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Book Review: Saffron and Brimstone – Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

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Elizabeth Hand, if not our finest fiction writer, is certainly among our most challenging and adventurous. Her stories blur the line between mundane realities and the utterly fantastical. Saffron and Brimstone, aptly subtitled "strange stories," eloquently illustrates the quiet horrors of contemporary society from a personal vantage point.

This is not a collection of horror or even science fiction genre fiction. It can't even be called a short story anthology. Hand's stories are typically novellas that explore the nuances of her characters and their environments. The resultant works read like rich tapestries, bleeding with muted colors and telling often abstract tales. Usually told in the first person, these stories not only lure us into the protagonist's psyche, but once there, trap us in a world we have no desire to escape. We relish our time there, and as exhausting as it may be, we find it to be a refuge of sorts.

The opening sentences of "Cleopatra Brimstone" (the only story here not told in first person) demonstrate Hand's mastery of words as dreamscape:

    Her earliest memory was of wings. Luminous red and blue, yellow and green and orange; a black so rich it appeared liquid, edible. They moved above her and the sunlight made them glow as though they were themselves made of light, fragments of another, brighter world falling to earth about her crib. Her tiny hands stretched upward to grasp them but could not: they were too elusive, too radiant, too much of the air.

Throughout, Hand's phrasings invoke a sense of remarkable imagery that lift her stories from what would be pedestrian chillers in lesser talents. "Cleopatra Brimstone" concerns a young rape victim who inadvertently discovers her fascination with butterflies affords her a means of revenge, but with unforeseen consequences. In "Pavane for a Prince of the Air," neo-pagan, drug imbued funeral rituals transcend the finality of death in almost romantic ways. And in "The Least Trumps," the tattoo artist daughter of a children's book author finds love redefined and intertwined through a pair of errant tarot cards.

As compelling, romantic and sexually ambiguous as these stories are, it's the quartet of tales making up "The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations" that best showcase Hand's talents as a prose stylist. The four stories here — "Kronia, "Calypso in Berlin, "Echo" and the haunting "The Saffron Gatherers" — interlace themes of Greek mythology and current tragedies with the transitory nature of relationships in ways that are at once both chilling and profoundly beautiful.

Call it literary fantasy, if you must attach a label to Elizabeth Hand's writings. Even at that, her works are too grounded in the underbelly of mainstream culture to be sloughed off as genre fiction. What she does in Saffron and Brimstone is hold a mirror up to our fears and foibles, and gently urges us to take at look at what we behold. It's a reflection we'd be well advised to take seriously.

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About Ray Ellis