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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.

Review: Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

Once, during my senior year of college, when I was immersed in the study of early American Puritanism, I came as close as one can to experiencing the inner lives of our ancestors, people who really believed not only that our lives had some higher meaning, but also that that meaning could be known, that it was made manifest in signs and omens. Stomping along, lost in thought, I wondered what it might have been like to hear in the crackling leaves behind you the creeping of Satan, or to expect the devil to leap out at you from behind the crook of a tree. And, for a brief moment, I experienced the world with horror, and with wonder.

Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

And then I snapped out of it, because I am a modern, educated rationalist. (I may be revealing my prejudices here.) Christine Wicker is, too, but she’s made a career writing about people’s beliefs. Wicker wrote about the cradle of American spiritualism in Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to Its Dead. She turns her attention to Americans’ magical beliefs in Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America (HarperCollins, 2005). Wicker is writing about the magical because she’s “convinced that when a good number of people start to do something that makes no sense to the society at large, when they cling to it for a long time and increasing numbers of people take it up, they’re on to something.” She’s not altogether successful in her aims.

Wicker begins by dumping readers into a magical gathering held, aptly enough, in Salem, Massachusetts. (Never mind that the witch trials took place in what is, today, nearby Danvers.) Wicker introduces readers to vampires, witches, and werewolves. All manner of peculiar things happen, although, of course, none of it is obviously supernatural. Wicker is setting the stage for her exploration of what she claims is a surge in modern Americans’ belief in magic. Whether or not there is really a definitive change in the national attitude towards magic is less certain. Wicker notes, briefly, American religious history, including the fact that, for most of the past several centuries, the majority of Americans and their ancestors have been “unchurched.” In other words, contrary to the common wisdom, most Americans have never formally belonged to a particular religious tradition, in the sense that they attended church every Sunday, and so on. Likewise, America has a history of the occult dating to its earliest settlement that has also informed Americans’ supernatural beliefs. (See my review of Occult America.) The trend that Wicker notes, then, is perhaps less dramatic than she asserts.

Wicker’s survey of the breadth of American magical belief is necessarily impressionistic. Although she covers a wide swath of the magical “community” (I use quotes only because the term may imply a cohesion that is, in reality, absent), she cannot get to it all. Wicker remains at a “helicopter level” in the first section of the book, which is more general. Still, the reader is never certain just how many Americans might be involved. Magical belief is, by nature, informal, and data not readily available. (“Magic,” too, is a slippery term, bleeding, as it does, into “mainstream” religion.) Still, Wicker manages to touch on Wiccans, practitioners of hoodoo, and “Otherkin” (people who believe they are lycanthropes, elves, and so on). Extensive portraits of several individuals provide readers deeper insights into certain strains of magical belief.

Lily Dale

Lily Dale

To some degree, every book is about its author, and such is the case with Not in Kansas Anymore. Wicker is forthright about her Baptist upbringing, before the denomination gave itself over to the evangelicalism that peaked shortly after the millennium. She describes a poignant scene in which, as a teenager, she convinces her father to attend a Pentecostal service. The look of disapproval on his face, as he sits patiently observing the pastor’s histrionics, will be immediately recognizable to most readers, and sets the stage for Wicker’s transition to skepticism. She is avowedly atheist, but retains her interest in the supernatural, aptly, as a journalist. Still, to her credit, Wicker is sympathetic to her subjects; she does not put them down or demean them. It is clear, though, that Wicker retains at the core of her being her stubborn Baptist morality, which sometimes interferes with her explorations of the more libertine aspects of the magical community.

Ultimately, Wicker finds meaning in her study of magic. She participates in hoodoo, is blessed by a voodoo priest, and, near the close of the book, takes the Eucharist at Westminster Cathedral. Wicker, rationalist that she is, realizes that magic, or religion, or whatever one might call it, affords meaning to its adherents: “You can call it religion, you can call it spirituality, you can call it magic. Maybe what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t settle for being cut off, that you take the power, that you demand the completeness of human experience…What we must not do…is allow ourselves to be cut off from our own experience of life as it presents itself to us.” Amen to that. Not in Kansas Anymore is an intermittently successful look at Americans’ “fringe” magical beliefs and Wicker’s own relationship with them. General in scope, it’s accessible to the average reader, and serves as a primer for certain movements, for instance, hoodoo and Wicca. Recommended for readers interested, but who do not have a background in, American religious and occult belief.