This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Elizabeth Hand (1957–) is an American writer of cross-genre fiction who grew up in New York State. She has won the World Fantasy award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, Nebula Award, and Shirley Jackson Award for novels and short fiction, and she is the Author Guest of Honor for World Fantasy Convention 2012. Hand has long had an interest in outsider artists, and even her mainstream novel Generation Loss (2007) deals with that subject matter. As for her story “The Boy in the Tree,” a unique blend of the supernatural and science fiction reprinted in The Weird, it has its inspiration in real life: ‘I had my own encounter with the numinous in… 1974, when I had an epiphanic vision of a Dionsyian figure I named The Boy in the Tree’. The result is a tale both disturbing and beautiful, given more than capable tribute by our newest 101 Weird Writers contributor, Elwin Cotman.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
Our heart stops.
A moment I float beneath her, a starry shadow. Distant canyons where spectral light flashes: neurons firing as I tap into the heart of the poet, the dark core where desire and horror fuse and Morgan turns ever and again to stare out a bus window. The darkness clears. I taste for an instant the metal bile that signals the beginning of therapy, and then I’m gone.
The very structure of the paragraph disorients the reader. They are lost, cast without a net into a scene that could start any work of literary fiction, were it not for the disquieting double consciousness. The recurring themes of Elizabeth Hand’s prolific career are apparent in this opening: the tortured mentality of the artist, the melding of horror and desire, the need for intimacy. This is a poet’s memory, redacted through a voyeur, the stomach-wrenching sickness of the experience equaled by the pleasure of knowing another’s intimate thoughts. This strange (im)balance forms the crux of the narrator Wendy’s existence. In “The Boy in the Tree,” the young artist Hand interweaves themes of art, interpersonal relationships, the Dionysian, and the traumatic.
I was intrigued to find Elizabeth Hand’s work in a weird fiction anthology. The weird functions on the unexplained, yet I find Hand to be one of fantasy’s most grounded writers. Her novels, often contemporary, put such emphasis on the characters’ psychology that, no matter their self-destructive or outwardly destructive actions, the reader always understands what lead them to that point. Horrific? Yes. Sickening? Yes. Inexplicable? Only as far as the human mind is so.
Part of this psychology is desire, the obsessions that excite us. The other part is trauma, the hurts that define us. When desire and trauma meld, art is created, and it is these polar ends that guide Wendy through the story. Wendy is an empathy (or empty): an autistic woman raised in a laboratory, wiped of her own feelings, and trained since the age of three to share the painful memories of others. She can engage with traumas the way someone with feelings could not, with the stated goal being to extract these memories and lead patients toward better lives. It is established early on that the whole affair is funded by the distant, dystopian government, serving some devious purpose. More important, do humans want to lose their traumas, or does the loss of hurt signify a cruel amputation? Far from a benevolent enterprise, Wendy’s world is one of cold scientific logic, over-medication, and casual cruelty.
The act of neurological sharing is physically harmful in ways that Hand describes explicitly. At the onset of the story, Wendy is trying to make the poet Morgan forget a childhood memory of when she saw an infant killed: “Retching, I strive to pull Morgan away, turn her head from the window . . . A technician pulls the wires from my head while inches away Morgan Yates screams.” The pain is equally great for empath as well as patient, especially since the patient refuses to let go. It is the empath alone who benefits. “I’d siphoned off their sicknesses and night terrors, inhaled phobias like giddy ethers that set me giggling for days afterward.” She enjoys emotion for emotion’s sake, happily recalling “Morgan wailing as she stood at the window.” The pain of others not only gives her meaning, but provides the delight in her detached world.
As in later works like Glimmering and Mortal Love, there is a strong element of the Dionysian, of unchecked desire, equated with the titular Pan-like figure. This stems from Dr. Harrow, the monstrous mother figure who imprisons her empaths in a Garden of Earthly Delights. “Dr. Harrow believed that exposure to sensation might eventually pattern true emotions in her affectively neutered charges.” Thus, they live on the secluded Linden Glory estate, where “we had a minor Botticeli and many Raphaels; the famed pre-Columbian collection; antiquarian coins and shelves of fine and rare Egyptian glass.” It is a claustrophobic Eden. Here they live like the Lost Boys, shrouded in gaudy robes, discussing their ominous business over luncheons at the bistro-like dining area. The extravagant, and sexual, Renaissance paintings are complimented by imagery of the natural/pagan, “the brass door folded into a lattice of leaves and pigeons,” “an arch crowded with gilt satyrs.” What is meant to be a scientific atmosphere is, in fact, a revel culled from Harrow’s disturbed mind. Desire has bled into the very landscape of the lab, and its danger lurks under every page. The Boy in the Tree, representative of desire, first appeared to Harrow when she was a girl:
In the lower branches of the willow tree, the lone willow that feeds upon a hidden spring beside the sloping lawn, there is a boy. His eyes are green and lucent as tourmaline, and silvery moths are drawn to them. His hands clutch the slender willow-wands: strong hands, so pale that I trace the blood beneath, and see the muscles strung like young strong vines. As I watch he bends so that his head dips beneath a branch, new leaves tangling fair hair, and then slowly he uncurls one hand and, smiling, beckons my brother toward him.
The moment in the story where Harrow shares this moment with Wendy is unsettling for the reader; an intrusion of the supernatural into what had been, up until that point, science fiction. The abrupt switch in genre creates an entirely new mystery. In a way, Hand is replicating for the reader what the intrusion felt like for Harrow. Her encounter with the sublime, and the tragedy that results, leads her to replicate emotional violence on children. The woman is sweet-natured to Wendy one moment, and the next “squeezed [my hand] so tightly that I knew she wanted it to hurt.” Hand is interested not in how trauma is averted, but how it is internalized and dealt onto others. In her cruelty, Dr. Harrow seems just as much the adolescent as Wendy.
Wendy’s character is formed by arrested development. The 17-year-old is sexual, but in a pubescent way, touching and giggling with a fellow empath as they share Morgan’s memories. When Morgan comes to accuse Wendy that she “stole her dreams,” the empath can only respond with child-like derision and bullying. Unable to live without the trauma that fed her art, Morgan shoots herself in the eye, leading to one of Hand’s most striking passages:
I knocked my chair over as I stumbled to her, knelt and caught the running blood and her last memory as I bowed to touch my tongue to her severed thoughts.
A window smeared with garnet light that ruddles across my hands. Burning wax in a small blue glass. A laughing dog; then darkness.
This is not the first reference to eating in the story. Hand focuses on the food they eat, on the ways they eat, on the characters’ mouths. This refers back to the suppressed Dionysian impulse, Dr. Harrow and the empaths like maenads in the way they gobble “goujonettes of hake with fennel and an aspic of lamb’s blood,” “a plateful of durians . . . the round fruit oozing pale custard and a putrescent odor.” Hand lavishly describes the sensation of eating: “I licked melting chocolate from my fingers and began to read . . .”, “I picked up the remains of a brioche and nibbled its sugary crust.” As food is equated with the physical, each bite they take brings the empaths one step closer to the sublime.
Sharing memories is also equated with taste: “‘Ahhh–’ Anna nodded suddenly. Her eyes focused and she drew back. ‘Wendy. Good stuff.’ She licked her lips, tongue a little loose from the hit so that she drooled.” Just as pagan imagery creeps its way into the physical design of the complex, those who live there revel in earthly delights. Thus, it only makes sense that, when she sees Morgan’s lifeblood flowing onto the floor, Wendy’s first instinct is to receive her pleasure through her mouth.
Wendy is described by herself and others as a monster, and it certainly seems so as her emotional vampirism turns literal. If that is the case, she is a monster of the Frankenstein variety, fashioned that way by her creator. What makes “The Boy in the Tree” so scary is the clinical way in which Wendy describes her world. Dystopian stories often turn on revelation; a secret revealed or a change in character that leads to rebellion against the oppressive system. That is true for similarly-themed stories such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Wendy, however, is entirely aware of her history, and her purpose; she talks blithely of the child test subjects killed to create empath technology, of the patient suicides this technology has caused, and of the pain fellow empaths have dealt her while on drugs. She matter-of-factly describes the science done to her body: “Every evening doctors administer syringes and capsules and tiny tabs that adhere to my temples like burdock pads, releasing chemicals directly into my corpus striatum.” In a world of absolute truth there can be no redemption, only a deeper spiral into emotional violence. It is there, in Dr. Harrow’s tortured psyche, that the Boy in the Tree meets Wendy, and lays his claim.
However, if Wendy is a monster, she is also a canvas. She is a literal blank slate onto which emotions are painted. Hand is a first-class poet, and her lyrical powers are on full display here, reminiscent of Angela Carter in the sensual quality of her descriptions, the way every little part of her world is moving and alive. Her lyricism is most potent in the present-tense scenes where Wendy shares memories.
There is nothing there. The willow trembles, but only the wind shakes the new leaves. From the marsh the ringing chorus rises, swells, bursts as the peepers stir in the saw grass. In the old house yellow light stains an upstairs window and our father’s voice calls out sleepily, then with concern, and finally bellows as he leans from the casement to spot us below. Aidan glances at the house and back again at the willow, and then he turns to me despairingly. Before I can say anything he punches me and runs, weeping, back to the house.
This is a first-person narrative. Hand makes a conscious choice as to when Wendy displays her eloquence. By knowing when to use her lyrical abilities, and when to go for more clinical descriptions, Hand gives the impression of Wendy as someone who gains artistry by osmosis. She cannot bear to look at her own reflection in the mirror surface of a robot, for fear of seeing how blank she truly is, but in experiencing others’ memories she senses the full breadth of the world, and signifies her feelings through poetic language. Thus, a question: what happens when the canvas takes its own initiative? When the blank slate, too, wants to experience the sublime instead of mirroring it? The results are certainly reminiscent of Shelley.
Ultimately, what Wendy desires is to feel. Sensation is ever-present in the story, from “the cold sting of electrolytic fluid where she strung the wire” to “the fumes that strip the skin from my gums.” It is important to note that, when she hooks up with others, Wendy as an individual consciousness disappears, erased by the more dominant psyche. For her, empathy equals erasure of the self; her desire for touch so strong that she needs to be annihilated by another. This can be directly correlated to the “touch” of Dr. Harrow who, when faced with the possibility of the military shutting down her project, forgets all decorum and seeks out Wendy for her own personal therapy. Wendy is forced to become canvas, sharer, and therapeutic voyeur to her most painful memory. It is ironic that the search for nothingness leads the empath to the sublime. There is a military threat in the story, a typically apocalyptic narrative device by Hand, but the most present dangers are from within. “The Boy in the Tree” is a horror story, unique in that it is the characters who guide, shape, and create its horror. Within one short story, Hand explores the intersections between art and trauma, trauma and empathy, empathy and parasitism.
And I still have not delved into the Boy himself, the Peter Pan whose primal presence infuses the tale. Let me just say that his role in the story deals deeply with transgression, and the Other, and the dangers of desire. He jumps from Dr. Harrow to Wendy, obsessing the young empath’s mind, and can do so because his urges are present in all of us. His history with Harrow illustrates the fickleness and entropy of nature, and how human beings handle these realities. He is the insertion of desire into a world where (unlike many dystopian stories) it is not suppressed, but disguised.
Themes of trauma reoccur in Hand’s books. The rape victim in her story “Cleopatra Brimstone” kills men through turning them into butterflies. The internalizing of trauma is also true for Cass Neary, the aging and self-destructive heroine of Generation Loss and Available Dark. The tragic relationship in Illyria reflects that of Harrow and her brother Aidan. Secluded communities and their dissolutions are explored in Mars Hill and Glimmering, the pagan is expounded on in Waking the Moon, the nature of the artist in Radiant Days. The idea of metaphysical extraction is reflected in her DC Comics superheroine Anima, who gains powers by siphoning energy from the elderly.
Part of Hand’s mastery is her willingness to delve into her obsessions. When faced with the dark places, she enters them, torch held aloft. “The Boy in the Tree” is a glimpse into many of the themes that would come to define her career.
Aniline lightning. Faculae stream from synapse to synapse as ptyalin floods my mouth and my head rears instinctively to smash against the headboard. She has not tied me down. The hyoscine lashes into me like a fiery bile and I open my mouth to scream. In the instant before it begins I taste something faint and caustic in the back of her throat and struggle to free myself from her arms. Then I’m gone.