Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“Wonderwall”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Kronia”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“Echo”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik
Translated by Tamara M. Soban
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1628970421
208 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 14th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

True to its title, Law of Desire is a collection of short stories revolving around the condition of desire. The inclusion of the word ‘law’ implies the controlling influence that desire has over the characters and situations in the stories. Desire is something beyond control, immutable and compulsory. The type of desire explored in each story varies from the physical to the abstract and the stories themselves vary from short, surreal vignettes to more nuanced and longer explorations of character.

The longer stories tend to have distinct plots rather than simply prose that conveys a state of being, and I found I appreciated these the most. Among these, “Electric Guitar” is perhaps the most powerful, a ‘gut-wrenching’ subtle story of abuse that extends beyond a simple meditation on the collection’s theme.

However, “What We Talk About” is the leading, and most effective story in the collection. Here, a man meets a fascinating, but mysterious woman and the two have a rapid connection. The desire between the two (particularly from the point of view of the male protagonist) is palpable, but extends beyond mere sexual desire or even a desire for friendship. The two dance those steps of relationship that balance sharing and keeping secrets, where the man becomes compelled to discover the exact nature of the woman’s job which involves clients paying to talk to her on the phone.

These interactions reveal the corollary to the desire featured in all these stories, and that is ‘dissatisfaction’, a state of being that almost by definition must be present in order for engendering desire. The characters in Blatnik’s stories all exhibit some degree of intense dissatisfaction, sometimes internal, or sometime coming from external factors. Either way, this dissatisfaction ultimately arises from that theme that generally characterizes modern ‘literature’: a failure to communicate.

Thus, Blatnik’s stories all focus on some part of a circular chain that defines humanity. Failures to communicate (honestly to oneself or between individuals) leads to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to desires. If unmet, desires continue to compound dissatisfaction. Yet, even if attained, these desires at best only lead to greater desire. Additionally, even if attained, one desire often doesn’t coincide with the desires of others (or conflicting desires within oneself). This failure of desires to exist in harmony (to communicate properly in other words) leads us right back to the start of the circle. The desire can never be fulfilled.

Exploration of this vicious circle seems Blatnik’s desire as writer, and he successfully achieves that goal as far as possible – though as art primarily, not always in the most ‘entertaining’ of fashions. In interviews with Blatnik he discusses the freedom that writers within formerly Communist portions of Europe now have to focus on this modern literature of every-day conflict within and between individuals rather than producing works that have some specific political or cultural role (subversive or not). Interestingly though, this shift in Slovenian (and related) literature follows the same pattern of theme that Blatnik explores in this collection. The dissatisfaction of what was possible or relevant to artistically produce under a relatively oppressive regime has led to a desire to write simpler, modern literature of people failing to communicate. Given the enormous popularity of this collection in its native language, the desire to consume this kind of work is also abundant.

Within the confines of its culture and origins, Law of Desire likely resonates in the continued uncertainty of the future. Several of the stories even seem to take the characters out of time and place (out of plot) to represent something extremely relevant to the condition of its audience. For the general reader of the English translation, this poignancy may be lost, but the universality of that central dissatisfaction-desire loop make this a worthwhile literary read for those that appreciate more artistic writing. Even if not all stories connect, a few brilliant ones in this collection make it worth checking out.

Four  Stars out of Five

I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.