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Elizabeth Hand

PS Publishing

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 1-902-88073-0

Publication Date: 10-01-2003

296 Pages; $50.00

Date Reviewed: 02-03-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, General Fiction


The sound of melancholy, the sound of deep despair, the songs of years past heard from the vantage of the here-and-now -- that's the sound of Elizabeth Hand. One story, one novel, one novella, that might tell you one thing. But the four works collected in the excellent 'Bibliomancy' also tell us one thing. The four voices she gathers act together as a chorus. The four novellas with their disparate characters and varying themes and settings -- everything points towards a single voice, a series of linguistic choices that Hand makes when she writes. It's clear that this isn't just genre fiction and it isn't just fiction. The writing on display here is nothing less than distilled emotions, ready for the reader to decant by the act of reading.

PS Publishing is noted for their series of novellas, so it should be no surprise that this collection consists of four novellas. While they've all appeared elsewhere, their assembly here seems natural and unforced -- fortuitous even. And considering that one of the pieces was published online, the appearance here in print is a blessing for those who prefer their books to have paper pages. The novella length gives the writer the room she clearly needs to establish the atmosphere she requires for each tale to unfold. Even the so-called trade edition is signed by the author, and the lovely dust jacket illustration is perfectly appropriate to the material within. Lucius Shepard's introduction can and should be read before the novellas; he offers insight without spoiling the reading experience.

For all their unity in tone, the four novellas cover a wide range of experience. 'Cleopatra Brimstone', first published in Al Sarrantionio's 'Red Shift', re-imagines a young woman's random rape into a surreal insectile nightmare. She moves to London to continue her studies, where she begins an apprenticeship to an English entymologist and an unhealthy nightlife. 'Pavane for a Prince of the Air' is a poignant pagan reflection on caring for the terminally ill, which won an International Horror Guild Award. 'Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol' is the riotous reincarnation of Joey Ramone as "Tony Maroni", whose love of a vanished children's show and permanent immaturity finds redemption as he moves in with a divorced childhood friend. 'The Least Trumps' offers a reclusive tattoo artist a new slant on life when she finds an unusual set of Tarot cards at a yard sale.

Though most of the works have at least some sense of the supernatural, this is clearly not the point of any of the writing. Hand is not trying to scare her readers or even unsettle them. Instead, she's trying to re-define the world, to give it numinous edges, to blur the boundaries between what we want and what we are. 'Cleopatra Brimsone' with its focus on insects and rape is the closest to a horror story, but Hand's careful prose keeps the more horrific aspects at bay. Instead, we're taken inside the head of predators both male and female. By putting the reader on both sides of the food chain, Hand creates an interesting dissonance. The tale suffers a bit as it comes to a rather tidy ending.

'Pavane for a Prince of the Air' is a straightforward piece of Twilight-Zone style melancholy, elevated by Hand's careful prose and close understanding of the pagan rituals she describes. In it, the supernatural is distilled into the spiritual. It's heartfelt and insightful, though the action-oriented crowd will find it lacking in action. It's their loss. Wistful doesn't get much better than this.

For my money, 'Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol', a piece previously available only online (we should all send thanks to Ellen Datlow for publishing it at is the best of the bunch, and well worth the price of admission. She proves that old saw about the importance of character by creating Tony Maroni, obviously modeled on Joey Ramone. This guy is such a hoot, so much fun, that the reader is willing to go just about anywhere with him. The plot itself is also filled with charm. It's about a lost kids' show, a slightly subversive bit of suburbiana that Tony Maroni obsesses about while staying with a tautly-wound, newly divorced chum from school. It's the kind of story that's just bursting with life, skillfully rendered and enjoyably resolved. Should Hand choose to write a novel about this character, I'll be there to read it in a New York minute.

The collection winds up with the more typically melancholy novella 'The Least Trumps'. Hand's characters once again shine, and she creates faux writers and their books with such authority that readers are likely to enter them in a search engine. Children's authors, artists and no-account drifters all come engagingly to life. Here, Hand lets her characters escape from the traps they've carefully constructed. It's a detailed, vibrant piece of purely American magic realism.

The unifying force here is Hand's voice and prose. She manages to invest every word with the correct weight. She displays a light touch when it helps the story and a darker, more complex grasp when things get tough. There's the feeling that behind the prose, behind an invisible wall, is a world of real emotion. Through the skill of her writing, you get to experience those emotions in all their depths and subtle shades without having to experience the events on a firsthand basis, though in some cases you'll wish you could. 'Bibliomancy' manages to live up to its suggestive title. You might not like what Hand conjures up, but there's no denying that her spells are successful. This is indeed a collection of literary magic.