Elizabeth Hand's sixth novel, Black Light, rounds off a highly productive decade that began, in 1990, with the publication of Winterlong. This new book carries forward certain themes and characteristics that have marked Hand's writing throughout the decade and reinforces her position as one of the most stylish exponents of that distinctive brand of fantasy in which ancient myth and everyday reality come face-to-face.
Black Light is set in Kamensic Village, New York, a fictionalized version of Hand's childhood home in northern Westchester County. Kamensic, which is also the setting for a number of Hand's earlier short stories, is an insular, well-to-do community largely populated by members of the theatrical profession: actors, writers, set designers, et cetera. Kamensic's most famous and notorious citizen is Axel Kern, a Warhol-like movie director who is the absentee owner of Bolerium, an old, decaying mansion situated on top of nearby Muscanth Mountain. Kern's decision to return to Kamensic and open up Bolerium for a wild, no-holds-barred Halloween party to which everyone in town is invited provides Black Light with its colorful, and dramatic, center.
As the party approaches, 17-year-old Charlotte "Lit" Moylan, Kern's bright, privileged, sexually precocious goddaughter, begins seeing things a giant, horned figure, half-human, half-elk; graphic, primitive images of human and animal sacrifice that can't possibly be real. By the time Kern's party fueled by its host's nearly endless supplies of alcohol and drugsgets underway, it's become apparent that ancient, arcane forces have descended on Kamensic, which is about to become the locus of the latest manifestation of a venerable Dionysian rite.
In many respects, Black Light is a kind of companion volume to Hand's 1995 novel, Waking the Moon, which deals with the reemergence of the moon goddess, Othiym Lunarsa, into the patriarchal society of the 20th century. Both novels are concerned with the reawakened presence of pagan mystery cults in the modern world. Both feature prominent appearances by an esoteric order known as the Benendanti, a hidden army of occult scholars charged with keeping the ancient pagan forces of the old world and the old gods eternally at bay.
In Black Light, the town of Kamensic becomes the embodiment of the Sacred Grove of Dionysus, god of death, revelry, and illusion. Lit Moylan becomes the embodiment of Ariadne, the god's lover, handmaiden, and victim. And Axel Kern's Halloween party functions as a sort of stage scrim through which an older drama the eternally recurring rituals of sex and blood sacrifice that give the gods their power and their potency gradually becomes visible. Virtually the entire novel, with the exception of some carefully selected prefatory material, takes place during the course of this single, orgiastic party, and Hand explores the hallucinatory interplay between the various levels of the novel's reality with resourcefulness, artistry, and considerable style.
In the end, it is the small, human story of Lit Moylan and her successful attempts to free herself from a huge but constricting destiny to step outside the confines of a preordained life and reinvent herself on her own idiosyncratic terms that gives this novel a personal, emotional relevance that nicely balances its mythical, larger-than-life concerns. Like Tim Powers's Earthquake Weather, a very different kind of book with a similar set of mythical underpinnings, Black Light is about ordinary people caught up in the implacable purposes of gods. Like the best of Hand's earlier work, it is the product of a writer with a distinctive and adventurous talent and is written with an uncommon combination of grace and power and with the unrestrained intensity of a fever dream.