Elizabeth Hand, Winterlong (Bantam Spectra, 1989)
Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong is not an easy book. It challenges the reader from the first page – really, the first sentence. It sprawls across genre boundaries as if they weren’t there, effortlessly mixing mythopoeic fantasy with horror with post-apocalyptic science fiction with Shakespeare. It is rich, filled to bursting with ideas that are so integral to the world and yet so thoroughly understood by the characters that there’s never a moment of slam-on-the-brakes exposition. And it is defiant; rape, incest, murder, torture, mutilation and prostitution are all here as natural outgrowths of Hand’s richly imagined and horrifying future and its inhabitants, not as hooks for a cheap morality play.
It is, in short, a book for grown-ups, readers disinclined to giggle over sexual peccadilloes or get lost when the narrative gears shift from a rain of biological weapons to the manifestations of an archetypal god. Those unprepared for its challenges will be swamped by the first few chapters, told from the point of view of the mad and maddening Wendy Wanders. She is among lunatics like herself, experimental subjects who can absorb the dreams of others with their blood, and the garden of shattered personalities she dwells in is in its final days. From the beginning, Wendy does not bother to explain herself. She knows who and what she is (or at least thinks she does) and the narrative she presents is for her own benefit, not the reader’s. In the response, the reader can only throw themselves in and learn as they proceed. So rich is the language, however, and so detailed the world, that putting together the pieces of what the heck Wendy is actually talking about is one of the real pleasures of the book. Finally coming to a place of understanding as to what she’s talking about is a small triumph, not because of obfuscation on Hand’s part, but rather because the world is so rich and carefully constructed that it can’t be summed up in a few sentences. It needs the fast immersion and the slow reveal.
More accessible is the tale of her separated twin brother, a high-end courtesan named Raphael Miramar, who dwells in the decadent society still inhabiting a ruined Washington D.C. His journey from privileged sexual plaything to degraded prophet of destruction is more straightforward, and the mysterious world he dwells in is bounded by social terms, not technological ones. But the backdrop for his wanderings is familiar, with its Sad-Eyed Lincoln and Zoological Park and hill where Senators once ruled.
The main thrust of the book’s narrative bounces back and forth between the twins as they embark on oddly parallel journeys. Each leaves their home and takes on a new identity; each finds a new tribe in the tottering edifice of this far-future Washington. And each has a crucial part to play in the retelling of one of the world’s oldest myths, one that must be played out no matter how the key players try to resist.
Winterlong’s future of dionysiac madness and end-of-the-world despair isn’t for everyone. Those looking for something straightforward and accessible may be better served to go elsewhere rather than run headlong into Wendy’s fevered narration. Those willing to persevere and look deeper, however, will find much to reward them. Winterlong is an old tale, told in a new way, and done so with verve, skill, and emotion.