Saturday, December 21, 2019

Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand is my favorite author discovery of the year. Starting with Wylding Hall last spring I read five of her novels and they were all somewhere on the spectrum of good to great. After reading this collection, it’s clear that she is as good at shorter length as she is at the longer. The novels were a variety of genres, and she proved equal to all of them. These stories (two novellas and six short stories) vary, but not quite so much. They could be all be loosely called literary horror/fantasy/magical realism. They sit would sit comfortably on the same shelf as the stories of Kelly Link, Lucius Shepard, Caitlin Kiernan, Carmen Maria Machado, Jeff Vandermeer, Michael Swanwick and even Gene Wolfe. The afterward revealed that she loves Wolfe and WH Auden, which would have sold me on her if I was not already all in. These stories meet Wolfe’s criteria for good stories; they are enjoyable on the first read, but (unless I’m seriously mistaken) will yield greater insight upon rereading.

The first novella has one of the best titles I’ve come across recently: Cleopatra Brimstone. The name is both a fictional (I think) species of butterfly and an alter ego of sorts adopted by the main character. I’ve read enough Elizabeth Hand to recognize a couple of her main hallmarks: trauma and a post-punk bohemia. Jane, a retiring but brilliant entomology student, is assaulted and withdraws from school for a time. She has connections in London and moves there for a while. She begins to volunteer at a local zoo working with butterflies and comes into contact with that punk bohemia. I don’t want to spoil the ways in which it turns into a horror story, as I was surprised by it myself. It’s a bleak story, and a beautiful one.

The next story, A Pavane for the Prince of the Air, is perhaps the least fantastical on a first reading. It is a beautiful story about community and grieving death. This one lingers in the mind long after reading it.

The Least Trumps, a novella, is, I think, one of two stories by Hand I’ve read before in a collection about a decade ago. In it a reclusive tattoo artist (who lives on an island within an island) discovers a pack of tarot cards owned or created by and mentioned in a series of fantasy novels she grew up on. Again, the ways it moves into fantasy are worth discovering without being spoiled. It is one of the standouts in the collection for me.

In the story Wonderwall Hand immerses the reader in that punk bohemian milieu that she excels so well at. The magical realist (and I think that’s probably the best term for this story) flourishes here really make the story. Seeing genre flourishes added to someone who genuinely understands punk really works. Hand does something similar in the Cass Neary books, though with noir rather than fantasy.

The final stories are grouped together as The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations. In the afterward she attributes these stories (and the novels Generation Loss and Mortal Love) to a correspondence with a friend. She said she sees this friend seldomly in person; the stories carry the motif of distant friendships through some reimaginings of elements of myth. They are very good.

In the first, Kronia, named for an ancient Athenian festival honoring Cronos, the narrator moves through a fractured timeline. She narrates how she met her friend and how often they spent time together and the timelines switch throughout. It’s a bit confusing at first, but once I figured out what’s happening found it clever and entertaining.

In Calypso in Berlin, Calypso, nymph of ancient myth, continues to live into the present day and is an artist. She lives in isolation but eventually moves to Berlin. This is a spectacular story; a subversion of the standard artist/muse trope. It’s a beautiful meditation on art and an incredibly effective horror story. An absolutely chilling last line. Perfection.

Echo is a blending of the myth of Echo and Narcissus with a sort of post-apocalyptic communications breakdown. This is the one that most needs a reread to get its full effect. Still, the emotion of not being able to connect with a loved one over distance really carries the day.

Finally, The Saffron Gatherers is concerned with art and a long distance couple that is considering moving to San Francisco. I don’t want to talk too much about it so as not to spoil the way it plays out.

All in all, this is an amazing collection. Hand is a master at prose, at characterization and bringing genre effects to bear onto a variety of literary styles. The Least Trumps, Calypso in Berlin and maybe Cleopatra Brimstone were the real standouts, but there’s not a bad story in the bunch. Her themes of working through trauma via art (even though that doesn’t always work) and the beauty in the bleakness of the world, present in nearly all of her work I’ve read were well realized here. I’m sure I will return to these stories many times.

Canon Worthy

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