th-century and Victorian time frames, embroiling us in a rich stew of lost artworks, the folklore behind them and (merely glimpsed) the reality behind that folklore. Those glimpses provide the book's edgiest moments as Hand's carefully constructed realistic settings cede to a vision of a green-glowing fairy world from which the likes of Vernoraxia or Larkin might have credibly issued. Here is the Victorian poet Swinburne, one of several real characters reimagined by Hand, encountering that scene for the first time: "Within a green world, prismatic things flickered and flew and spun: rubescent, azure, luminous yellow, the pulsing indigo of the heart's hidden valves. All were so brilliant he could see nothing clearly. . . ." Alas, Swinburne's robust verbal reaction to this vision cannot be quoted in a family newspaper, but the reader, too, might utter the odd imprecation at such visual incoherence. Such passages, however, are few and, like the occasional confusions of geography and genealogy, hardly detract from the beguiling sense of mystery that envelops the reader as Hand's disparate narratives slowly braid themselves together.

Daniel's affair with Larkin affords the reader an enjoyably twisty but dependable narrative thread in the modern episodes. Comstock's sojourn in England does the same for the Victorian era. With Comstock we are led through a steaming, sodden London and introduced to its strangest denizens. Hand's gift for deadpan comedy serves her well in larger-than-life characterizations such as that of Swinburne and, most wonderfully, the gargantuan mother of Oscar Wilde. Bolder still is her reclamation of the hoary tropes of Victorian Gothic fiction: deformed servants, decaying mansions, Learmont's insane asylum perched atop a remote, crumbling cliff in Cornwall. The novel is stitched together with enigmatic symbols and teasing coincidences.

All these conspire to give Mortal Love a satisfying, story-rich texture. But Hand's use of such traditional materials is also deceptive. The novel's presiding artistic genius is neither Comstock nor Daniel Rowlands but Jacobus Candell, a painter and inmate of Thomas Learmont's asylum. Candell is modeled on the Victorian artist Richard Dadd, a murderer and the creator of some of the strangest, most compelling and obsessive images of the 19th century. Where could such inhuman creations have come from? What lies behind the complex, even violent process that we call artistic inspiration? That is the final mystery evoked in Elizabeth Hand's ambitious and richly imagined novel. By tracing the turbulence and reverberations of that process back to its source, Mortal Love offers its readers the satisfactions of a detective thriller. Here, however, the mystery goes deeper than murder. Nothing, Hand convinces us, is quite as mysterious as art. •

Lawrence Norfolk's latest novel is "In the Shape of a Boar."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

MORTAL LOVE, Elizabeth Hand. Morrow, $24.95 (320p) ISBN 0-06-105170-5

Hand (Black Light) explores the theme of artistic inspiration and its dangerous devolvement into obsession and madness through three interwoven narrative threads in this superb dark fantasy novel. In late Victorian England, American painter Radborne Comstock makes the acquaintance of Evienne Upstone, a model who's inspired members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and driven painter Jacobus Candell completely insane. More than half a century later, Radborne's grandson Valentine ends up institutionalized after viewing intensely erotic paintings grandpa produced under Evienne's spell. His experiences echo those of Daniel Rowlands, an American writer in contemporary London whose research into the legend of Tristan and Iseult brings him into contact with Larkin Meade, a fey lover whose passion leaves him physically and emotionally deranged. Subtle parallels and resonances between the subplots suggest that Evienne and Larkin are, impossibly, the same being: a force of nature incomprehensible to mortals, whom countless doomed artists have translated imperfectly into aesthetic ideals of beauty and love. Hand does a marvelous job of making the ineffable tangible, lacing her tale with references to the work of artists ranging from Algernon Swinburne to Kurt Cobain and capturing the intense emotions of her characters in exquisitely sculpted prose. With its authentic period detail and tantalizing spirit of mystery, this timeless tale of desire and passion should reach many readers beyond her usual fantasy base. Agent, Martha Millard. (On sale June 29)

Forecast: This one's a sure bet to garner World Fantasy and International Horror Guild award nominations. Blurbs from Peter Straub and John Crowley will help signal that this is Hand's breakout book.

 


Locus Review

BIBLIOMANCY, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing 1-902880-73-0 $50.00 290 pp. hc) September 2003.

Order from www.pspublishing.co.uk

Bibliomancy -- a title as accurate as it is unusual -- is Elizabeth Hand's first collection since 1998's Last Summer at Mars Hill. The four long stories that comprise this new volume all deal, in different ways, with the eruption of magic into the everyday world. All four stories also share a sense of personal urgency, as though their author had been driven to write them by forces too compelling to ignore.

Leading off the collection is the International Horror Guild Award winner, "Cleopatra Brimstone," which powerfully evokes the surreal aftermath of a sexual assault. Hand's heroine, Janie Kendall, is a brilliant, beautiful science student with a preternatural affinity for butterflies. (At the age of thirteen, her eyebrows sprout vestigial antennae, an unexpected offshoot of puberty.) In her senior year at a select girls' college in Washington, DC, Janie is raped while walking back to her college dormitory. From this point forward, everything in her life changes.

Janie leaves school, moves to London to housesit for a pair of family friends, and embarks on a double life. By day, she works as a docent at the Regent's Park Zoo. By night, head shaved and dressed to kill, she adopts the nom de guerre Cleopatra Brimstone and prowls the nightspots of Camden High Street, bringing home a host of willing victims for nights of sex, bondage, and miraculous transformation. As the story moves toward its ironic denouement, it evokes twisted echoes of John Fowles's The Collector and such early Clive Barker tales as The Hellbound Heart and "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament." In the end, though, "Cleopatra Brimstone" is an original, deeply unsettling story about rage, revenge, and sexual violence that illuminates a world in which predator and prey play interchangeable roles.

Next up is another IHG award winner, "Pavane for a Prince of the Air." The most strictly "realistic" of all the stories gathered here, "Pavane" is an account -- rendered with documentary precision -- of a man's slow, painful death, and of the effect that death has on the surrounding community. As the story begins, Carrie, the narrator, returns from a family visit to find an ominous message on her answering machine: Cal -- artist, unreconstructed hippie, and one of Carrie's oldest friends -- has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and has only a short time to live.

The narrative that follows takes us deep into the heart of a protracted death watch, with its vigils, its recurring crises, and its endless stream of neo-pagan rituals. Cal, his wife, Tina, and the majority of their circle are people "who believed in everything. Fairies, elves, spirits of earth air water fire; Tibetan gods, Minoan sea goddesses, totemic animals, reincarnation, Iroquois spirits." Carrie, who witnesses all this, can't quite believe in anything, and suffers as a result. Her unblinking account ranges from the shock of first knowledge through Cal's death, burial, and cremation, and into the weeks and months that follow, ending on an ambiguous grace note that suggests -- but only suggests -- the possibility of spiritual survival. The result is a lovely, lovingly detailed memento mori written in luminous, effortlessly graceful prose.

The centerpiece of Bibliomancy is the 40,000 word short novel, Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol. As the title indicates, Chip Crockett is yet another reimagining of A Christmas Carol. This one, however, is smartly conceived and vigorously written, and successfully transfers Dickens's vision to a very contemporary Washington, DC. Hand's stand-in for Ebenezer Scrooge is Brendan Keegan, a failed husband and indifferent lawyer who, like Dickens's original, has lost his way. Brendan hates his work, is recently divorced, and watches helplessly while his autistic son Peter retreats further and further within himself. Brendan's malaise feeds an ongoing bitterness that alienates friends, family, even strangers. The malaise itself is the outward expression of a worldview in which "Marriages were doomed. Mothers drowned their children. Your father developed Alzheimer's disease and died without remembering your name . . . [He] now knew, irrefutably, that the world had become the wasteland."

Like Dickens before her, Hand explores the nature and dimensions of the wasteland in which Brendan has trapped himself, and then proceeds to show him a way out. Help comes in the form of the benign magic generated by the confluence of three very different people: four-year-old Peter, a wonderfully characterized former rock star known as Tony Maroni (read Joey Ramone), and the recently deceased kids' show host, Chip Crockett. Chip, whose death is announced in the opening page, is the ghost that haunts the narrative. Memories of Chip's programs -- virtually none of which have been preserved -- permeate the text, as Hand's cast -- notably Tony -- revel in their memories of Chip and his comic creations: Ogden Orff, Captain Dingbat, and the puppet known as Ooga Booga. These memories serve as signposts of a better time, and help connect both Tony and Brendan to the images of their own best selves. When rumors hint at the imminent reappearance of a lost, legendary Christmas special -- Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol -- the story gains both momentum and emotional depth, moving inexorably toward a credible resolution filled with open, unabashed sentiment. Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol has brains and humor, as well as heart, and deserves a place on the select shelf of memorable holiday fables.

Bibliomancy ends with "The Least Trumps," which appeared last year in The New Fabulists, a special issue of Conjunctions magazine edited by Peter Straub. As admirers of John Crowley will doubtless recognize, the Least Trumps is the name of the tarot deck that plays a central role in Little, Big. Hand's novella is, in fact, a conscious homage to Crowley, a reiteration of a classic Crowleyan theme: There is more than one history of the world.

The heroine and narrator of "The Least Trumps" is Ivy Tun, gay tattoo artist and daughter of iconic children's author Blake E. Tun. In some respects, the story serves as a thematic companion piece to Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol. Ivy, like Brendan Keegan, has cut herself off from the outside world. She lives by herself in a cottage called The Lonely House on an island within an island off the coast of Maine. When forced to leave her solitary home, she endures agoraphobic symptoms that include nausea and overwhelming panic. These, in turn, are symptoms of a larger malaise, one that Brendan would surely recognize. For Ivy, the real world can never be as "welcoming" as the world of her favorite novels. "Who," she asks herself, "would ever choose to bear the weight of this world? Who would ever want to?"

Ivy finds help from an unexpected source: the eponymous tarot deck purchased at a rummage sale, a deck once owned by Walter Burden Fox, author of a series of fantasies she has loved since childhood. Through a collaborative enterprise utilizing certain images from the tarot deck and her own skills as a tattoo artist, Ivy initiates a fundamental series of changes and comes to believe that the world -- that history itself -- is astonishingly malleable.

Hand is among the most painterly of writers, and her prose is filled with precise descriptions of arcane processes -- tattooing, entomology, cremation, even bondage techniques -- and with luminous evocations of the physical world. Moving gracefully from the gaudy surface of things to the tangled inner lives of its all-too-human heroes, Bibliomancy offers the heartening sight of a gifted writer really hitting her stride. Elizabeth Hand has always been an ambitious, intelligent writer, but she seems to be working at a higher level than ever before. It's therefore odd -- and a bit depressing -- to note that Bibliomancy is only available in a limited edition from a British specialty press. When a book this good can't find a home with a major mainstream publisher, then the industry itself is clearly in a state of deep, possibly dangerous, decline.

HAND PUPPETS

From Washington Post Book World --

The cover image on Elizabeth Hand's newest book -- a collection of four novellas from a U.K. publisher in a limited, signed edition -- is a piece of High Victorian fantasy: A dreaming woman sprawls languorously in bed while the phantoms of her mind cavort in her chamber. As a metaphor for the contents of Bibliomancy (PS Publishing, $50), the painting is perfect. The oneiric Hand has indeed set loose a menagerie of specters within these pages.

The most terrifying of her conceptions comes first, in "Cleopatra Brimstone." A young woman named Jane who is keen on a career in science, specifically the taxonomy of butterflies, is raped one night while in college. Afterward, in London to recuperate, she takes on another identity. Calling herself "Cleopatra Brimstone" after the common name of a butterfly, she becomes a merciless killer, in a most uncanny fashion. "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" chronicles how a colorful ex-hippie artist named Cal succumbs gradually to brain cancer, and finds in the aftermath of his death some cause for faith in the rightness of life. The centerpiece of the book, in length, feeling and impact, is "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol," a kissing cousin to Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty Is Five." This saga of Scrooge-like lawyer Brendan Keegan, his autistic son Peter and their free-spirited wastrel friend Tony Maroni assumes the dimensions of a whole generation's biography. Finally, "The Least Trumps" focuses on a tattoo artist named Ivy Tun, the daughter of a famous children's book author. Almost a hermit, Ivy finds her world opening outward when she purchases the odd Tarot deck of the title at a tag sale.

Repeated images of death and loss fill these tales, and yet their overall effect is one of hope and uplift. Hand's close attention to the cherished dailiness of life is matched only by the subtlety of her fantastical conceits, producing a fiction that acknowledges both mortality and the eternal. (In this she reminds me not only of her idol, John Crowley, but also of Algernon Blackwood.) Her abiding sense of humor -- seen most plainly in "Crockett" -- also rescues these dramas from any morbidness. Like Cal's friend Carrie, helping wife Tina sift through Cal's ashes after cremation, Hand is able to extract glinting bits of treasure from the shards of despair. ?

Paul Di Filippo writes and reviews science fiction.



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