Elizabeth Hand’s “Hard Light” and “Wylding Hall”: Art, Crime, Madness and Magic

While Hard Light and Wylding Hall are in different genres—respectively, crime fiction and ghost story—they both engage with the same source material. Both texts engage with the folklore of Britain and subcultures/underground artistic movements.

Hard Light
Hard Light is the third installment of the Cass Neary crime series. Neary is/was a photographer, an chronicler of New York’s punk scene. She is manipulative, a kleptomaniac, and  a drug addict. Her first person narrative is utterly charming, full of deadpan snark, and the lump of coal that is her heart has a vein or two of gold. The Cass Neary series aren’t traditional mysteries; they are more “why-dunits” than “whodunits,” and as such, examine subcultures and their criminal elements. This time, she stumbles into the milleu of refugees from the British Acid Rock and underground film scene. Neary discovers that someone has been killing off members of a hippie commune for an unknown reason. The players in her novel are all arty bohemian eccentrics, from crooked art dealers to burnt out cult singers. (They all have wonderfully odd names: Poppy, Morven and Tamsin). While there is no overt supernatural element in Hard Light, Neary has an uncanny ability to insert herself into shady dealings:

“Ever since that night, I can sense damage, smell it like an acrid pheromone seeping from the pores of people around me. The wrong kind of street, the wrong kind of light, and the stink of my own terror floods my throat and nostrils. It’s why I can read photos the way I do, like they’re tarot cards or the I Ching. Because that’s what photography is—or was before the advent of digital—damage, the corrosive effect sunlight has on chemicals and prepared surfaces.”

Wylding Hall
Wylding Hall is a haunted house novella set in the British Acid Folk scene. It takes the unique form of a “Behind the Music” style documentary—i.e., a series of monologues about the creation of the fictional folk rock band Windhollow Faire’s lone album. In the early 70s, the band rents out the allegedly haunted Wylding Hall to record its debut. To say more would spoil the plot. The recording sessions are mired in drug use and band tensions, all set against the backdrop of mysterious Wylding Hall, which is as menacing as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.
While unrelated by genre, both books share thematic DNA. A Celtic mysticism informs both works. It is not the fey “Celtic Twilight” kind favored by many fantasy writers. The folklore here is primal and chthonian, more “Rawhead and Bloodybones” than Enya and the Sidhe. Both books also deal with the fallout from drug-fueled subcultures. Hard Light and Wylding Hall mine similar territory with wildly different outcomes.

Cthulhu vs. Bigger Thomas: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last week I went to a panel hosted by the National Academies of Sciences called “Identity, Race, and Genetics.”*  It featured an author/editor, a PhD Candiate who wrote on the History of Science, a NIH geneticist and a law professor. The law professor–who was also an artist. The lawyer-scholar-artist mentioned the virulent racism of H.P. Lovecraft and suggested that black people lived in Cthulhuscene Period, due to the past and ongoing history of (pseudo)science and the black body. Lovecraftian mythos shows mankind as the inevitable victim of a hostile universe; existing while black (in a hostile/racialized universe) is part and parcel of the Black Experience.

I immediately thought about LaValle’s novella. The book is dedicated to Lovecraft (and H.P. even has a cameo). The Ballad of Black Tom is kind of an answer/re-positioning of the notorious Horror at Red Hook. It’s written from the perspective of a black first generation immigrant grifter and concerns his unfortunate dabbling in the occult. Imagine a collaboration between Richard Wright’s social realist fiction with Lovecraft at his lurid best, and you would have this novel. In place of Lovecraft’s rampant eugenical musing, LaValle shows what it was like to be of African descent in 1920s New York, complete with run ins with the police and racists. The novel compares and contrasts the horror of White Supremacy with the horror of Elder Gods. The reader is left to decide which is worse.

*DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER) Participants:

Sheree Renee Thomas, World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author

J. Cecilia  Cardenas-Navia, Ph.D., History of Science and Medicine, Yale University

Bill Pavan, Senior Investigator, National Genome Research Institute

Michael Bennett, Associate Research Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society + Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan: A dreamlike travelogue

The GracekeepersThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Winner of this year’s Lambda Literary Award in the SF/H/F Category

Beautifully written, with a meandering plot.
The story moved slowly and the dramatic tension was in the doldrums. The lapidary prose and the elegiac mood is what propels this novel forward, rather than a proper plot. The worldbuilding was vague, both a strength and a weakness. (It suffers from the Planet of White People syndrome issue; seriously, where are the POC?) The characters were well drawn but some POVs were unneccesary and didn’t really reveal anything. (Why, for instance, is there a whole chapter from the point of view of the messenger, or from one of the clowns? They add nothing to the story). I feel the author missed opportunities to build suspense; the plot only takes place in the last 20 pages or so. It is better to take this book as a dreamlike travelogue than full-fledged novel. I’m looking forward to Logan’s next book.

Pop Music & Magic in “Signal to Noise” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to NoiseSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A charming slice-of-life magical realist book set in Mexico City in the late 80s and in 2009.
Late 80s Mercedes Vega (Meche) is a prickly, sarcastic 15-year old who has developed twin interests in pop music nerdery and spellcasting. She manages to combine the two, and becomes a sorceress who uses vinyl records as a focusing agent for her spells. She press gangs her two friends–bookish Sebastian and girly-girl Daniela–to form a makeshift coven. Mayhem, of the normal teenaged variety, ensues. Flash foward 20-odd years finds Meche, who’s moved to Oslo, is still prickly and sarcastic, still smarting from the fallout of her experiments in sorcery.

Signal to Noise is a gentle, character-driven novel, less about magic and more about the carefully crafted people Moreno-Garcia makes.
Fans of Jonathan Carroll and Mary Rickert would enjoy this book.

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. This visionary novel’s Tiptree Award honor is well-deserved!


A snake bite opens The Girl in the Road, a novel that seems to have all of the hallmarks of a thriller. The book is set in the near-future, a time where the West’s power has waned and India and Ethiopia have become world powers. Technological wonders, such as sub dermal implants and new energy sources, abound. Political turmoil still exists, and the heroine Meena believes that the death of her lover and the poisonous snake found in her bed are connected to a terrorist organization. Meena inexpertly treats her wounds, and starts running. She is being followed by a young barefoot woman; she sees the young woman in crowds, staring at her, relentlessly on her trail. The narrative pace is quick and full of feverish imagery. Told in first person, present tense, Meena’s story manages to mix, in near perfect equilibrium, her suspenseful flight, the world she lives in (minus the dreaded InfoDump technique sometimes employed by Science Fiction writers), and her character. We learn that Meena has been raised by her grandparents, due to the fact that her own parents died in mysterious circumstances that may or may not have to do with the terrorist organization that is pursuing her. We also learn that Meena is polyamorous, with a broken trail of lovers of both genders, and her one true love is a transgender/genderqueer woman. The breathless narrative of the first part ends with a stunning cliffhanger.

Then we are thrown into the first person narrative of another woman named Mariama. Her narrative takes the form of a long, incantatory letter to another woman, named Yemaya. Mariama recounts her first few memories. She was born the daughter of a sex slave, in extreme poverty in India. Upon the death of her mother at the hands of the slaveowner, she runs away. She eventually becomes a stowaway on a truck traveling to Addis Ababa. Before then, she has her own experience with a snake. Mariama eats a piece of sea snake which gets lodged in her chest, and bothers Mariama during times of fear and stress. She imagines the fragment of sea snake as a living entity within, which she calls the kreen.

The rest of the novel alternates between the two narratives. Meena, the woman of the future, eventually heads toward Ethiopia, in hopes of finding out why her parents were murdered. As she travels on the Trail, a kind of high tech ocean-based energy source, Meena loses her grip on her sanity. Mariama, who exists in some earlier but undefined time, begins her own trip to Ethiopia, where she meets the mysterious Yemaya, a beautiful fugitive who has her own agenda. The relationship between the two women, separated by the span of years, slowly becomes apparent.

But, in spite of all the trappings of a speculative thriller, The Girl in the Road is not a plot-driven novel. It belongs to a micro-genre of Visionary Fiction, the sort of work championed by Steve Erickson, Helen Oyeyemi, or Angela Carter. The subtext of the novel is as intricately crafted as the foreground. It is a novel that uses the conventions of genre fiction without being bound to them. The novel is allusive and illusory, full of dream logic, and references to mythology. The images of roads and serpents flow through both women’s stories. Meena, for instance, chooses the name Durga (an avatar of an Indian goddess) as an alias, and Mariama interacts with a woman whose name is Yemaya (an orisha, or pan-African goddess of the sea).

Byrne’s prose is rich, poetic, and musical. Many sections deserve to be read aloud. Readers should also know that this a very adult novel—both Meena and Mariama’s sexuality play an important part in the story and define their characters. The world Byrne creates is marvelous, and like the best speculative fiction, it manages to both have a sense-of-wonder and also serve an as allegory. The interplay of the personal and the political, myth and technology is woven throughout this novel.

Other reference points: Toni Morrison’s magical realism and Afro-Canadian Caribbean fantasist Nalo Hopkinson’s novel The Salt Roads, and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. The Girl in the Road is a mythic quest novel masquerading as a futuristic SF novel.

My author interview with Ms. Byrne is forthcoming.

On ‘Babel-17’ by Samuel R Delany

Babel-17Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Critics and fans tend to divide the work of Samuel R. Delany into two periods: pre-and-post Dhalgren. The argument is that Dhalgren marked a change both stylistically ( non-linear narrative, postmodern techniques) and subject matter (eroticism, power differentials, and liminality).

While Babel-17 does have a more straightforward, genre-cognizant plot, the trippy, mind-fuck aspects of his later work are very much in evidence. The story concerns a poet/linguist/starship captain(!) and her attempts to decipher a mysterious language. The prose is dense and beautiful, full of poetic images. The multicultural cast is peopled with colorful characters, and many of the trademarks of Delany’s post-Dhalgren work are very much in play: sexual and societal outcasts and complex theoretical frameworks—this time, about the effect of language on the cognitive process.

Skin Deep Magic Story Notes: On “Zora’s Destiny,” the Conjure Woman of African American Literature

This story was commissioned for a young adult anthology that never came together. The anthology editor called me up with an idea to write an essay about an influential African American figure. I volunteered for Zora Neale Hurston for a couple of reasons.


First and foremost, she was a fascinating, larger-than-life figure.  You know the cliched stories about people who “run away and join the circus”? Zora actually did run away and join a traveling “Negro Follies” show! In addition to being a brilliant novelist, she was an anthropologist and her scholarship on Hoodoo (African-American folk magic) and Haitian Voudon is considered to be seminal. She had a humorous streak, evident in her letters. She was a fixture in the Harlem Renaissance/“Negro Arts” movement, and an artist whose talent only became appreciated posthumously.

The other reason I chose Hurston was this: the house I live in now is directly in front the house where she boarded as a student at Howard University. In other words,I live in the same house (even the same number), but on a parallel street. The coincidence was too strong to ignore. The story I wrote was one of those rare “channelled” pieces that rarely spring forth (most of my writing is hard work).

“Zora’s Destiny” is a completely fictional piece that imagines Hurston’s childhood and foreshadows her life’s work and legacy. I can only hope that Hurston might have approved of this tribute.

Author Felice Picano recommends my collection of short fiction, “Skin Deep Magic”!

Over at Elisa Reviews, Felice Picano, a multi-awarding winner author and member of the influential Violet Quill group (a collective of important gay male writers), had this to say about Skin Deep Magic.

“These are wonderful, fanciful, fantastic stories in their nature and yet oh so real in the truths they convey. My favorites are “Mauve’s Quilt”,  “Zora’s Destiny” and “Death and Two Maidens,” but they are all intriguing and fresh and totally individual. “Lyes” is probably the funniest of the lot. It had me and my friends howling with recognition and laughter!”

Felice Picano, Author and Historian, 2010 winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award

What a way to begin 2015!

Tanith Lee’s “Ghosteria 2: Zircons May Be Mistaken”: a poignant zombie novel

Ghosteria Volume 2: The Novel: Zircons May Be MistakenGhosteria Volume 2: The Novel: Zircons May Be Mistaken by Tanith Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The new Tanith Lee novella combines elements ghost story conventions and zombie apocalypse fiction in an truly unique way. The “twist” is clever, but the short novel is more a contemplative character study. The assembled cast are ghosts from a variety of eras that are all haunting a historic Great House in the moorlands of England. They share their histories in monologues that range from tragic to humorous. The faceted narrative mode shifts from contemporary to gothic and even has a smattering of Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Simultaneously, humanity has been plagued with zombies, which do not affect the undead company. The fantastic contrivances, though crucial to the plot, take a back seat to the leisurely character reveals. In this way, the novel reads more like a play. (“The Ghost Monologues” would also be an apt title). Zircons May Be Mistaken might be the only zombie novel full of pathos and an exploration of the “human condition.”