Born March 29, 1957, in San Diego, CA; daughter of Edward (an attorney) and Alice Ann (a social worker; maiden name, Silverthorn) Hand; partner of John Clute (a critic); children: two with Richard Grant (a novelist). Education: Catholic University of America, B.A., 1984.
Addresses: Agent—Martha Millard Literary Agency, 204 Park Ave., Madison, NJ 07940. Home—P.O. Box 133, Lincolnville, ME 04849.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, archival researcher, 1979–86, co-founder of archival videodisc program; published first short story, "Prince of Flowers," in The Twilight Zone Magazine, 1988. Author of novels, including: Winterlong, 1990; Aestival Tide, 1991; Icarus Descending, 1993; Waking the Moon, 1995; Glimmering, 1997; Black Light, 1999; Mortal Love, 2004. Short stories collected in Last Summer at Mars Hill, 1998, and Bibliomancy, 2003. Other works include adaptations of screenplays into novels, including: Twelve Monkeys, 1995; Anna and the King, 1999; The Affair of the Necklace, 2001; Catwoman, 2004. Book reviewer for the Washington Post, 1988–.
Awards: Nebula Award for best novella, Science Fiction Writers of America, for "Last Summer at Mars Hill," 1995; World Fantasy Award for best novella, World Fantasy Convention, for "Last Summer at Mars Hill," 1995; International Horror Guild Award, for "Cleopatra Brimstone," 2001; International Horror Guild Award, for "Pavane for a Prince of the Air," 2003; World Fantasy Award for best collection, for Bibliomancy, 2004.
Elizabeth Hand writes fantasy, horror, and science-fiction tales that have earned her critical praise as well as a devoted readership. Prolific since her 1990 debut novel, the dystopian fable Winterlong, the Maine-based author has produced several more novels, dozens of short stories, reviews of other authors' works, and adaptations of Hollywood movies into novel form. Her own works are populated by a diverse array of characters and driven by inventive plotlines, but critical assessments almost always cite strong prose and compelling themes as the two most outstanding features of her style. "Hand has a talent for portraying forbidding millennial settings brimming with perverse antiheroes, suffering innocents and sadistic demigods," asserted one reviewer in a Publishers Weekly evaluation.
Though she was born in San Diego, California, in 1957, Hand spent her most formative years in the New York City suburbs of Yonkers and Pound Ridge. In Yonkers, she lived for a time with her grandparents, who had a large old house filled with the early twentieth-century ephemera they collected; it would later serve as the inspiration for a similar museum-like residence in one of her books. By her teen years, Hand was living in Pound Ridge, a Hudson Valley town that was known as an enclave for theater professionals and artists from Manhattan.
Hand came from an Irish-American, Roman Catholic background, two elements that shaped the direction of her career. Her paternal grandfather had a large repertoire of Gaelic ghost and fairy tales, while the family's religious orientation had the opposite effect of its intended goal, as she claimed in an Amazon.co.uk interview with Roz Kaveney, reprinted on Hand's website. "Even though I stopped believing at about 15 or 16," she said, she noted that being raised as a Roman Catholic "programs you to think about religion and the supernatural all the time as a reflex, even after you have stopped believing."
Hand suffered from asthma as a child, which added to her already-bookwormish tendencies. She discovered the works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and C. S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia) early on, and by her teens was writing her own ghost stories. She joined a local theater group and wrote some plays for them, and headed off to college intending to pursue a degree in drama and playwriting. In the end, it took her nearly nine years to complete her undergraduate education at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., "where I discovered I had no talent," she told Kaveney. The freedom of being away from home took its toll on Hand's grades early in her college career as well, and she flunked out at one point. She returned after finding a job as an archival researcher at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, and worked full-time while completing a degree in cultural anthropology, which she earned in 1984. "I studied what interested me," she explained to Kaveney, "and so I had to become a writer because my education had left me unsuited for a decent well-paying job."
Hand's first story to appear in print was "Prince of Flowers," which was accepted for publication in a 1988 issue of The Twilight Zone Magazine, a much-admired journal that published horror and fantasy fiction, often by already-established writers in those genres. Hand's tale centered on a young woman who works at a Washington museum and occasionally pilfers small items she thinks will not be missed from the collections. An Indonesian puppet proves more trouble than she bargained for, however. The story helped Hand sell her first full-length manuscript to the Bantam publishing house.
Winterlong, Hand's debut novel, was published in 1990 and launched her career in earnest. The story is set in the distant future and introduces readers to an Earth devastated by a series of wars and catastrophes. Some pockets of survivors live in a medieval-like communities, having lost much of their technological know-how. A group of elites, who saved advanced knowledge, are known as the Ascendants and live on space stations. In Washington, D.C., government buildings are overgrown with kudzu vines, but a group known as the Curators try to preserve human learning and culture. There are also various other communities, including genetically modified humans called geneslaves, prostitutes, and cannibals known as the Lazars. The story's heroine, Wendy, encounters all of them on her hellish journey from a research center in Virginia into Washington as she searches for her missing twin brother.
Hand's first novel earned critical plaudits, but most reviewers did not like the ending. Among them was Penny Kaganoff in Publishers Weekly, who nevertheless found that "Hand's world is nuanced and believable and her characters, especially the female twin, come convincingly alive." Reviewing the book for People, David Hiltbrand lauded the first hundred pages of Winterlong, describing them as "a considerable stylistic and imaginative accomplishment, as noteworthy in its way as Margaret Atwood's" 1985 award-winning novel The Handmaid's Tale.
Hand returned to that same dystopian setting for her next two novels, Aestival Tide and Icarus Descending. Though both of the titles satisfied her growing legion of fans, neither earned her the same level of critical accolades as her debut. Reviewers did find her literary style an appealing one, however, with a Publishers Weekly contributor asserting that Icarus Descending's "future world is filled with vivid images made more striking by her evocative prose." Hand fared better with her next two works: the novella "Last Summer at Mars Hill" won the 1995 Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) group, and the novel Waking the Moon, which appeared later that year, also earned her high marks from critics.
Waking the Moon is set in a more sedate, undamaged Washington, D.C., and involves the possible return of a wrathful moon goddess known as Othiym Lunarsa, and the efforts to forestall that potentially catastrophic coming. For centuries, the Earth has been protected from her destructive tendencies by a secret society known as the Benandanti, but a new threat emerges when two college students tryst in the moonlight; unbeknownst to them, both are members of Othiym's chosen followers, and Dylan, the child that results, grows up to become an intern at the National Museum of Natural History. Dylan's boss, it turns out, knew his mother and father from her own college years, and had known of the fateful coupling. Back then, the Benandanti intervened, Dylan's father died, and his mother went on to become a well-known New Age writer. "Blending the ancient with the modern," noted a Publishers Weekly writer, "Hand has created a violently sensual fable helped by smart pacing and vibrant prose."
In her 1997 work, Glimmering, Hand ventured deeper into science-fiction territory in a tale that centers around millennial worries, AIDS, and the threat of global warming. An avalanche in the Arctic regions seems to portend wider environmental catastrophe, but the new odd lights in the night sky—seemingly the result of the ozone layer eating itself—fascinate artist Leonard Thorpe. His former lover is Jack Finnegan, a wealthy New York magazine publisher who is HIV-positive and lives in a grandiose mansion with his grandmother modeled after Hand's own grandparents' home. A third figure in the book is Trip Marlowe, a Christian rock star, and the paths of all three intersect on a nervously anticipated New Year's Eve—though "Hand's fascinating characters and storytelling are what sustain the story without needing to try to ride the trendy calendar-turning frenzy," declared Denver Post columnist Fred Cleaver. A Publishers Weekly contributor also wrote favorably of Hand's fifth novel, noting that its "vignettes of decay are rendered in language that has an incantatory beauty even as she unflinchingly attempts to describe death and morbid sexual acts."
Hand's next work was a collection of her shorter works, Last Summer at Mars Hill, which appeared in 1998. It includes the title story as well as "Prince of Flowers," the first of hers to appear in print. Once again, a reviewer at Publishers Weekly gave Hand unstinting praise. "Poignant and terrifying by turns, this collection isn't for the easily shocked, but it will satisfy readers who long for rich prose and deep, dark dreams," its contributor asserted.
In 1999, Hand picked up the story of the secret brotherhood she created in an earlier work for her new novel, Black Light. The Benandanti are now engaging in averting an apocalyptic cataclysm linked to the acts of a famed but debauched filmmaker named Alex Kern, who has gathered a group of acolytes around him in the small New York town where he lives in a decadently extravagant style. Two of those followers are the parents of 17-year-old Charlotte Moylan, the story's narrator. "Charlotte's brief encounters with the numinous in the early chapters can be maddeningly inconclusive," observed Gerald Jonas in a New York Times review. "But as the showdown nears, Hand rises to the challenge."
Hand's fiction accrued a strong readership in Britain, too, and a one-act play she wrote, The Have-Nots, was produced in London in 1997. A Yorkshire publisher issued a limited-edition, signed collection of some of her shorter works under the title Bibliomancy in 2003. Its quartet of horror stories was reviewed by Washington Post critic Paul Di Filippo, who found that "Hand's close attention to the cherished dailiness of life is matched only by the subtlety of her fantastical conceits, producing a fiction that acknowledges both mortality and the eternal."
Hand ventured into more mainstream fiction with her next work, Mortal Love. Published by William Morrow in 2004, the novel has elements of fantasy fiction as well as historical romance in its multiple storylines. One of those settings is London in the 1880s, where an artists' model named Evienne Up-stone enjoys a reputation for bewitching highly regarded painters to the point of psychiatric distress. As the work opens, her latest victim appears to be the painter Radborne Comstock. Two generations later, Comstock's grandson discovers the erotic images of Evienne his grandfather painted, and becomes similarly unhinged. In the third story-thread, a woman named Larkin Meade drives an American writer in modern-day London to distraction, and may be the reincarnation of Evienne. "With its authentic period detail and tantalizing spirit of mystery, this timeless tale of desire and passion should reach many readers beyond her usual fantasy base," asserted a Publishers Weekly contributor of Hand's latest effort.
Reviewers nearly always comment favorably on Hand's language, finding the prose one of the best features of her work. In an article she penned for the Writer, Hand advised aspiring writers to splurge on "a good dictionary … the one no writer should be without: the Oxford English Dictionary." She called it "an absolutely wonderful source of unusual words and phrases," along with "an old 1930s vintage Roget's I found at a tag sale years ago. It has marvelous listings of bizarre phrases and words not found in more up-to-date volumes, including a fascinating rundown of various methods of divination, including Crithomancy (by the dough of cakes) and Geloscopy (by the mode of laughing)."
Winterlong, Bantam (New York City), 1990.
Aestival Tide, Bantam, 1991.
Icarus Descending, Bantam, 1993.
Waking the Moon, HarperPrism (New York City), 1995.
Glimmering, HarperPrism, 1997.
Black Light, HarperCollins (New York City), 1999.
Mortal Love, William Morrow (New York City), 2004.
The Have-Nots (one-act play), produced in London, England, 1997.
Last Summer at Mars Hill (stories), Harper Prism, 1998.
Bibliomancy (stories), PS Publishing (Hornsea, East Yorkshire, England), 2003.
Booklist, June 1, 2004, p. 1700.
Denver Post, April 27, 1997, p. G6.
New York Times, December 9, 1990; September 12, 1993; October 4, 1998; May 30, 1999.
People, September 17, 1990, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1990, p. 59; July 5, 1993, p. 68; June 26, 1995, p. 89; February 3, 1997, p. 99; August 10, 1998, p. 374; March 8, 1999, p. 51; May 3, 2004, p. 169.
Washington Post, December 14, 2003, p. T14.
Writer, January 1995, p. 11.
"Bio," The Elizabeth Hand Website, http://www.elizabethhand.com/biog.shtml (October 13, 2006).
"Intense Ornate," The Elizabeth Hand Website, http://www.elizabethhand.com/interview99.shtml (October 3, 2006).