Saturday, May 29, 2021
Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand's obsession with outsider art might find it's apex in Cass Neary, the aging punk photographer from Generation Loss and its sequels, or in Curious Toys her historical serial killer thriller which featured Henry Darger as a secondary character. Or here. Artists of all types populate her work from the band Wylding Hall from the folk band in Wylding Hall to the Xtian singer and cyberpunk adjacent art in Glimmering. This, which is, at least in part, her take on the La Belle Dame sans Merci trope continues her obsession with artists bohemian and otherwise and the source of their inspiration. Here those themes are in service of an excellent literary horror/fantasy thriller.
There is an historical set of characters including some of the pre-Raphaelites and the poet Swinbourne. There's a fictional artist who seems to be based on Richard Dadd. There's two generations of artists named Comstock and several bohemian types in the present day, including one writing a history of the Tristan and Iseult legend in all its incarnations through history. Behind it all there is a mysterious woman who functions as model, muse and predator for generations of artists.
There is a density of literary and historical reference here that ensures I missed a fair amount, but I got enough to realize that it doesn't entirely matter. Hand's prose and command of character motivation and structure make it compelling. The references I got only enhanced my enjoyment and sent me on several google dives to catch myself up on some things. The books that I found myself thinking of most while reading it were The Course of the Heart by John Harrison, mainly in mood and theme, and with The Stress of Her Regard/Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, his take on murderous muses and how that drives art. But as much as I love those books, I think I like this one more.
Hand proves over and over she's a master in every genre she works in. This is a profound meditation on mortality and art. It's an equally exciting story with a climax that I absolutely did not see coming. It's horror and fantasy and capital L literature. I don't think it's recency bias to say this is among her best if it's not her actual best. I realized last year while reading one of her story collections she is my favorite living writer, and this only reconfirms that. I'll be returning to this many times, I suspect.