We’ve been living through a renaissance of science fiction and fantasy short fiction in the past decade. New authors are entering the field through the monthly magazines both online and in print. Small presses are also producing excellent work: Small Beer Press, Night Shade Books, and Golden Gryphon among them.
I’d not previously heard of M Press, but if it is a new entry into the small press arena, I’m happy to welcome it, especially if it continues to publish books as strange and brilliant as Elizabeth Hand’s Saffron and Brimstone. This collection of mostly longer pieces is as evocative as its cover photograph of a butterfly in extreme close-up. Most of the stories make one’s skin creep, even as one revels in Hand’s language and characters. All of them, in one way or another, are about transformation, about becoming. They are about change and how people cause it, embrace it, reject it, or all three.
The opening story, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” is about Jane, who loves and studies butterflies from her earliest childhood. When she reaches puberty, three hairs on each of her eyebrows, at the inner edge above the bridge of her nose, grow very long and entwine in a braid. She plucks them out, and they don’t grow back — at least not for years. In the meantime, she grows into a remarkable beauty working with shark moths at her women’s college. In fact, her college is populated by many studious beauties. When she takes a shortcut home from the Zoology Lab one late night, Jane is raped.
In the aftermath of this hideous experience, Jane accepts an invitation to go to London to house-sit for some family friends. That’s where the plot really starts to unfurl. The London house seems to be a sort of cocoon for Jane, who undergoes a metamorphosis of a kind hardly to be understood. Part Kafka, part fairy tale, part horror story, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is a story that haunts the reader long after she has finished the tale.
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is equally haunting. Whether it contains the slightest amount of fantasy in it is for the reader to decide, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this picture of illness, death and mourning of the narrator’s good friend seems to convey feelings and thoughts about the end of life more effectively than just about any other literary writing will do. There is nothing maudlin about this story, but there is much beauty and mystery. Little truly happens except for the man’s illness and death, and his family and friends’ mourning him. It is very difficult for me to identify a favorite story in this collection, but this one speaks most directly to me, with its approach to loss as change rather than pure sorrow.
“The Least Trumps” is the story of Ivy, a tattoo artist who is the daughter — and subject — of a long and very successful series of children’s books. She lives in a small house on a tiny island that is itself part of an island off the coast of Maine. The house is eccentric, small and lonely but very appealing, and Ivy rarely leaves. On one of her few trips across the water to the mainland, Ivy finds a pack of mysterious tarot cards at a church rummage sale. The cards launch Ivy on a path of discovery, about herself, about her world – and to wreak change in a seemingly static life.
Hand calls her last four stories “story variations,” but to my mind they do not share a theme as closely as do the first three stories. Though they are all intended to be contemporary stories about the nymphs of ancient mythology, they have little else in common. The standout in this group of four is “Calypso in Berlin,” about the nymph who captured Odysseus centuries ago, and is again the mistress of a married man, a traveler, in the present day. Calypso is an artist, and she compulsively sketches and paints her lover. He forbids her to show her work, even though her studies of him would likely make her reputation. She fears he will leave her, not as much because of their emotional bond, it seems, as because she is obsessed with him as a model. Another tale of transformation follows, as Calypso changes her lover and refines her art. It is a melancholy story, evoking autumn and its crisp, clear, blue days with a hint of winter in the air.
This book belongs on the shelf of everyone who loves literate, unusual, extremely well-written fantasy. But beware: if you are as much a lover of Elizabeth Hand’s work as I am, you may already own the bulk of this book. Bibliomancy, published in a limited edition by PS Publishing in 2003, contains “Cleopatra Brimstone,” “Pavane for a Prince of the Air,” and “The Least Trumps.” I’m personally pleased to own both volumes, as Bibliomancy contains another novella, “Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol,” which isn’t available elsewhere in book form, while Saffron and Brimstone contains “Wonderwall” and “The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations” (of which “Calypso in Berlin” is one).