BOOK REVIEW: Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand. The post-punk Shirley Jackson

Imagine a postpunk Shirley Jackson, and you have Elizabeth Hand. Like Jackson’s oeuvre, Hand’s stories are heavy on atmosphere and the supernatural occurrences have psychological underpinnings. Her characters are outsiders, artists and damaged people, and when they don’t live in isolation, they live at the periphery of society, in various subcultures.

saffron and brimstone

The opening “Cleopatra Brimstone,” the most conventional `horror’ story here, sets the template. A plain Jane science geek girl gets sexually molested, which starts a transformation in her. Mousy Jane moves to London, gets a job at the London Zoo categorizing butterflies during the day, and becomes the glamorous Goth minx Cleopatra Brimstone at night. Cleopatra has a seductive, mysterious power that Jane doesn’t have that ultimately seals her fate. The climax of the story is morally disturbing, rather than visceral. The writing is lush and richly descriptive, and Hand’s attention to realistic detail anchors her tale.

Several pieces here are clearly autobiographical: “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is about the death of a hippie shaman and has vague allusions to magic, but is mostly an ode to an odd, beloved free-spirit. “Wonderwall,” set in early 80s DC, is Hand’s eulogy for both her wayward youth and her artistic muse, here portrayed as a queer actor and his alter ego, who succumbs to AIDS. `Calypso in Berlin’ is an effectively creepy monologue about the titular muse making her way in the modern artscene.

Lovers of literary fantasy and modern gothic fiction would do well to check this handsome collection out. Four of the stories appeared in a limited edition volume called “Bibliomancy,” which means `book magic.’ Bibliomancy is precisely what Hand does with her craft.

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