Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Scary Neary: Punk Shaman and Death’s Photographer

By Randy Stafford

Hand, Elizabeth. Generation Loss. Small Beer Press, 2007. Kindle USD $5.95. ASIN: B00140IU98.

Hand, Elizabeth. Available Dark. Minotaur Books, 2012. Kindle USD $9.99. ASIN: B00603TY5S.

There is plenty of crime in the Cass Neary novels of Elizabeth Hand. That’s why they’re labeled crime fiction. And a fair amount of that crime is committed by Cass herself. Hand has described her as “a prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily-tattooed American female photographer.”

I don’t know if they’re noir, but they’re dark. Cass’ faded, cult reputation is based on her book Dead Girls, photos of the dead, dying, and psychologically damaged.

They’re also weird books. They don’t read like urban fantasy or occult detective stories. Keeping with the photographic theme, they feel like street photos taken through a filter passing light you can’t quite describe.

Whether Hand started out intending Generation Loss to be that way is not clear. In an interview” in the December 2007 issue of Locus, she said the novel’s weirdness was “built in from the get-go and didn’t get lost in subsequent versions.” However, in a recent interview on the Coode Street Podcast, she said the supernatural elements just crept into the novel unplanned.

(This isn’t a review, so spoilers are ahead. Go ahead and read the novels first. They’re short.)

If you’re not primed to expect them, the weird elements in Generation Loss might seem just odd metaphors in a character study or the sort of implausible preternatural elements criminals and detectives frequently exhibit in some crime dramas. For instance, think of Hannibal Lecter’s escape in The Silence of the Lambs, Hand’s inspiration for Generation Loss.

When Cass is 14, she sees, in the sky above a field, a black-and-yellow-gray whorl that becomes a “vast striated eye that was all pupil, contracting upon itself but never disappearing” and a buzzing fills her ears.

On the night before her 17th birthday, she dreams of a “man with green-flecked eyes.” Cass is short for Cassandra and this is the first of her prophetic visions.

It’s the first, but not the last, time we meet a man of green eyes. They won’t all be, like the dreamed man, “mocking and oddly compassionate.” That description fits Gryffin Haselton, the subject of Cass’ unconsummated erotic fixations in Generation Loss. But, while they’re green-eyed, Quinn O’Boyle, Cass’ first lover, and Denny Ahearn, Gryffin’s father, are not compassionate. They’re murderers.

As she puts it, Cass, as a seer, can:

smell damage; it radiates from some people like a pheromone. Those are the ones I photograph. I can tell where they’ve been, what’s destroyed them, even after they’re dead. … I knew that I had an eye, a gift for seeing where the ripped edges of the world begin to peel away and something else shows through.

Cass prowls New York City at night, photographing dead junkies and the denizens of the late 1970s’ punk rock scene. Hand, in that Coode Street Podcast interview, cites Arthur Machen as a source of inspiration for some of her work. Neary wandering the city in search of that “ripped edge of the world” reminded me a bit of Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal” and “Novel of the Iron Maid,” stories of odd events following nocturnal wanderings in London.

All this weirdness is introduced in the first three chapters of Generation Loss. The third chapter ends with “a blinding light” appearing, day or night, in her right eye. When she reaches age 48, a new phase of her life begins, and so do the mysteries of Generation Loss and Available Dark.

Cass is not really attempting to solve mysteries in these novels. In the first, she accepts jobs to interview Gryffin’s mother, Aphrodite Kamestos, a legendary and reclusive photographer, and a formative influence on Cass’ “career.” In the second book, she is hired to authenticate some secret, beautifully composed crime scene photographs.

In unmasking the two main murderers of both stories, she is motivated by an obsessive need to see the dark and bleak beauty of photographed death – and the photographers behind the pictures – not pursuing justice.

Cass, in these novels, notes events but does not claim unearthly powers for herself. Only others do that on occasion.

When she goes to Maine’s Burnt Harbor in the first novel, she does not make an obvious connection between her dream of three decades in the past and meeting the green-eyed Gryffin and Denny. When she first meets Gryffin and senses a great damaged quality to him, it turns out he is a mirror of sorts. It is her own damage Cass senses and not his.

The conclusions Cass reaches in that first novel, and that take her to the junk palace of Denny Ahearn’s house, are seemingly reached by natural and not supernatural means: snooping through Aphrodite’s house, her expertise in photography, and her self-professed ability to recognize someone else who is crazy and the gender of a photographer from their pictures.

But then things begin to get mythic.

In a gothic climax, Cass sets off to confront Denny in his island seclusion. Tall, blonde and carrying a boat hook, Cass describes herself as “a gaunt Valkyrie holding a spear taller than I was.”

Valkyries take the dead from battlefields to Valhalla after they have selected who will die. While there are no battlefields in either of these novels, Cass has, by this point, symbolically fulfilled these roles. Somewhat complicit in Aphrodite’s death, Cass photographs its final throes. Thus, she has brought death. In a sense, Cass’ photographs have brought Aphrodite an afterlife of sorts.

Valkyries were often associated with ravens. In her journey to Denny’s, it is a crow that shows the remains of one of Denny’s victims.

Denny, crazed from mercury poisoning and grief, sees himself, like his totemic animal the snapping turtle, as ferrying the living to the land of the dead via his murders and photographs of their remains. (At one point, Cass says if she has a totem, it’s punk rocker Joey Ramone: “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!”)

When they finally meet, Denny reveals that his machinations brought Cass to Burnt Harbor. He regards her as a kindred spirit:

“We have the eye. … When I saw your pictures, that was when I knew. … You and me, we carry the dead on our backs. We write on the dead. Thanatography – we invented that. … A bridge between the worlds, we carry the dead to be reborn.”

Obvious weirdness plays no part in the concluding events of Generation Loss. But, looked through the lens of myth and the events of its sequel, some have symbolic significance. Cass most definitely shepherds the living from the world when she sets Denny on fire. The light in her right eye seems to have prophesized a wound Denny gives her there.

That wound turns out to have portent at the conclusion of the next novel, Available Dark. In every sense, that novel is more infused with the supernatural and weird than its predecessor. However, it can still be read as a straight crime novel, too. There’s also no doubt, with the second novel, Hand is quite self-consciously channeling dark waters of mystery and myth beneath the streets and roads of her main crime plot.

Both novels have a cast of characters mostly united by their past dabblings in occultism and myth. Those interests reflect an unearthly tinge on their stories, even if you read them as having no real supernatural content.

In Generation Loss, Denny founds the 1970s commune Oakwind, a project mixing the theories of philosopher Micea Eliade with various religions. One character describes it as:

“Denny, he was into that kind of woo-woo stuff. That commune of his, they got into all kinds of ritual shit. Well, they called it religion. I called it ripping off the Indians. Native Americans, I mean – they were crazy for that kind of stuff. After they finished the Buddhists and the Hindus and the God knows what else. All those off-brand religions.”

The faith connecting the past of most of the characters in Available Dark is Ásatrú or Odinism. Ramshackle syncretism, like Denny’s beliefs, this is not. Rather, it is a particular strain of neo-paganism practiced by characters from Finland, Norway, Iceland, and America. They are attempting to restore the Scandinavian religion of pre-Christian times. It is a faith that includes human sacrifice, as shown by the famous bog burials of strangled humans in prehistoric Northern Europe.

Denny kills alone, but the cult of Odinists, before they went their separate ways, killed as a group. And human sacrifice is practiced by this cult, in the past and at the climax. Some of the murders of the novel’s past were inspired the Jólasveinar AKA the Yuleboys. As Ilkka Kaltunnen, the fashion photographer who recorded those killings, explains:

“The Yuleboys. … A folktale, a Christmas legend used to scare children into being good. The Jólasveinar are trolls. The original legends were quite frightening. Now they’re utterly commercialized, like the Smurfs – cartoons to sell Christmas cards and toys. Like everything else in our heritage, they have been corrupted by Christianity and capitalism. … The Jólasveinar go creeping around your house in the thirteen days before Christmas, and one visits each night. Gluggagægir is the Peeper: He spies in windows. Then there’s Hurðaskellir, Door Slammer; and Þvörusleikir, Spoon Licker; Lampaskuggi, Lamp Shadow; and Ketrókur, Meat Hook …. “

Kaltunnen’s photos are the technological equivalent of the Odinist symbol of the Gripping Beast, three skeletal hands gripping each other, a face in the middle. It represents the unity of past, present, and future. And so does a photograph – the past when it was taken, the present of the viewer, and the future of other viewers. Those pictures were Kaltunnen’s attempt to resurrect an old faith with new rituals.

Available Dark‘s plot has much more violence than its predecessor. The bodies pile up behind Cass as she leaves Finland to visit Iceland, current home of Quinn. He has contacted her after they each went their own way decades ago. Regular weirdness fills the background: church burnings, murders, Norwegian death metal music, and quotes from blood-soaked Eddic sagas. The first oddity shows up outside Kaltunnen’s Helsinki home by way of a talking raven.

When she reaches Iceland, Cass hears that Valkyries talk to ravens, which confirms the association of the first novel. That the raven was named Apu, Finnish for “thief,” further reinforces the association, since we see that Cass frequently filch drugs and photos throughout the novels.

Brynja, an ex-member of the cult, explains the meaning of that face in the middle of the Gripping Beast. It is Odin or Death. Once considered something of a seer among the Odinists, she describes Cass in ways that Denny did and also as a Valkyrie:

“Why would Quinn be scared of me?”

“I will tell you,” she whispered. “Because you carry the dead with you. On your skin – I can smell them.” She dug her nails into my palm. “‘On all sides she gathers hordes of the dead, back bent to bear them homeward to Hell. Shield-maiden, skull-heavy.’ That is you.”

The clearest statement that Cass has a wyrd, a mythic destiny, comes at the novel’s climax, another Gothic-like set-piece in the wilderness, this time in rural Iceland. Left to die from hyperthermia by the novel’s villain, Einar, Cass stumbles through the night. Another raven appears, this one to lead her to the safety of Galdur’s home.

He is Einar’s brother. He is brilliant and still dedicated to Odinism, unlike all the other characters, who have abandoned it in their lives. He is one that committed the sacrifices Kaltunnen photographed.

After he rescues her, Galdur is perturbed by Cass, finds her spooky. Before undressing Cass to warm her, Galdur thought her a man. She was led by a raven to his home. Her eye showing the damage from the recent events in Generation Loss. Ravens, cross-dressing, one eye. All are associated with Odin.

To top it off, it’s not just any night but Jöl, the holy night of the midwinter.

That her name is Cassandra just confirms Galdur’s belief Neary is special.

Galdur, playing a long riff on his guitar and keening – he was a noted guitar player in a death metal band – suddenly grabs Cass and demands to know what she has seen. He thinks she practices Seiðhr, sorcery, that, like Brynja and himself, Cass is a seer. As Pétur, Galdur’s lover, says:

“It is like a kind of seeing, or a kind of singing, that makes the forms of things unseen visible. It is usually women’s magic, but sometimes powerful men practice it too. Like Galdur.”

Galdur goes further, noting that Cass and Kaltunnen have the same eyes. And he doesn’t mean it in a literal sense. Both see a spiritual world Galdur is in touch with also.

It’s a holy night and there is a sacrifice: Einar. As most of the cult’s surviving cult members are reunited, Einar is ritually killed. Galdur declares Einar no longer a man and demands Cass photograph the sacrifice. But he also tells her, “I am not certain what you are.” Like the others who witness Einar’s murder, she is daubed with his blood. She is now part of Galdur’s world, not only in a legally culpable sense, but as an initiate in its mysteries.

Available Dark ends with Cass fleeing Iceland in a sort of disguise – a false passport. While she’s on the flight to London, a new volcano appears. A flight attendant mentions the old belief that it is “the gates of Hell opening.”

What that portends we will have to wait and see until the next Cass Neary novel, Hard Light, comes out next year.

Besides the obvious instances where Cass shows the powers of a seer, there is another sense in which she is a shaman, a cleanser of communities from the evil within them.

Both novels feature close-knit communities under threat from outside forces, threatened even to the point where their younger members are dying.

The Maine community of Generation Loss is being corroded by several forces:

” … the lobster fishery’s in trouble from shell disease, there was a red tide last year killed the clamming season. The Grand Banks are fished out. … the paper mills are shut down, and everyone’s buying their timber from Canada ’cause it’s cheaper. … Ten years ago, MBNA came in, hired people to work as telemarketers, and everyone thought that was the best thing ever happened. Then MBNA pulled out and everyone’s out of work again, only now they’re carrying a shitload of credit card debt. It sucks. Meanwhile, the tourists come and think this is fucking Disneyland.

Cass hears of several missing children and the climax of the story is the rescue of one, though Denny has killed others.

Cass’ extraordinary powers of observation show up when she begins to suspect Denny. Significantly, several Maine characters reject the notion that he could be a Unabomber, a Charles Manson, or a John Wayne Gacy type. While she arrives at her conclusion as much by her compulsive snooping through Aphrodite’s things as her gift for sensing damage, she still ends up eliminating an evil from the close-knit Maine community, a community that, at one point, is said to favor witch hunts against outsiders when things go wrong.

While the Maine community is not explicitly a racial one – though there are not, as far as I remember, any non-white characters in these novels, the community Cass deals with in Available Dark is such a community, specifically Scandinavians from Norway, Finland and Iceland who want a return to a pre-Christian culture.

But Iceland, like Maine, is under assault from outside forces.

Brynja says:

“Scandinavia is not like America, and Iceland is the safest place in the world. We still have few murders. But the Internet has changed everything. And immigration, and now the bank crash – people have become angry.”

Significantly, Einar, the villain, is a killer and a banker. His brother Galdur describes him as:

“He’s one of the útrás. What we call ‘outvasion’ Vikings, the bankers who stole everyone’s money and used it to buy English football teams and Porsches and build themselves mansions. Everyone in Iceland hates them. You can tell their houses because people throw red paint on the walls. Four years ago we were one of the richest countries in the world. Now it’s horrible: We have lost everything.”

And, like Denny, he has killed a young member of his community, Brynja’s brother Baldur, as well as others.

Cass’ revelation of Einar’s crime at novel’s end to Galdur and Pétur may be something like the stock detective assembling a crowd in a library to reveal the murderer. But it, and sensing Denny’s aberrant interest in photographing dead people, is based on the same supernatural talent she has for sensing damage in people and photographing it at the crucial second.

Cassandra Neary, dubbed “Cassandra Android” for her non-integration into normal human society, in the end stands outside both communities in these novels. In that way, she is different from a primitive shaman. She’s a punk shaman, amoral, stripped down, not bound by the old rules. She may view the world through a cracked lens – but it’s still good enough to sense the dangerous and damaged.

Wherever she ends up in the end.