Elizabeth Hand Adds to Maine’s Horror Output

Elizabeth Hand grew up in an Irish Catholic family in New York and now lives in Maine after falling in love with the state, which is featured in her Cass Neary series. “Maine is a tough place to live. There’s a great deal of poverty, a lot of depression, a lot of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol,” says Hand. ‘There’s often resentment on the part of natives toward people from away. In the islands and smaller communities like the one I live, you often have witch hunts, where relative outsiders literally become outcasts. It’s beautiful here, but it can very suddenly get very ugly and scary. There’s a kind of human weather that can shift as suddenly and dangerously at the actual weather.”

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Hand’s fears have driven some of her writing and she finds it cathartic to release these through her fiction. “As a parent, my greatest fear is that something will harm my children. But the truth is I’m afraid of everything. I wasn’t always—I was abducted and raped when I was twenty-one, and that left me with this vast reservoir of rage and fear,” says Hand. “I get panic attacks. I have sometimes violent parasomnias, which is when you act things out while asleep; the most dramatic of these was a few years ago when I thought there was an intruder in my bedroom. I jumped out of bed, ran to the other side of the room, and ripped a heavy wooden curtain rod from the wall to use as a weapon. I came to and found myself standing naked in front of the window, screaming and brandishing an eight foot wooden pole—an event that was a weird catalyst for Generation Loss.”

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As a child, Hand remembers herself differently. She says, “I wanted to be tough. When we lived in Yonkers in a neighborhood full of kids, I was always getting into fights with boys and coming home with a black eye. I was provoking fights with boys. I liked fighting, even though I always got decked. I should have gone into roller derby.”

Film, sci-fi, and mysteries were also heavy influences during her childhood. “I was obsessed with monster movies, too—if I had kept all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I never would have had to write Catwoman,” says Hand about one of her movie novelizations that now embarrasses her. “I read 1984 at a precocious age, like eight, and when I did the math I realized that Julia, Winston Smith’s lover, was born the same year I was, 1957. I read that book over and over again, with the 1960s as a backdrop, anti-war and anti-bomb protests and this general pervasive sense of doom.”

Hand came of age during the seventies and punk was the music she listened to as a teenager, which is a theme in many of her works. “I still love it. I love lots of other music, too, and always have, but punk’s the soundtrack of my youth,” says Hand. “I think you never escape the music you’re listening to and seeing when you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old. So I feel really fortunate that I was at the right place at the right time.”

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Originally, Hand wanted to be a music journalist, like Lester Bangs, but she ended up working at a museum in Washington, D.C., before she began pursuing writing as a full-time career. “What spurred me to finally quit my job and focus on writing full-time was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, one of the great neo-noir films. I was already a Lynch fan, but when I saw that I thought, Man, if this guy can make a living out of this weird shit, so can I,” says Hand.

“But I never seriously considered writing anything in that vein until I saw Silence of the Lambs. I watched that movie and thought, You know, I could do this. The story was driven by the characters, and it had those over-the-top Grand Guignol set pieces—it wasn’t that different in some ways from what I did with some of my own work.”

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It’s tough making a living from writing, but Hand has retired from doing any more movie novelizations, which kept her going financially for about a decade, along with her own work. “I’m trying not to do work-for-hire anymore, i.e., novelizations and the like. I don’t know how many prime writing years I have left, and I decided I wanted to focus as much as I can on my own stuff,” says Hand. “I’m doing more teaching now, as faculty at the Stonecoast MFA program, which is a bit more rewarding than novelizing Catwoman. And I’m still doing book reviews, which I love—gives me a chance to keep the critical part of my brain cranking.”

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Lots of underdogs are featured in her work, and Hand says, “I have kind of a soft spot for lovable losers and misfits and outsiders, people who in real life can be very difficult to take. I’ve known quite a few of them, and I really do think you can learn from people who see the world from a different angle… As for writing about people who the world perceives as royal fuck-ups, I try to give them the happy endings, or at least happier endings, that evade them in real life. Maybe that’s wish fulfillment, or arrogance. Maybe I just relate better to flawed people because I’m one of them.”

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Sources:

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2007_05_011056.php

http://mainecrimewriters.com/pauls-posts/an-interview-with-elizabeth-hand

http://www.tor.com/2010/08/24/an-interview-with-elizabeth-hand/

Interview: Elizabeth Hand

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Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

I’m beginning to wonder if Maine is the new wonderland for horror novelists. Of course, Stephen King turned it into his own Yoknapatawpha County with all of his horror stories, but now a new generation of horror writers have set up shop there or place their stories there. Elizabeth Hand both lives in Maine and has made it the eerie setting of her novel Generation Loss.

The main character of Generation Loss is Cassandra Neary, a photographer with a darker-than-death vision who struck it big during New York’s punk scene, and then … nothing happened. Cass has muddled through some thirty years in an alcohol- and other substance-fueled fugue, whiling away her life as a stock clerk at the Strand bookstore.

Through sketchy circumstances, Cass gets a shot at redemption. She is given the chance to go interview one of the photographers who inspired her as a youth: Aphrodite Kamestos. Aphrodite lives as a recluse in a remote area of Maine, but according to Cass’s source, Aphrodite specifically requested Cassandra as her interviewer of choice. With speed in her bloodstream and a few paltry possessions packed up, Cassandra hits the road.

Generation Loss shines with its cast of female characters, who span generations and are all artists. There’s Cass with blocked vision in the middle of the spectrum, past middle age and unlovely as well as unlovable, but she seems to revel in this. At the older end is Aphrodite who has kept her elfin looks through a diet of booze, but has not produced anything of note since the groundbreaking books that endeared her to Cass. And then there’s Mackenzie, a Goth teen stuck in Maine with nothing to do, but who is teeming with ideas and wants to get out to make her mark on the world.

Cass is flawed and an unlikable protagonist, which I thoroughly enjoyed. For most of the story, Cass is the one who is singled out as the monster lurking in this insular Maine community, and it’s not hard to believe with her sneaking around and spying and thieving. In the harsh wintry setting, she rediscovers her art, and everything else can be sacrificed or disregarded as she goes for her shot. Her character reminds me very much of Strickland from W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, one of my favorite books.

I like it that in Hand’s novel, women are able to lay claim to this territory, artist as megalomaniac, and be as unlovely as they want to be.