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Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand (Minotaur Books, 2012) is a challenging book in several quite different ways and it’s difficult to offer a review without too many spoilers. So let’s start with the relatively uncontroversial elements. This is the second book using the character of Cassandra Neary (Cass for short), the first being Generation Loss, set in Maine. However, there’s no need for you to have read the first. You can simply accept there’s a risk Cass may be accused of involvement in the death described and so finds it expedient to be unavailable for interview by law enforcement officers. It would be inconvenient to explain how and why she was in the right place at the right time to take a photograph of the victim.

This sets the tone for this second book. When starting out as a photographer, Cass made a name for herself through the publication of Dead Girls. As the title suggests, this was a collection of photographs which, in an artistic way, captured images of death. Because of this, she has a cult following among those who collect the memorabilia of the dead. Unfortunately, it also represents the high or low point of her career, depending on your point of view. She gets by, earning just enough to pay the rent in New York, but never really wants to break into the “big time”, whatever that may be. In part, this reflects her punk lifestyle in which drugs and alcohol fuel her endurance from one day to the next. There’s an essential and deep-seated alienation that prevents her from forming any real relationships. Her one true love from High School, Quinn O’Boyle, was hauled off to jail and she has not seen him since. The circumstances described in Generation Loss were the first time since school that she’d actually spent quality time with people. That this ended in death was unfortunate and, in a way, ironic. Her cult followers believe she has a rare talent, an eye that captures the essential nature of death through the lens of her old Konica. She confirmed that by allowing one of the photographs showing the latest death in Maine to be published in Stern.

Elizabeth Hand and a wall with an anti-nuclear tattoo

Now she’s off to Finland to authenticate a set of six pictures for Anton Bredahl, a rich collector. Why should she agree to go? Apart from the money, it gives her the chance to meet Ilkka Kaltunnen, a photographer who also has a flair for photographing people near or after death. For a while, he was immensely popular, his pictures appearing in the glossy pages of magazines like Vogue. Then nothing. This starts her off on a journey and involvement, both direct and indirect, in a number of deaths. So here’s the question. Does someone “famous” always deserve a diarist/journalist/photographer to shadow daily activities and record events as they occur? Or, put another way, what’s the function of a person who takes photographs? I’m reminded of the photograph taken by Nick Ut of a girl in Vietnam called Kim Phuc. She was running naked down a road following a napalm attack. He won a Pulitzer. She won months in hospital and years of pain. Vietnamese doctors saved her life because the photograph made her famous, but at what cost? She became a communist propaganda pawn, forced to endure media intrusion. Even her defection to, and subsequent political asylum in, Canada could not take the continuing physical and emotional pain from her. She was a victim of war and was further victimised because of that photograph.

Elizabeth Hand introduces us to a world in which people collect and deal in the memorabilia of death. As an author, she takes no moral stance on this trade. It’s simply described for what it is. Yet what is the real power of the photographs? Why are they collectable? What is their value in monetary and other terms? In some cases, the photographs could be trophies collected by the killers and their fans. At the scene of each murder, the murderers’ shadows record the detail of each death for the enjoyment of those in the group. Or they could be for blackmail, containing critical evidence that would identify the killer(s). In addition, the book contains descriptions of different types of metal music that celebrate aspects of death and cultish belief systems. When the action moves to Reykjavik, the need to understand the relationship between the music and the photography grows stronger. When we later add Norse myths and rituals, it all grows very dark — hence the ambiguity in the title of the book.

To be able to take a picture, there must be enough ambient light for the camera to function. This leads to a complex game between the photographer and the environment in which selection of the lens, the shutter speed, the type of film and the availability of light from different sources all come together in the expression of true art. Even in today’s high technology world of pixels, art transcends mere skill to celebrate what the photographer sees through the lens. So how does a photographer capture the pictures? How is there enough dark content to photograph? How is there enough light so viewers can see clearly enough what has happened? Perhaps the best pictures are always the result of careful staging. Yet this does not explain the power of photographs such as taken by Nick Ut. The problem is that he and other war correspondents hover like a carrion birds on battlefields waiting for just the right moment when they can capture a life in danger or about to be extinguished. History is made up of the pictures and the other descriptions they bring back. People collect the uniforms, the weapons used and the medals awarded for valour. They visit the sites of great battles, studying maps and role-playing the parts of generals and foot-soldiers. They play first-person shooter games and read fictional accounts of combat. So, as a society, it’s morally acceptable to be interested in death caused during war or situations where the combat is dignified as honourable. But it’s somehow qualitatively less acceptable to be interested in death caused in the commission of crime or as part of a ritual.

Available Dark is a powerful book. It’s written with a wonderful eye for detail. However, I have serious reservations about the credibility and coherence of the plot, and I’m not convinced by the moral equivalence of the context for the action. Why must photographers end up like voyeurs observing the rape of life or the desecration of death, particularly when there are ritualised or cultish overtones to the situations? Surely, they are allowed to look away. This is not a book for everyone. I would rate it as a brilliant failure. The writing is wonderful but. . .

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see:
Errantry: Strange Stories
Last Summer at Mars Hill

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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