I first met Lisa L. Hannett when I taught at Clarion South in 2009, and I was impressed with her originality and her prose. (She also looked like she could kick my ass, although that’s neither here nor there.)
Flash-forward just a couple of years and she has several short story sales and a collection, Bluegrass Symphonyout. The collection is just the opening salvo in what promises to be a great career. As I said in my blurb for the book, she “shows a stylistic flair and depth of story…Her fiction is smart, confident, and in her own voice.”
Publishers Weekly wrote: “Hannett’s first collection shows off her fondness for lush imagery, unsettling concepts, indirect prose, and multilayered plots…a collection for fans of weirdness, wonder, and oft-disturbing twists.” (There’s more info on the publisher’s page for the book.)
Falling roughly into the category of dark Americana fantasy/horror, the collection has a definite cohesive mood and tone. Ann VanderMeer wrote the introduction, which I’m happy to reprint here, so you can get a better sense of Bluegrass Symphony. You can also read Lisa’s blog entries about the collection here.)
I was first introduced to the work of Lisa Hannett when she sent me a story to consider for Weird Tales. It was about a talking mechanical crow at a strange carnival, beautifully written and hard to forget. I didn’t take that story but I knew she was a writer to watch. She continued to send me stories and then I had the good fortune to work with her in closer circumstances at Clarion South (remotely from home while my husband had the good luck to actually be in Australia). Eventually we connected on a story that fit Weird Tales and we’ve worked together on various other crazy yet inspired projects ever since.
I’ve always enjoyed Lisa’s fiction because her characters are alive with passion and fury and her worlds are teeming with excitement and movement. Her use of language can make even the most horrifying scenes beautiful, so that you won’t, you can’t, turn away. That’s a rare talent.
The stories in this collection are no different. Bound together by a common environment, they tell the tales of a land that brings to mind the American South. But make no mistake; these aren’t your familiar back roads of Tennessee or Alabama. It’s not even a trailer park way down in Mississippi. Instead we’re transported to towns like Alabaska, Two Squaw and Plantain, which reside somewhere deep in the wilds of Tapekwa County. People live and work and love there just like we do, except . . . that they don’t. Not really.
This is a land of wolf boys, minotaurs and shifting (yes shifting, not shiftless, although there’s quite a bit of that, too) redneck people who are just trying to get ahead in the world. Mothers who only want to protect their daughters and daughters who cherish their mums. A brother who thinks he can save his beloved sister from a fate she’s running toward as fast as she can. Reverends who perform special magic ceremonies with the help and the sacrifice of willing flesh. And you know, it’s all for the good of the community, of course.
The relationships between fathers and daughters, the lengths each will go to redeem the other, play an important role: “It’s a strange kind of love, what they share. I knowed its like meself, so it’s easy enough to recognise. One what makes folk sacrifice anything to get what they’s yearning for. One what makes a little girl reckless enough to go into the forest alone, just to save her daddy. One what makes that daddy suffer all manner of indignities, if it means she’ll always be his. His alone.”
And yes, some of the superstitious country folk have mysterious ways and some of the cowboys would just as soon hold a shotgun on you as raise a can of beer with you. There are menfolk who treat their womenfolk like worn out possessions. There are womenfolk who use magic to get what they want (or at least what they think they want) from their men. But there’s also something very strange going on. Stranger than you might think.
These stories are about more than people just trying to get something from one another. These stories are about power and redemption, transformation, and sacrifice.
Where does that power come from anyway? Sometimes from the “usual” ways: from eggs that the special hens lay, or blood soaked towels or tentacles sprouting from a young man’s chest. Just the usual, right?
Did I mention the twiggy folk? They are there to help you get your heart’s desire. Right? Of course they are. You’ve just gotta trust them. Because they know better than you what you really need. And they will make sure you get it. Hesteh says, “But paths don’t jest go one way: what you lost gotta come back to you some day, sure as spring follows winter.”
As for what you might think is an “all-too-often used” subject, Hannett has included the most provocative, unusual take on a vampire tale I’ve ever read. Lisa has a way of twisting and turning all the usual conventions. “In his mouth I tasted the incoherent feathers of our unborn baby’s thoughts. I sampled my agony, distilled in his venom.” She makes them her own. She’s good at that, she is.
This collection of stories will make you think twice before taking a walk in the woods. It’s full of twisted magic and talking squirrels. Rodeo shows that happen in less than ten seconds. A Beauty Pageant that ends in an impossible way. And as Ada says in “From the Teeth of Strange Children”, “There’s so many dangerous critters in this land . . .”
But what about those talking squirrels anyway? Go read—and you’ll find out.