Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review of Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories is a 2006 short story collection from Elizabeth Hand (republished in 2014 by Open Road Media).  One a valuable spice of distinctive color and fragrance, and the other a term implying the stink of hell, a possible metaphorical spin on the dichotomous title is the dynamic joys of life and the deeper problems which give them context.  Reading the collection, the possibility becomes reality, in fact, to the point the two are synthesized. 

Like the best musicians and artists, Hand lays bare a part of her soul in Saffron and Brimstone.  Solitude, tattoos, writing, rape, punk rock, island life in Maine, art, the counter-culture, drugs, alternative lifestyles, troubled youth—all inform the stories and are conveyed in real, human terms.  Lightly sprinkled with aspects of the fantastic, the stories in the collection are highly personal—fictionally and non-fictionally—and for it, are some of the best writing Hand has produced.  (See the Afterword for relative biographical information.)

Saffron and Brimstone opens on the stink of hell with the dark thriller Cleopatra Brimstone.  Raped as a young woman, Janie eventually heads to Britain to house sit, and there finds employment in a zoo’s insect department.  Her passion butterflies, the job is perfect as she looks to mark a new direction in life. That direction one which moves more towards spiders (of the black widow variety), Janie’s new life evolves in surprising ways.  Part punk rock, part stealth, and part lepidoptera, it’s all intrigue.  Moving to a real-world hell, one that I have experienced with an uncle, “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is a poignant piece about a couple dealing with a brain cancer diagnosis, and the spiritual, physical, and emotional pain that follows on.  That my uncle was also a hippie still living the life long after the 60s and 70s were over—like Cal and Tina in the story—only makes it more meaningful.  But even for those without similar real-life experiences, it remains impossible not to be affected by the love and the response of their friends.

And there is a lot of existential pain in the collection—pain mitigated indirectly by circumstances life deals out as time moves on.  The Least Trumps is the story of a young woman still coming to terms with a past relationship.  The heartbreak not pathetic, her life on an isolated island off the Maine coast as an exclusive tattoo artist satisfies her longing for place in life.  But it does not balm the damage of the past.  Discovering a strange pack of cards at a rummage sale one day, however, inspires an act of creativity that has consequences she never imagined.  “Wonderwall” is the story of a nineteen year old college student living in the dirtiest suburbs of Maryland.  Unsure of her place in life, alcohol, drugs, and anti-social behavior run redolent through her life—and her and her roommate’s lives just keep getting worse and worse.  Hitting your head against the wonderwall hurting just as much as a real wall if not more, thankfully, it also has two sides.

Meditations on loss, with echoes of 9-11, the second half of the collection is appropriately titled “The Lost Domain.”  Containing some of Hand’s atmospheric and experimental writing, it opens on an abstract note.   “Kronia” is not a typical story, rather a jumbled timeline of events and equivocal recollections of meetings between ‘we’, the French film La Jetee seemingly the inspiration.  Unrelated to music, “Calypso in Berlin” is instead a story of the Greek nymph as she exists in New England as an artist in modern times.  Involved in a love affair with an American named Phillip, Calypso, through art, seeks to prevent losing him as she lost Odysseus, and makes a trip to Berlin to put her plan in action.  Perhaps the most subtly powerful piece Hand has ever written, “Echo” is the story of a woman living alone on an island with her dog.  The internet connection erratic, correspondence with loved ones is interspersed with long periods of waiting.  But after a disaster on the mainland, the wait becomes almost unbearable.  With brimstone opening the collection, it’s only suitable that “The Saffron Gatherers” closes it.  Recursive in the manner in which it redresses many of the themes and tropes from the previous stories, it’s about a science fiction writer visiting a friend in San Francisco.  Surprised by the feelings which result from their meeting, real life, however, interferes in ways neither would have hoped.

In the end, Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories is a collection featuring a wide variety of characters, but all of whom must deal with loss in some form.  For some it is in the past affecting the present, for others it is in the exigencies of the present, and for others still, it is what the imminent future holds.   Not a fairy tale among them, each main character (all women) finds a course in life that brings them to a new place—a place beyond the loss, but yet as subtly surprising as situations real-life offers.  Whether it be a new understanding, new circumstances, a new locale, etc., the loss is dealt with in one way or another.  The prose vivid, polished, and affecting; the characters varied and realistically presented (i.e. as troubled and honest as we are); and the stories appealing, from the surface action to the deeper, cathartic developments of self and place, modern literary fantasy in short from doesn’t get much better than this.  Superb collection. 

All stories published between 2001 and 2006, the following is the table of contents:

“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
The Least Trumps
The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations
    “Calypso in Berlin”
    “The Saffron Gatherers”

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