A disclaimer: I’ve known Liz Hand since we both took a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing course at the Writers Center in Bethesda, back when she lived in the DC Area.
Another disclaimer: I’ve been into Henry Darger’s work for almost as long. Part of my research for A SPECTRAL HUE included a visit to the Intuit Center for Outsider Art museum in Chicago (which houses a large collection of Darger’s work). Ultimately, my Outsider Artist novel is very different from Liz Hand’s book, with melds together the thriller/crime genre with historical fiction. But my knowledge of Darger marginalia made reading this book extra-pleasurable.
Curious Toys navigates genre modalities deftly, hopping from the viewpoint of a creepy killer of little girls, to the police officer in pursuit, and, scenes with Darger, who suffers from some unidentified mental illness.
But this is ultimately the story of Pin, a fourteen year old girl who dresses as a boy to help her move through the various milieus. Both Pin and her mother live in a cardboard shack at the edge of Riverview, a giant amusement park where Pin’s mother works as a fortune teller named Madame Zanto. Both of them have suffered a fairly recent tragedy: the disappearance of Pin’s special needs younger sibling Abriana. Pin spends the time when her mother working as a drug mule, shuttling marijuana cigarettes between Riverview and the silent film studio, Essanay Studios. During her off time, she wanders the amusement park, which is also frequented by a local oddball—Henry Darger. The two of them—separately—witness a horrific crime, one that shares a similarity to her sister’s disappearance.
The novel is a thriller, but it also operates as a coming-of-age novel. Pin is at least lesbian (if not non-binary) and the crafting of her sexual identity makes for some of the most moving moments in the novel. Curious Toys also is a historical novel, with Ragtime/Zelig-like cameos of historical personages beyond Darger; Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery have small roles. There’s an atmosphere of verisimilitude in the novel, rich in description of turn-of-the-century Chicago in all of its grime and glory. The book shines and becomes luminous when Hand describes Darger’s secret magnum opus and explores the relationship between Pin and the famed artist, who are both misfits in their own way.
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 Lightis 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 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.
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.
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.
The devil is in the details in this collection of well-crafted short fiction that sits on the uneasy border of slipstream and horror fiction. The pieces in this collection are as dense as novels, filled with telling, carefully chosen descriptions and character-revealing dialogue. When the supernatural (or counterfactual) appears, it has a rich background to interact with. In the opening tale, The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon, the relationship between the middle-aged men who attempt to recreate a mysterious film that documents a flying machine is rife with details about and character sketches that are as important and enticing as the steampunkish ‘hidden history’ trope the story is built around. Hand weaves together such disparate strands, such as late 70’s life, working at the Smithsonian, cancer, and the pains of widowhood and single fatherhood, in such a natural way that the ‘strangeness’ of the story is , while essential, just another fascinating plot point. The spooky Near Zennor terrifies by insinuation as much as by actual incidence: Hand creates a fascinating red herring subplot about a series of creepy children’s books that aid and abet the disquieting denouement of the tale. The collection is mostly dark fiction, but it’s closer to the work of, say, Isak Dinesen or Robert Aickman than it is to Stephen King or Clive Barker. Part of has to do with the elegant way Hand constructs her tales; each small world is crammed with essential detail, like a motherboard. For instance, the use of Icelandic folklore in Winter’s Wife, or the character study of the titular Uncle Lou. And part of it has do with the craft its self: even on the sentence-level, each image is exquisite. The one outlier piece in the collection, the Jack Vance pastiche Return of the Fire Witch, adds humor to the mostly bleakly beautiful collection.