Review: Black Light, Elizabeth Hand (1999)

Been a while since I posted anything here. Been a while since I finished a book. Oh, I’ve been readin’, but I’m in one of my phases in which I just can’t finish anything. Nothing quite scratches the itch, ya know? So I thought to myself, I thought, “Hey, man, I really enjoyed Elizabeth Hand’s novella Wylding Hall. And I liked Generation Loss. Maybe I should read something else by Hand.” I’m clever. I know things. So I went to the library and found Black Light (HarperCollins, 1999). And I’m here to tell you I walked away a little sad. And a little hungry. But that didn’t have anything to do with the book.

Paperback edition.

Paperback edition.

Black Light begins promisingly enough. Teenager Charlotte “Lit” Moynihan lives in the New York village of Kamensic, a quaint little town inhabited mainly by actors and their families. Lit’s parents, for instance, are both on television. Lit’s neighbor, Hillary, is her best friend and occasional lover. Ali, a bit of a stoner, completes the triad. The first third of the book faithfully recreates the seventies teenage experience. The crew skips school, drinks, and listens to music. All right, all right, all right. And the entire town looks forward to the Halloween party to be hosted at Bolerium, the estate owned by Alex Kern, Lit’s godfather.

The first half of Black Light is quite strong. Hand is particularly gifted when it comes to setting and atmosphere. Hand describes Kamensic with just the right degree of detail; readers will find themselves envisioning the village. But there is something “off” about Kamensic. The graveyard is full of tombstones that feature sculptures of animal heads. The roads leading to and from the village never seem to be in the same place twice. And, as Halloween approaches, every family hangs creepy terracotta masks on their doors. Seriously, it’s weird.

E-book edition.

E-book edition.

And…then things stall. Soon enough Lit is bundled off to Kern’s party where, it is not-so-subtly hinted, she will play a starring role. And it might have something to do with a giant horned god with a massively erect phallus, of which Lit had a vision earlier that day. Hand begins to reveal the mysteries behind Lit’s dreams, Alex Kern, and the party. Suffice it to say that there are religious themes, of a sort, with which Hand has dealt before; she studied anthropology in university. But it all becomes somewhat muddled. There are secret societies that are facing off against one another, and of course Lit is caught in between.

The party takes up the entire second half of the book, and, sadly, seems interminable. Lit wanders Bolerium looking for her friends. Lit experiences visions. Lit engages in weird rites. Drugs. Orgies. Dead gods. It all just sort of meanders, much like the labyrinthine Bolerium itself. In keeping with its apocalyptic themes, Black Light ends not with a bang, but with a whimpered “meh.” Recommended mainly for hardcore Hand aficionados.

Similar books:

  • For my comments on Generation Loss and Wylding Hall, see my post on my “Winter of Discontent.”
  • If you like atmospheric horror novels that start off strong and then peter out, consider Adam Nevill’s The Ritual.

6 thoughts on “Review: Black Light, Elizabeth Hand (1999)

  1. Tammy

    Your description of the story reminds me of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s funny, I’m reading a book right now where the first half takes place at a party, and it was pretty boring. But now that the party’s over, things are picking up. Guess we’re just not party people, eh?

  2. nikki @ book punks

    “I mean, we’re blogging about books. I think that says it all.”


    I can’t decide if this sounds totally awesome or the total opposite. I do have Wylding Hall on my list though. How did you feel about that one?

    1. booksbrainsandbeer Post author

      I mean, I take my Kindle to parties b/c I know there will come a time when I have to “tap out.” Too many stimuli. I *really* liked Wylding Hall and would love to see your take on it.

  3. fromcouchtomoon

    I mean, I’m still really interested in Elizabeth Hand’s work. She writes perceptive forewords to books I really enjoy, commenting on things that I liked about them, and I think I’ve run across an essay or two of hers that I liked, so it seems she would write books I would similarly appreciate. Too bad Black Light didn’t work out, but thanks for the reminder about Wylding Hall.

    1. booksbrainsandbeer Post author

      I’ve had a good experience with Hand, a neutral one, and now a bad one, so it’s pretty even. I really enjoy her prose, so I intend to read more. Waking the Moon is supposed to be quite good, too; Black Light is something of a prequel to it.


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