Saturday, December 30, 2006


The M Press has released a fine new collection of eight stories by Elizabeth Hand, the author of Winterlong, Mortal Love, and the forthcoming Generation Loss, as well as a number of other books. Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories contains four more or less independent tales (one of which, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” provides the entomological occasion for the splendid critter on the cover) and four that are gathered under the heading of “The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations.” According to Hand's afterword, these latter four are inspired by an epistolary friendship with a man she has met in person only a few times, as well as by the conception (borrowed from Alain-Fournier) of a domain perdu, a lost world.

The first and briefest of the quartet, “Kronia,” (the title may be a reference to a Greek harvest festival of the same name), serves as a kind of overture, giving an indication of the general plan through which Hand will work her fictional variations. Addressing an unnamed man and outlining the course of their relationship, the narrator at one point refers to her own children, then states several paragraphs on that she is childless; she says that she has never left the US, then immediately contradicts herself. Narrative possibilities alternate, overlap, exclude each other, but the two poles — the woman and her distant correspondent — retain the same orientation, circling each other in opposition. The three more conventionally developed stories that follow, “Calypso in Berlin,” “Echo,” and “The Saffron Gatherers,” explore at greater length other possible trajectories for the same couple under different guises.

Though each of the three has a contemporary setting, they are constructed on a substrate laid down in the ancient Greek world. This is most evident in “Calypso in Berlin” where the nymph who once held Odysseus captive for seven years has continued her career into the present day, but it is there in the other two as well. “The Saffron Gatherers,” for instance, is set in California, but there is much talk among the characters of ancient Thera, where a volcanic explosion in the second millenium BC entombed a thriving city in ash. The female figure here, Suzanne, is a novelist with a background in archaeology; she has been to the ruins of the city once, and is about to make a return visit. Her lover — he is called Randall — makes her a present of a rare illustrated volume, The Thera Frescoes by one Nicholas Spirotiadis.

The narrator and central figure of of “Echo” could easily be Calypso's sister, and though the title of the story itself may be ambiguous her monologue explicitly alludes to the myth of Echo and Narkissos/Narcissus, as well as to the story of Jason and Medea. Living on an island in Maine with a wolfhound for her only companion, she addresses a man who had apparently been at one time her lover, then a distant and increasingly sporadic correspondent. It is a few years from now, and away from the island things are not well; there is talk of global warming, terrorism, perhaps worse. Communication between the island and the outside is dwindling; the woman has stocked her cabin with provisions and will fend for herself. It is apparent that she will never see the man again.

“Echo” is, I think, a little more, and a little darker, than it first appears to be. I won't risk spoiling the reader's pleasure of a first encounter with the story, except to ask whether, in two brief, seemingly innocent sentences on page 215, and in three unexplained words on page 218, there is not a suggestion of something sinister, and also very Greek, that might not have been immediately evident?

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