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Bibliomancy: Four Novellas

by Elizabeth Hand

(PS Publishing £35.00, 296 pages, signed, limited edition hardback; £60 for the deluxe slipcased hardback; published October 2003.)

Writers, like athletes, have distances at which they excel. At one end of the scale, there are sprinters, like D.F. Lewis, Mark McLaughlin and Michael Swanwick, in their different ways all masters of the short and short-short story. At the other extreme, cover scanthere are those whose voice needs the full novel length to be heard. In the middle, there are distance runners, who come into their own at longer-novelette or novella length. Ian MacLeod is one, as is Lucius Shepard -- indeed, Shepard introduces the present volume. And another is Elizabeth Hand, four of whose novellas are collected here. (Going by standard short-fiction categorisations, they're actually one short novel, two novellas and a novelette, but that would have been unwieldy on the title page, so let's not be picky.)

There's an argument that the novella is the ideal length for SF, fantasy or horror. You can have a novelistic density of background and character, not to mention a more complex weave of plot and subplot, than is possible in a short story, while avoiding the padding that is increasingly necessary for novels. The downside, of course, is that there are fewer publication outlets for your work. It says something that even a writer of Hand's stature couldn't get one of the stories here published except online, and its appearance in Bibliomancy is its first in print.

Hand's strengths as a writer are traditional ones, notably that density of character and setting noted above, and -- as Shepard notes in the introduction -- a painterly eye for atmosphere and colour. That's not necessarily a template for a writer of SF, fantasy or horror, and some of these stories sit uneasily in or within those genres. Some may dispute that certain stories here belong at all. But the fantasy content of these novellas, whether it's overt or implicit, is used to address archetypal fantasy themes. These are all stories of healing. The often character-led stories are a journey for a damaged soul to a point where there is hope of restitution. And as the second half of the title word hints, magic is often the motor of that process.

The best-known story here is "Cleopatra Brimstone", a dark horror tale originally published in the anthology Redshift. We follow Janie's progress from a childhood fascinated with butterflies, via a rape (a scene which Hand says in her story note is partly autobiographical), to London. While studying, and working as a lepidopterist at Regent's Park Zoo, she becomes involved in the less salubrious part of London's nightlife and develops a talent that would risk being deeply silly in other writers' work, but Hand ably suspends our disbelief. Unfortunately the ending is a let-down, but most of the way this is a gripping story, laden with atmosphere. Camden Town, where most of it is set, has never seemed so seedy, so lurid and so compellingly dangerous.

"Pavane for a Prince of the Air" (great title) is the shortest story here, and the least fantastic. Apart from an ending which gives a light dusting of fantasy, it's an entirely straight telling of a death. The narrator is called to the bedside of a friend who has terminal brain cancer, and the story deals unflinchingly with his decline and death and afterwards. But it's less an ending than a rite of passage, in accordance with the dying man and his partner's spiritual beliefs. This story won an International Horror Guild Award which may be due to the circumstances of its publication. It was published in a genre anthology (Embrace the Mutation) so it's a horror story. Publish it in a non-genre venue, and it would be a mainstream story. But it's certainly of the horror genre in that it treats an archetypal theme of the horror of decay and death ... but Hand sees it as a positive event.

By far the longest story here is the short novel "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" which makes its print debut here, after appearing online at Scifiction. The subject of lost wiped old television programmes is such a resonant one (the destruction of works that only survive in fragmentary form if at all) that I'm surprised that more writers haven't tackled it. Here it's an early 60s children's special, long since believed destroyed, which holds a cherished place in the memories of the two lead characters, depressed divorcee Brendan and former rocker Tony who somehow has managed to keep a childlike perspective. Hand reworks Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Brendan is Scrooge, but he's also Bob Cratchit, father to an autistic Tiny Tim. The story begins with news of old-time children's entertainer Chip Crockett's death, but from beyond the grave he works his magic. First, Brendan and Tony find a Crockett website, complete with samples and very short clips, all that survives. But there are rumours of a complete bootleg copy of Crockett's legendary take on A Christmas Carol, and even hints of a secret broadcast in the dead hours of Christmas night. Brendan is mired in depression and a history of alcoholism, regrets at a marriage gone wrong and despair at a son who cannot look him in the eye or bear to be touched. The return of childhood things -- and a sense of wonder that his friend Tony has never lost -- gives hope for the future. This is a gorgeously written, very moving story that has an ending that could have been outrageously sentimental but manages not to be.

The final novella is "The Least Trumps" (from the "New Wave Fabulists" issue of Conjunctions guest-edited by Peter Straub). Ivy Tun leads a literally insular life, on an island within an island off the Maine Coast. The daughter of a children's book writer, she makes her living as a tattooist. Her sense of loneliness takes a turn for the better in a series of events in which a set of tarot cards (the "least trumps" of the title) plays a vital part. This is again a character-led story, with an open ending -- life goes on, though there is hope. The amazing thing is that Hand claims to have written this story (of over 20,000 words) in two weeks, which will make many writers out there feel inadequate.

Bibliomancy features throughout writing of a very high standard. No doubt this won't be for everyone: it's at the more literary end of the genres, for certain, and seekers of the more traditional generic kicks should look elsewhere. But if you're in tune with Hand's writing, there's plenty to reward and provoke here. This is a major collection.

Review by Gary Couzens.

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