Elizabeth Hand writes stories so disturbing, you almost wish you hadn’t read them. Her novels fall into different genres — sci-fi, horror, fantasy, mystery — but they all clot at the darker end of the literary spectrum. It has been more than 20 years since I read “Waking the Moon,” Hand’s much-celebrated pagan fantasy tale set in Washington, but scenes from that uncanny novel haunt me still. And Hand’s supernaturally inflected Cass Neary crime novels make mincemeat out of the assumption — still held by many an unwary reader — that mysteries are mere diversions, designed to pass an empty hour and then be forgotten. No way that’s true of “Hard Light”: This third novel in the Cass Neary series fades away as stubbornly as a bloodstain.
“A stolen passport will only get you so far,” Cass comments in the snap-to-attention opening line. Brazenly flashing the passport of another lanky woman “of a certain age with substance abuse issues,” Cass has turned up at Heathrow in flight from a nasty time (a sudden volcanic eruption and a pileup of murdered corpses) in Iceland. The plan is that she’ll rendezvous with Quinn — her sometime lover and a seasoned contract killer — at a pub in Brixton. Easier said than done.
Cass, a photographer who has lived most of her outlaw life in a rent-stabilized apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, is disoriented by her maiden arrival in London during a torrential rain-and-sleet storm. (An overhead TV in Paddington Station displays scenes of devastation and a news crawl that declares: “No end in sight to worst rains in 500 years.”) Clasping her travel satchel close, with its precious contents of her old-school Konica and canisters of black-and-white film, Cass makes her way through twisting streets flooded not only with water but also with drunk businessmen, junkies and homeless kids. The elusive Quinn briefly surfaces and then disappears. Adrift, Cass gets caught up in the dark undertow of a cult film called “Thanatrope,” which was immediately pulled on its initial release in the 1970s. As Cass learns the hard way, the controversial film retains the power to destroy lives.
Although the fictional “Thanatrope” is decidedly malevolent, whenever Hand describes its lingering eeriness, she may as well be describing the power of her own writing. As Cass says after watching a few scenes: “The images were so weirdly oneiric — more nightmarish than dreamlike . . . . They reminded me of the night terrors I’d experienced in the last few months, the fear of some black arachnid nesting in my skull, unraveling the neural web that was my own consciousness.”
Hand’s tale, too, burrows in deep. Part of its power derives from the sheer exuberant strangeness of Hand’s storytelling. This odyssey takes Cass from London — where she’s forced by a criminal kingpin to work as a courier for a stolen-antiquities ring — to a ramshackle cottage in the wilds of Cornwall, where survivors and descendants of the original “Thanatrope” cast and crew still carve out an existence, of sorts.
Hand is also unflinching in her depiction of her bad-girl antiheroine. Cass has much in common with Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, but Cass is older and more grimly set in her antisocial ways and black-stovepipe-jean wardrobe; she seems even more fringe than Lisbeth, who still has time left for therapy and second chances. Coming back to consciousness after being poisoned (for snooping around into some curious deaths associated with “Thanatrope”), Cass tells us: “I hastily sat up and splashed water on my face. I’d been living so long on speed and alcohol that the bones in my hands stood up like the tines of a rake.” Cass is someone you’d probably choose not to sit next to on Amtrak, but who you’d want nearby when things get really weird.
As they do here. The spooky finale of “Hard Light” leads readers deep into a macabre murder scene — courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe — that holds clues to the beginning of the art of photography itself. It’s a bravura ending that both lays some questions to rest and exhumes even more freshly disturbing images to trouble a reader’s peace of mind.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Elizabeth Hand
Minotaur. 359 pp. $25.99