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Black Light
Elizabeth Hand
HarperPrism, 276 pages

Saska Art & Design
Black Light
Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand grew up in Pound Ridge, New York, next door to the house built by D.W. Griffith and his wife. In 1975 she moved to Washington to enter the playwriting program at Catholic University's renowned Hartke Theatre, and became part of the city's punk scene. She was expelled from university in her junior year, was readmitted, and received a degree in cultural anthropology. For a number of years she worked at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, before quitting to write full-time. In 1988 she moved to Maine.

Her one-act play, "The Have-Nots," was produced in 1997 at the Battersea Arts Centre as part of London's Fringe Theatre Festival. A reviewer and critic, she has written for numerous publications, including The Washington Post Book World, The Detroit Metro Times, The Writer and Penthouse. She lives in Maine and London.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Waking The Moon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

I like music playing while I read, jazz or classical but nothing with words, as anything with lyrics tends to distract me from the written page. While some may be capable of such multitasking, I risk sensory overload when words are simultaneously loaded into auditory and visual channels. However, I think an exception must be made for reading Elizabeth Hand's Black Light, which demands the Velvet Underground rumbling in the background.

Whether or not you pay attention to the words, this is the soundtrack (and specifically we're talking the first two albums when founding member John Cale was still in the band, White Heat White Lightning and the famous Andy Warhol banana cover, the one featuring junkie chanteuse Nico as lead singer on several tracks) that provides the novel's amphetamine pulse. Because Black Light is based in part upon the zeitgeist of the Velvet's old haunting grounds, Warhol's Factory -- a loose collective of speed-freaked artists and pseudo-artists of dubious aesthetics and sexuality, the dark flip side of the sappy grooves strummed by hippiedom's flower children.

It's also, by the way, a sort of coming of age story backgrounded against a clash between two magical forces of which we're never quite sure who represents the good guys, or even if there are any. Of course, it's our heroine's unique perseverance and courage that in the end outwits both sides in the struggle -- but whether or not for her good -- or humanity's -- is equally uncertain.

What puts Hand and this novel on a higher plane than your typical Good vs. Evil fantasy is that she's a highly vivid stylist who gets the details right in evoking a distinctively familiar yet still surreal sense of time and place. However, this very same quality may put some readers off.

Hand's writing style is very much concerned with involving all 5 senses - not just setting the look of a scene, but how it smells and feels, and at times she gets a bit carried away. When every 3rd paragraph or so contains references to "woodsmoke" or the "the smell of rotting leaves" some eyes might tend to glaze over. When Hand makes a nice reference to how a character dresses like Marc Bolan, the short-lived lead singer of T.Rex who dabbled in everything from folkie poetics to punk to power pop, she then dilutes the effect by mentioning how another character looks like Bolan only 3 pages later.

Similarly, the symbolism gets laid on a bit heavy -- the constant appearance of antlered beasts, though a central image, verges on overkill. I doubt it's by accident that the nickname of protagonist Charlotte Moylan is "Lit" -- only Literature majors are going to pick up on all the references (although I was a "Lit" major and I've probably missed a few). So this book may not be for the sort of reader who is less interested in the tableau than getting on with the action.

Your take on this book may also depend on whether the Velvet Underground is in your record collection, or even that you still use the adjective "record" in the CD digital age. Now it's not essential to be familiar with the depravities of the Warhol gang and the "glam-rock" period of the late 60s and early 70s, but you'll certainly lose an important context. Some of the references are particularly esoteric -- for example, if you're not from the New York area, you might have no idea who the late Alison Steele was. One of the first women disk jockeys in progressive radio, before commercial airwaves became dominated by shock-jocks and playlists, Steele's legendary "Nightbird" program was precisely what any teenager with aspirations of being cool would listen to. Steele's recitation of poetry in the Kahlil Gibran school coupled with the trippy art-rock popular at the time, perfectly exemplifies the era -- a time of seemingly unlimited creative license that oftentimes degenerated into, as Lou Reed himself remarks in a little ditty recorded on the Velvet's lamentably final reunion live album, "pretentious shit."

Which is not to say you're going to be totally lost if you've never listened to the music. Whether you've heard of Lou Reed or not, even if you don't much care for fantasies, for that matter, the core here is a story of growing up in deciding whether we follow the paths or our parents or strike out on our own.

At first, that may not seem so obvious, as the adults in this tale are perhaps a bit different than most of ours. For one thing, they're artists, though not particularly successful ones. Lit's parents are Shakespearean actors who in middle age find themselves making a living, and attaining their only claims to notoriety, in the vast wasteland of commercial television. They're also fairly tolerant of drugs and what might be called alternative lifestyles -- not just the socio-sexual politics of the period, but also the worship of ancient gods, specifically, Dionysus (who else?), the god of vegetation, wine, poetry and music and, in particular orgiastic rituals of resurrection. Nevertheless, Hand skillfully contrasts the universality of how youthful indulgences and passions that continue undisciplined into adulthood result in a certain pitiable loss in appearance and conviction. She also reminds us how the very same indulgences easily result in not attaining adulthood at all.

If I've spent this much time talking about Black Light (a metaphor for a portal into the magical world, as well as a device popular in college dorms to set a certain mood during various illicit activities) without mentioning its plot, it's because the plot is, for me anyway, the least interesting part of the book. Which is not to say it is uninteresting -- there's obviously been a lot of research into the Dionysus myth and how it has manifested itself in both contemporary culture and religious beliefs down through the centuries -- just that for me it is a lesser of the sum's intricate parts.

Hand has previously explored the idea of reawakened gods in modern society in a previous novel, The Waking of the Moon. Indeed, the conflicting factions of the Malandanti and Benandanti, the latter of which is an actual medieval society, make a reappearance here, as well, and, in an interview with Hand, she says there's a 3rd book planned which will bring together characters from both books. The ending hints of possible further development, and I for one would be interested in reading more about Lit.

So, if you're put off by a certain attention to detail and plotting that is more symbolic than action-oriented, this might not be your sort of book. It is my sort of book, however, if only because I suspect Hand and I share similar record collections (I once bought an Emma Bull novel without knowing anything about it just because the epigraph quoted Richard Thompson), as well as having grown up during roughly the same time (though my hometown was undoubtedly far less interesting than Hand's, which the village Kamensic in the book is modeled upon). But, no matter what your age or your taste in music, I'd still heartily recommend Black Light. Discovering new worlds -- even when they represent old worlds -- is not only what fantasy is supposed to be about, it's why we read books in the first place.

A Short Musical Primer

Music permeates Black Light, and for the uninitiated, here's a few things you might want to give a listen to get in the proper frame of mind:

As previously mentioned, the first two Velvet albums. The Lou Reed/John Cale collaboration was brilliant, and like most brilliant collaborations, stormy. But they made strange and beautiful music together. Their Songs for Drella CD that paid homage to Andy Warhol is essential listening. Also check out the 1993 reunion album.
Speaking of Lou Reed, he helped pioneer the whole cross-dressing glam-rock thing. Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" -- which incredibly got extensive Top 40 radio play (and is a staple of Classic Rock formats) despite lines about transvestite hookers "giving head" -- can be found on Transformer.
Reed's producer and collaborator (on the aforementioned Transformer and the Berlin album, a bleak work which Hand references) was David Bowie, who personified the confusing sexuality of the rock star. (Cross dressing is central symbol in Black Light.) Recommended albums -- The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Hunky Dory, and Diamond Dogs.
Televison -- a cult band in a slightly later era; Hand quotes from their Marqee Moon.
Renaissance -- one of the dreamy art-rock bands who you can actually still listen to today, unlike say, some of the more pompous stuff by Yes. More rooted in British folk than rock and roll it was a favourite of not only Alison Steele, but the hip radio station of the time, WNEW-FM.
Vin Scelsa's Idiots Delight. Scelsa was a colleague of Steele's who miraculously is still allowed to practice free-form (meaning the jock, and not the corporate dictated playlist, selects the music) radio. Still on 102.7 WNEW, though the station itself has long deteriorated into a variety of lackluster formats to the point where it is now a Howard Stern-wannabe, Scelsa's Sunday night program is not currently available through Web broadcast, There is, however, a newslist and fans of the show are notorious for circulating tapes around the country. The music is eclectic and intelligent, and though it ranges far beyond the music of Black Light's setting, it'll give you a sense of how exciting progressive radio used to be. I'll even go so far to bet that Hand might be a listener.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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