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Cass Neary, the narrator and protagonist of Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary crime novels, photographs the dead and dying.
In her furious punk days on the Lower East Side in the 1970s where the first book in the series, 2007’s Generation Loss, begins, Cass tells us: “I shot an entire roll of film of a kid who’d OD’d in the alley early one morning… I thought [the photographs] were beautiful. Slow exposure and low light made the boy’s skin look like soft white paper, like newsprint before it’s inked. His head was slightly upturned, his eyes half-open, glazed. You couldn’t tell if he’d just woken up or if he was already dead. One hand was pressed upon his breast, fingers splayed. A series of black starbursts matted the crook of his bare arm; a white thread extended from his upper lip to the point of one exposed eyetooth. I titled the photograph “ ‘Psychopomp.’”
Old habits die hard for Cass.
Not only does she go on to “bridge the gap between two camps, photography and punk” with a widely acclaimed book of her moribund photos, Dead Girls (a nod by Hand to Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman) but throughout the rest of Generation Loss and into its sequels, Available Dark (2012) and Hard Light (2016), Cass finds herself embroiled time and again in web-work plots of death and madness that never fail to provide her with readymade subjects upon which to enact her photographic necromancy. As the villain in Generation Loss utters to Cass in a climax that rivals Agent Starling’s night-vision pursuit of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, “You and me, we carry the dead on our backs.”
“[Cass] is a Valkyrie figure,” Hand told me by Skype from the living room of the house she shares with her partner, the British literary critic John Clute, in coastal Maine.
It’s a term that translates from the Old Norse to “chooser of the slain.” As Hand defines it, “the ones who would determine who had died a good death, who was worthy of going to Valhalla and who was not.”
Physically, too, the allusion is apt. In the books, Cass is straggly blonde and drug-thin, in a battered black leather jacket and gold-tipped Tony Llama boots that, in Cass’s judgment, “weren’t good for dancing, but I could kick the shit out of someone if he lunged for me and be gone before his knees hit the floor.” Some of Cass’s preemptive aggression is due to the fact that when she was a “young bisexual punk” stalking the dimly lit streets surrounding CBGB’s, she was dragged into a car and raped. “There was a knife,” she keeps repeating in regard to that night, as though it absolves her of not fighting back. In the prelude to Generation Loss, Cass gets a tattoo in script—“Too tough to die”—across her stomach. She’s a savage female warrior by way of Diamanda Galas or Chelsea-era Patti Smith.
Cass Neary is also an outsider artist, which Hand, her creator, won’t let us forget. She lives in a lightless and cruddy apartment. She has dueling addictions to whiskey and crank. She photographs against the times—never in digital, always “Tri-X,” which, according to Cass, “doesn’t have as fine a grain, it’s a colder film, it can be raw. It’s perfect for what I do.”
“She has issues with mental illness,” Hand says. “Severe dissociativeness.” In the books this fuels her brilliance, her drive to never look away.
Over the course of the Cass Neary novels—Hand is busy now writing the fourth—Cass has the ability to transform, through the lens of her Konica, scenes of senseless destruction and violence into objects of uncanny beauty. This is what lies at the heart of the books and finally what makes them special: Cass’s world is one where ugliness and beauty are rendered indistinguishable, the former becoming so omnipresent at times that it projects Cass and her transformative visions of death into the realms of the sublime. The novels themselves combine the taut menace of Patricia Highsmith and Megan Abbott with the nascent supernaturalism of Sarah Waters and Tana French, as scored by The Buzzcocks and Cocteau Twins.
What they all share in common, however, is art, captured darkly in a lens.
“There definitely are people out there living out on that edge,” Hand says. “A lot of them would fall under the umbrella-rubric of the outsider artist. I find their work especially interesting. Looking at the work of these artists, you get this powerful sense of the emotional state of the person who created it. And in some work, these two things dovetail—where you get an emotional sense of the creator, and you have someone who’s very talented—the work can be extremely powerful. What is it like to be that person? A lot of my work over the past 15 years,” Hand says, “is an ongoing exploration of what it’s like to be an artist.”
Hand’s next project after completing the fourth Cass Neary book is to write a novel exploring the life of the reclusive and macabre outsider artist Henry Darger.
Like the novels of Cormac McCarthy or the stories of Flannery O’Connor, the Cass Neary novels are populated by a wide array of disturbed, hermitic visionaries who lie in wait for Cass in isolated locales across the globe: islands off the coast of Maine, Scandinavian forests, the storm-swept moors of Penwith, England. Art is what carries Cass into their orbits—usually, photos of horrible things—and art is what delivers her, narrowly, to safety. But instead of wielding bibles as they would in O’Connor or scalping knives as in McCarthy, Hand’s visionaries wield paintbrushes and cameras, electric guitars and microphones. Frequently, they’re abject villains—and yet only villains in relation to Cass, no dandelion herself.
In every violent act is art, while art becomes a kind of violence.
There’s the photographer in Generation Loss, driven insane by mercury vapors and given to texturing his photos with a noxious mixture of egg whites and bird feathers, who ties up a kidnapped girl in a shower stall “in fives inches of black water” “duct tape across her eyes, where he had drawn circles in Magic Marker… a scrawled star… in one of them.” Surrounding her are snapping turtles, “scrabbling at her head and arms.”
Or the black metal guitarist in Available Dark—roughly modeled after Ghaal of the Norwegian band Gorgoroth—who marches Cass from his Quonset hut amid the frozen wastes to a “boiling pool” ringed with nascent “vermilion and lapis lazuli” where he orchestrates a man’s execution-by-guitar-string, “a scythe of light and then a black tongue of blood lapping at [his] chest.”
Hand herself is a bit of an outsider artist. While she lives in the Camden Town neighborhood of North London for part of the year, which Hand describes as “crowded and noisy—vibrant […] what the Lower East Side in New York used to be like,” she spends much of her year in Lincolnville “a small rural town” off the central coast of Maine. Here, Hand says: “There’s a rich history of people living in a sideways fashion.”
When she’s in London, Hand “chains herself” to a carol in the British Library with the wireless turned off, but most of the time she works in a little cottage two miles from her house which she bought 26 years ago and which to this day remains her office.
“When I bought it it wasn’t quite a teardown,” says Hand. “It was 300 square feet. It had no running water. It had no indoor plumbing. There were big holes in the floor. It was un-insulated. A group of my friends here, who are all carpenters or contractors or plumbers, actually had a meeting before I bought it. They said: We have to talk her out of this. I was eight months pregnant at the time.”
Living off the grid in such a provisional manner is more or less a thing of the past for Hand. Her son is 24, her daughter 26. The cottage, which Hand describes as a “tiny hobbit house,” now has “a composting toilet, water pumped up from the lake.”
“It’s purpose-built for me,” she says. “Any time I’m in the position of bemoaning anything in my life, I remind myself that I have it.”
It isn’t difficult to imagine Hand working away in her cottage, vaguely reminiscent of the property that foregrounds the terrifying climax of Generation Loss. She’s been hugely productive there over the years: Hand is the author of thirteen novels and four collections of short fiction, not to mention countless essays and reviews, film novelizations (including one for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), Star Wars books for middle-grade readers and, with Paul Witcover, DC Comics’ early 1990s riot-grrl-centered cult series, Anima, which featured DC’s first openly gay teenager.
Hands novels also run the gamut. Spanning genres (crime, horror, science fiction, fantasy) and even target audiences (YA, middle grade), Hand’s fiction is a testament to the power of the creative mind in constant motion.
1990s Winterlong, a dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy that draws comparisons to the MaddAddam books of Margaret Atwood, follows the besieged quest of a girl and her long-lost twin brother as they make their way through the ruins of a bombed-out Washington DC in pursuit of a green-eyed boy named Death.
A YA fantasy that flirts with domestic realism and Hand’s “favorite” of all her novels, 2007’s Illyria mashes up the conceits of “kissing cousins” and star-crossed lovers: two teens stranded together in the haze of their family’s theatrical past. That is, until they’re cast opposite one another in their high school’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and they must face the prospect of diverging paths through post-adolescence as their illicit relationship comes to light.
While 2015’s Wylding Hall, a novel of supernatural terror in the tradition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, interweaves the first-person POVs of British acid-folk band Windhollow Faire (a fictional referent to England’s own Fairport Convention), who isolate themselves at the titular drafty manor to record the album they hope will cement their reputation only to have their lead singer Julian vanish under circumstances tied to the occult, primeval nature of the countryside that surrounds them. Wylding Hall, winner of the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel—Hand is now a two-time recipient—is as disarming and transformative as anything Hand has written, precisely because of the fact that it refuses to conform to the tropes of the genre from which it cribs so readily. Wylding Hall itself doesn’t function as the malevolent entity it might in a more traditional story of the supernatural; it isn’t, as Hand affirms, “a character in the story.” Rather, it serves as a magnet around which the doom of Hand’s novel steadily coalesces. It’s a foil for the fears and the joys of the players.
“I love looking at houses,” Hand says. “Empty houses. If I could get paid to write nothing but descriptions of houses, I would.” Indeed, by her own admission, if Hand wasn’t a writer, she’d probably be an interior designer.
Hand’s is a restless and modular creative energy. This isn’t just because Hand is working in the tradition of the great genre experimenters—Brian Evenson, Samuel Delaney, Leena Krohn; it’s also a matter of necessity. “Certain writers do like to do the same thing over and over again, and if that’s where your talent lies, that’s great,” Hand says. “I get bored.”
All the same, switching among genres so often has forced Hand to do lots of what she calls, “learning to write on the job.” When Hand began the Cass Neary novels, she says, “I was trying to write a straightforward neo-noir, and it was difficult to learn how to do that. I found out how reliant I was on writing lyrically about things. In passages when Cass is looking at a landscape or a work of art, I can bring in the big guns and go in for more of the powerful, descriptive writing I’ve used in my other work. The rest of the time it needs to be more stripped-down, though. It’s not my natural writing voice.”
Although this dualism is often manifest in the Cass Neary novels—from Available Dark, in a photo of a dead man lying in the snow with “a window, frame and all, smashed” against his face, “tongue lolling between crimson teeth,” “cheek… pierced by a triangular piece of glass [like] a tiny sun… the most brilliant thing in that surreal, glittering world”; or, from Generation Loss, in the eye of a dying woman, fixed on Cass, “a pinkish glaze [sheathing] the cornea, like a welling tear… [then] the tear darkening to scarlet as it spilled onto her cheek”—if the grimy staccato of noir doesn’t come naturally to Hand, it’s a strikingly naturalistic put-on.
Take the following passage from the beginning of Hard Light, in which Cass wanders through a sleeting London fresh off the harrowing climactic events of Available Dark in search of her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Quinn:
A kid in a knitted cap and filthy hoodie leaned against a wall stained with piss. A scrawny dog crouched at his feet. The boy looked at me without interest.
‘Wha’gwarn?’ he said. The dog whined softly.
I dug in my pocket until I found the scrap of paper where Quinn had scrawled a name—Derek somebody—and the name of a pub. ‘I’m looking for a place called the Gambrel.’
The kid blinked, his eyes so bloodshot they looked as though they’d been scooped from his skull. ‘Dinno.’
‘Rawlins Street,’ I said. ‘Know where that is?’
He gestured vaguely toward the corner. ‘Electric Avenue, ask ‘im.’
‘I asked you.’ I tapped my foot, the tip of my boot ringing against concrete. The mongrel’s head shot up, black lips taut against long yellow teeth, its rolling eyes the same raw crimson as the boy’s. I held its gaze until it turned its head sideways, still watching me.
‘He likes you.’ The kid grinned. ‘Or he’d’a tore your throat out. Rawlins off Electric Avenue.’
I nodded thanks. ‘What’s your dog’s name?’
I tossed the boy a pound coin and headed back out into the freezing rain.
Hand ushers us into the chiaroscuro of her world with great precision and here, notably, little contrivance. The cohesiveness of detail in this passage—the “wall stained with piss,” the “scrawny dog” with its “black lips taught against long yellow teeth,” the kid’s “eyes so bloodshot they looked as though they’d been scooped from his skull”—is striking. Cass is, and knows she is just “meat,” powered by the crank she snorts and the pills that she filches from medicine cabinets. Which isn’t to say that Cass is amoral—she has a “conscience,” Hand insists—only that she moves so fast that she scarcely has time to look back on what drives her. Countless are the moments in all three books where Cass, trembling in her perennially insufficient black leather jacket, feet numb with cold in her cowboy boots, will glimpse her haggard visage in a shop-front or mirror and choose to drink herself to sleep, or pop some pills and keep on trucking.
“I felt strung out, wasted in every sense of the word,” Cass tells us at the beginning of Available Dark, “terrified of sleep and almost as afraid to leave my squalid apartment. The edge where I’d lived for all these years was starting to look like a precipice.”
When I asked Hand if writing Cass takes a toll on her, she said, “My mother was saying just the other day, ‘Let her get a hot meal! Let her take a shower!’ The Cass books were, and are, emotionally draining to write.”
As with Benjamin Black, aka John Banville’s alcoholic medical examiner Quirke, or Lee Child’s genially sociopathic gun-for-hire Jack Reacher, Hand is also quick to attest that writing Cass amounts on any number of levels to an act of self-possession.
“A lot of her character derives from me when I was a lot younger,” Hand says. “No one could live her lifestyle and survive. It’s not a wish fulfillment kind of thing, but it was easy for me to channel. I have a sort of litmus test for her: if she’s going to do something, no matter how fucked-up it is, I have to be able to conceive of myself doing that on my absolute worst day.”
Hand, like Cass, is tall and tow-headed, with lively, penetrating eyes. There’s something in Hand’s mannerisms, as well, that give off the vibe of her fondest creation: a dark, lonely wryness, tinged with faintest melancholy. And Hand, like Cass, is punk as fuck, which she wears in the form of a full-sleeve tattoo; a mussed, pageboy haircut, gone dark at the roots. Like Grace Krilanovich’s Lynchian novel of crusty-punks in the Pacific Northwest, The Orange Eats Creeps (2010), or Jeremy Saulnier’s anxiety-producing siege thriller Green Room (2015), Hand’s Cass Neary novels get the punk milieu right.
In describing Cass’s relationship to the musical genre of her youth, Hand finds it most expedient to quote the Public Image Ltd song, “Rise”: “Anger is an energy.” Cass Neary possesses no shortage of that.
These novels are a literary paean to art being made under bad circumstances and in response to awful things. The process is one of compression for Cass: when evil presses down on good, the freak of consequence is grace. Cass’s personal demons and her photographic eye evoke a change in what she captures: ugliness turns to beauty, and death into life. The senselessness of life seems sacred.
After battling a psychotic loner in coastal Maine, Scandinavian nihilists in Norway and Finland, and crime families in London, in Hand’s fourth Cass Neary novel, The Book of Lamps and Banners, Cass will face off with a sect of white nationalists in Sweden.
When I asked Hand whether or not she felt that Cass, a hard-charging and singular woman, would be a “handy tool” going forward into the repression and misogyny presumably to be found in the Trump years, she said: “Cass isn’t a good organizer. She’s a lone wolf. She sees herself as amoral but she recognizes evil when she sees it because she’s aware of the role it’s played in her own life. Rage is an appropriate reaction.”