You know you’re on a weird ride when out of the blue an 11-year-old girl in the story asks, “Do you want to see the dead babies?” That happens about two-thirds of the way into Hard Light, the third Cass Neary novel by American writer Elizabeth Hand. By then you’ll be fully aware that nothing is going normally for the punk photographer, who at this point finds herself on a fallen down farm in Penwith, Cornwall.
The 11-year-old, Sam, is the daughter of Adrian Carlisle, whose father Leith Carlisle married into the ancient Cornish family that owns the farm. Leith’s wife, Tamsin, is batshit crazy – as Cass later observes – and seems to be lurking somewhere among the ramshackle buildings waiting to strike. Or maybe she’s hiding in the neolithic ruins such as Castle Scream, the ancient burial barrow, or the amazing chamber that lets a beam of light shine in only at certain times, illuminating a ritual site. (A bit like the ones at Maeshowe in Orkney, or Newgrange in Ireland).
Why is Cass on a Cornish farm, half-dead from the micky someone slipped her, and pelted by rain and snow every time she steps outdoors? Well that’s because it’s safer to be in rural poverty than sofa surfing in London, where she was waiting for her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Quinn. He’d sent her to London from Iceland on a false passport after their dealings there went south. She has slept with a Camden Town starlet and through her meets Adrian, who’s a bit of a guardian angel to the druggy singer.
In her shiny boots of leather, Cass might as well have stepped right out of an old Lou Reed song. She’s been delivering parcels for ex-gangster, Mallo Dunfries, who is partly legit and dealing in antiquities. The bottle blonde ass-kicker you’ll remember from Available Dark and Generation Loss – a whisky warrior with a penchant for pills – has been trapped by Mallo. He caught her going through his wife Morven’s medicine cabinet. Morven herself was a wild child in the early 70s. Alongside a singer called Poppy Teasel, she slept with many a rock star as well as the filmmaker Leith Carlisle, mentioned above.
As usual Elizabeth Hand has created a strange and horrific web of intrigue for Cass, who could do with a warm bed and room service but instead is fed a stream of uppers and lies. To cap it off, she starts finding bodies in North London as she runs errands for Mallo. Who’s doing the killing, who’s trying to kill Cass, and how are all these broken people connected? That’s the mystery.
The author delights in mysticism and mythologies, and here she plays with both neolithic religion and 1970s underground culture. Alongside real bands, movies and photographers, she weaves in fictional ones. Leith Carlisle’s legendary film Thanatrope is like an acid trip on celluloid and depicts bizarre, deathly rituals. Carlisle’s technique fascinates Cass’ photographic brain. Meanwhile, her encounter with the now decrepit singer Poppy Teasel leaves her in possession of some thaumatropes – spinning discs that produce an optical animation effect. They date back to the Ice Age and might link to both the strange rituals in Carlisle’s film, and the neolithic ruins on that ugly old heath in Cornwall.
The only thing I don’t really buy is the 11-year-old Sam, who one chapter is a barely articulate feral girl and the next explains and dates the Stone Age ruins and remains like a graduate researcher.
Does it all lead to dead babies as the secret of Carlisle and his descendants is unravelled by an ageing punk who’s pretty unravelled herself? You’ll have to read Hard Light to find out. The way Elizabeth Hand weaves together the ancient and the modern is reminiscent of Donna Tartt in The Secret History, and Hand is easily as poetic in her style. I’m sure you’ll find Hard Light an excellent read.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars