So much fantasy relies on the author's having read Fraser's The Golden Bough or Robert Graves' The White Goddess and nothing else. The White Goddess is a crank book, a crank book of genius of course, but all the same... Mind you, I found Waking the Moon cited in an article in a pagan magazine as an authority for the idea that there was a patriarchal brotherhood, the Benandanti, that have been running things since antiquity, with no mention of the fact that it is a novel, and a fantasy at that. People want to believe something, and so they swallow anything. From Elizabeth Hand's 'Intense Ornat' interview with Amazon UK (1999)

Our Winter Queen this year is Elizabeth Hand. Now we could have, as we've noted before, honoured the freshly turned New Year by feeding the Summer King a bowl of oatmeal and plying him with metheglin before we cut his throat and buried him ever so deep in the peat bog here on the Green Man estate, where archaeologists centuries from now would find him and write really truly boring dissertations about him and who sacrificed him. But instead we offer you, our dear readers, an edition devoted to our newest Winter Queen. Now don't you feel better about what we decided to do?

First, a few words on the matter of Winter Queens . . .

Now is the time for winter tales, while the world outside arraigns itself into shadow and light, stark and luminous as a photograph in black and white.

Now is the time for winter tales, when frost-thorns appear in the corners of windows as if the Winter Queen herself were idly etching lines in the glass with the icy diamond of her signet ring while she listens in on our tales of spirits that walk in the darkness.

Now is the time for winter tales; a mad song's best for winter, with the wild wind whistling up a reel of storm or the soft snow calling up pale whispering ghosts who seem to dance upon the air like hanged men.

Now is the time of the Winter Queen, with her dark tales of northern islands and the waking moon, careless Muses and wild children wearing jewelry of glittering stones set in tarnished tin.

Hail to the Winter Queen!

Are you ready for a winter's tale?

Winter Queen Speech

This year, from a Warrior Queen . . .

Winter War

I've lived in the northern hemisphere for my entire life, for the last twenty-two years in Maine, where significant first snow can fall on Halloween, as it did several years ago, as well as Easter, when it buried daffodils and tulips. When I travel it's usually to places even further north -- Canada, Great Britain, Finland, Iceland -- and often in the winter. Something in the dark pulls me, or rather impels me. Not to embrace it -- the long nights drive me to despair, and even the monochrome marvels of ice and snow grows wearing after months.

Rather, winter is an enemy I can see, and fight. The snow's still beauty turns treacherous when you hit a patch of black ice; the veil of icicles glittering outside the windows presages disaster when the sun finally appears and the ice dam melts, flooding the house.

And so I arm myself, and shovel out the walk and the woodpile and the roof. The snow thrown back forms a wall around the house, with a narrow moat between the front yard and the back, where firewood, negligently stacked by teenagers last summer, has frozen into a pyramid beneath blue tarpaulins. I exchange the shovel for a maul, an axe with a blunted blade, and attack the wood until I can get at the logs and carry them indoors to thaw then burn in the woodstove. There's something particularly satisfying about this part of the winter war, hacking the enemy then consigning it to the flames, though the flames fought back five years ago, when I woke at 3 AM to a din like jet turbines howling downstairs -- a chimney fire. I won that battle only after reinforcements arrived in the form of the volunteer fire department, dragging chains that they tossed down the chimney to loosen the burning embers. 'Your chimney's toast,' the fire chief told me.

So, a casualty, but not a living one. Then there are the constant skirmishes with freezing pipes and water pumps, the septic line and shingles battered by high winds; power outages, phone lines down, fallen trees. It's a battle I can't win against an enemy I come to hate, especially by March, the time of year where other places see the first crocuses and redwing blackbirds and spring peepers.

There's a saying here in Maine, spoken of an old-timer who dies before spring comes: "Eh, poor old Buster, he didn't make it over March Hill." Still, every year the enemy does retreat, and for those of us who make it through, the battle for March Hill leads us to the crack and boom of the thawing lake, the first peepers in the marsh, the return of loons within an hour of the last ice disappearing from the water's edge.

Of course, it's only an illusion that we've won the war. By July, we're stacking green firewood for the next campaign, clearing leaves from gutters and repairing ice damage to our roofs. Winter attacks us where we live: the price of peace of mind is eternal vigilance.

Still, in the midst of a storm, with the woodstove blazing and all the world outside silenced and transformed by falling snow, it's possible to make a truce with winter, and toast an adversary that, unlike most others, shares its beauty with us before it finally retreats, to wait and catch us sleeping when the days grow short once more.

A Somewhat Silly Interview with Elizabeth Hand (January 2010)

What are your favorite socks? I ask because winter makes me think very fondly about wool socks.

I never appreciated socks as a gift until several years ago, when Deb Newton and Paul Di Filippo gave me a pair of very pretty Smart Wool socks (and which they have done since then). So I am now a Smart Wool convert.

Speaking of which: the librarian's apprentice just smuggled this note to me; he wants to know what classification system Liz uses to shelve her books.

Well, here at the house where the novels fall under John's rule, they are arranged in perfect alphabetical, chronological (according to pub date) order. At Tooley Cottage, where I work, the books are nearly all reference books or other non-fiction, and are arranged according to subject matter, sort of. So all the books about human sacrifice are together, the books about Ancient Greece are together, Cornwall, Pagan Britain, poetry, etc. The biographies are piled on two high shelves that are in perpetual danger of falling. Christmas books are up in the tiny sleeping loft, along with ghost stories, sentimental favorites (The Once and Future King, Little Big, Laurie Colwin, James Salter, etc.), books about mushrooms, and the entire run of the original Sandman.  Dictionaries, thesauri, Katherine Briggs' four-volume Dictionary of British Folklore, and the like are on my desk or within reach.

What is your favourite music?

I have pretty catholic taste, too broad to list. I'm currently going through a True Norwegian Black Metal phase, long after Euronymous has left the building. And Django Reinhardt always cheers me up.

What do you seek?

The beckoning fair one: that which cannot be found.

Who are you? (Getting metaphysical there I think.)

A restless traveler.

What is your favourite colour?

Green

What is your favourite tattoo?

The Boy in the Tree, on my right calf, designed by tattoo artist Julie Rose and based on an image from the Japanese edition of Winterlong, which had fabulous Beardsley-esque illustrations.

So how do you like your eggs?

Soft-boiled.

What is your favourite breakfast?

My Dad's pancakes at family gatherings in Vermont, with real maple syrup (natch).

So describe your perfect cup of coffee.

Very hot, moderate amount of milk. In the winter, with a shot of eggnog.

What is your favorite winter beverage?

On cold nights I'll sometimes have a tot of single-malt Scotch in front of the woodstove. Hot chocolate (dark chocolate) is good, too (not with the Scotch). And red wine is always nice.

What book is most likely to make you remember being a kid at holiday time?

To be honest, my younger childhood Christmas memories are more tied up with movies than with books, watching stuff on TV with my brothers and sisters. Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol, The March of the Wooden Soldiers, Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life -- all those holiday chestnuts. I was always reading something, but it was seldom a Christmas-themed book; more likely whatever book I found under the tree Christmas that year. Lin Carter's anthology Golden Cities, Far, which my brother gave me when I was about 12; That Quail, Robert, from my grandmother; The Winter of the Fisher from my godfather; The Friendly Dolphins when I was about seven. I was big on animal books. When I got a bit older, I read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising and was enthralled by the notion of an endless snowstorm (probably why I moved to Maine).

Is there a story or book you reread every holiday time? What is your favorite winter tale?

Probably A Christmas Carol. I don't read it every year, but I did this past Christmas. And I always reread the chapter in The Sword in the Stone about Christmas at the Forest Sauvage , one of the most perfect evocations of Christmas ever written.

Robert M. Tilendis shares some thoughts about Elizabeth Hand's fiction...

It may seem odd at first, but I've been listening to the music of Linkin Park while thinking about the fiction of Elizabeth Hand. It does make a certain sense: for those who are not familiar, Linkin Park's music is dense, layered, textured stuff that started off in a rather broad genre -- 'metal' -- but tends to follow its own necessities. And the songs are about damage, about being helpless, trapped, about being lost and angry, about unexpected tenderness, and, sometimes, about the hope of redemption. If you're paying attention, it's not really very easy stuff.

There's a fair degree of resonance between that music and the fiction of Elizabeth Hand. Richard Dansky, in his review of Hand's first published novel, put it succinctly: 'Winterlong is not an easy book.' If that sounds too pat, Dansky elaborates: 'It challenges the reader from the first page -- really, the first sentence. . . . Those unprepared for its challenges will be swamped by the first few chapters.' Elizabeth Vail, in her review of Mortal Love, came to a similar conclusion: 'Throughout this wide-spanning, endlessly complex novel, I was overcome by the sensation similar to that of a child listening to an adult conversation.' They are talking, really, about the stylistic aspects of the book, the density, the inferential milieu, the richness of the text, the hints of things unexplained.

I had much the same reaction to the next two books in Hand's early trilogy that began with Winterlong, Aestival Tide, and Icarus Descending. I found Hand's settings 'dense and tasty' and noted that 'the world of the Ascendant Autocracy is a pretty depressing one . . . a mix that would give any sane person nightmares. . . . [T]here's a certain amount of discomfort in reading these books for anyone, I think, half aware of what's going on in the world.' That's a lead-in to what I'm coming to see as part of Hand's recurring themes: her worlds are not very nice places, when all is said and done, but the people who live there are used to it. That's a function of what I see as a sort of built-in for science fiction, which these books unarguably are, which it shares with fantasy: the minute you say 'what if?' you've set the stage for satire, and I think Hand's books have to be taken in that vein. There's a quality to Hand's settings and the people who inhabit them that I can't quite describe. She cites Jack Vance as an influence on that first trilogy, but the acid is not there. It's something else -- maybe what's left after the acid has done its work.

The same characteristics show up in Hand's Black Light, which most easily can be taken as fantasy. (Dansky also noted Hand's cavalier attitude toward genre boundaries. She's one of the few authors who can pull off that kind of blending without the seams showing.) Strangely enough, although Hand draws on mythic archetypes in this one -- the cyclic life and death of the Sacrificed God -- it's when she embeds those archetypes more deeply within her own creations that they resonate more clearly.

It's those creations -- the people who live in these books -- that, I think, provide the fascination. They're not particularly admirable, most of them. They are, by and large, trapped, and they don't seem to be able to do much about it -- or perhaps it's just that they don't try very hard. I noted in Aestival Tide that the only two characters who actually did anything, the only two who displayed any initiative, weren't even really human. And, while they are important characters, they are not the focus. What I take as Hand's archetypal character is Cass Neary from Generation Loss: 'Cassandra Neary is, to put it bluntly, a loser. . . . For the past twenty years or so, she has continued not to fight back, working at the Strand Bookstore as a stock clerk, stealing whatever catches her fancy that won't be noticed, and subsisting as much on booze and drugs as anything else.' Jack Finnegan, the center of Glimmering, is another one -- he doesn't do, he is done to. The real actors are, as often as not, mythic constructs -- Evienne/Larkin/Vernoraxia from Mortal Love, who haunts various men throughout time, Axel Kern from Blacklight, or Pandora from Bride of Frankenstein/Pandora's Bride, who, as Kestrall Rath noted, 'is desperate to avoid being recaptured by her creator, Henry Frankenstein, who is enraged that a creature he designed to be a mindless servant dares to defy him.' The mere humans are left to react. Some, like Lit Moylan in Blacklight and Cass Neary, at least have the possibility of breaking the pattern, but Hand doesn't give us more than the possibility.

Rath, in her review of Illyria, remarked that 'Hand does not distinguish romantic obsession from artistic obsession.' Obsession runs through these works like a game trail through a forest, sometimes almost hidden by overgrowth, but always there. From the fixation of the inhabitants of Araboth on the Prince of Storms and the ultimate and inevitable destruction of their city (Aestival Tide) to the determination of the energumens to rejoin their Father (Icarus Descending), to Cass Neary's twin obsessions -- damage and images -- to Maddy and Rogan's fascination with each other (Illyria), obsession -- an all-consuming fascination, and overwhelming desire -- is what drives these stories and gives characters such as Evienne/Larkin/Vernoraxia (Mortal Love) or Axel Klein (Black Light) their power.

Destruction seems to go hand in hand with obsession. Hand quite often sets her stories after an apocalypse, but as often as not, the apocalypse is ongoing, as in that first trilogy. It can equally be intimate, a personal apocalypse, as for Cass Neary, who loses the person she almost managed to love on 9/11, or the 'firestorm' reaction to Maddy and Rogan's involvement in Illyria. And sometimes the apocalypse is merely a matter of retreat and decay, as in Suanne's willing retreat form the world in 'The Saffron Gatherers,' which concludes the collection Saffron and Brimstone. It's built on impending disaster -- the corollary to Hand's apocalyptic vision is a deep realization of how vulnerable we are.

Hand balances all of this on a fulcrum built of ambiguity and inference. Vail's comment about 'adult conversations' has wide application here -- in fact, I take it as a fundamental characteristic. Sometimes the fulcrum is the story itself, as in 'Kornia' (Saffron and Brimstone), in which this ambiguity becomes a motive force. And that ambiguity is central to another characteristic that I found remarkable: Hand gives us, as often as not, conclusions without resolutions. Sometimes it's that hope of redemption -- hope doesn't allow for closure. Sometimes it's the realization that, no matter what ending point we think we have reached, the universe and the events that propel it go on. It's the inescapable narrative logic of Hand's storytelling that makes it work.

I've scratched the surface, I think, or barely more than that. Like the music of Linkin Park, Hand's fiction is layered, dense, not always very comfortable, and seldom easy. Which, after all, is what makes it worth reading.

 


 

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Words and music --

Kage Baker reading her The Empress of Mars novella

Peter Beagle reading his 'The Fifth Season'

An excerpt from Peter Beagle's forthcoming Here Be Dragons novel

A reading from Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn

Peter Beagle reading his 'Marty and the Messenger' story

Peter Beagle reading his 'Mr. McCaslin' story

Peter Beagle reading his 'None But A Harp er (Ibid.)'

Peter Beagle reading his 'The Rock in the Park' story

Peter Beagle reading his 'The Stickball Witch' story

An excerpt from Peter Beagle's forthcoming Summerlong novel

Elizabeth Bear reads her The Chains that You Refuse story

Black 47's 'Liverpool Fantasy' song

An excerpt from Paul Brandon's The Wild Reel novel

Tunes from Paul Brandon's old group, Rambling House

Tunes from Paul Brandon's new group, Sunas

Emma Bull and Will Shetterly's The War for The Oaks movie trailer

Nicholas Burbridge's 'Open House'

Cats Laughing's 'For It All' song

Charles de Lint performing his 'Sam's Song'

Gaelic Storm's 'Kiss Me' song

Christopher Golden's 'The Deal' story

The opening chapter of the first novel in Deborah Grabien's Haunted Ballad series, The Weaver and The Factory Maid

An excerpt from Deborah Grabien's Rock & Roll Never Forgets -- A JP Kinkaid Mystery

Will Harmon's 'The Oak King March' composed in honour of Peter Beagle and 'The Winter Queen Reel' composed in honour of Jane Yolen

Mattie Lennon on The Irish Rambling House

Mattie Lennon on Pat Murphy's Meadow

Chuck Lipsig on 'Star of Munster' variations

McDermott's 2 Hours' 'Fox on the Run' song

Jennifer Stwvenson's 'Solstice' story

Jennifer Stevenson reads her 'Solstice' story

An excerpt from James Stoddard's 'The High House'

Tinker's Own performing 'The Tinker's Black Kettle' which is a jig by Charles de Lint which is found in his The Little Country novel

A Vasen tune for your enjoyment

Cathrynne Valente's 'The Surgeon's Wife' story

Cathrynne Valente reading a selection titled 'The Tea Maid and The Tailor' from her The Orphan's Tales novel

Robin Williamson's 'Five Deniels on Merlin's Grave'

Author, artist and editor interviews --

Kage Baker

Peter Beagle

Peter Beagle Redux

Peter Beagle Once Again

Steven Brust

Emma Bull

Emma Bull and Will Shetterly on the War for the Oaks screenplay

Tom Canty

Glen Cook

Ellen Datlow and Gavin Grant of YBFH

Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint Redux

Gardner Dozois

Brian Froud

Toby Froud

Wendy Froud

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman Redux

William Gibson

Christopher Golden

James Hetley

Michael Kaluta

Patricia McKillip

James Stoddard

Catherynne Valente

Gordon Van Gelder

Charles Vess

Terri Windling

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Archived 6 March, 2010 1:50 PM PST LLS