Lit Moylan lives what she thinks is an ordinary life. Sure, her town has a few eccentric theater types, but that's all. That is until her Warholian godfather, Axel Kern, moves into the big house on the hill. He throws infamously depraved parties, full of drinks, drugs, and sex. But they also have a much more sinister purpose. At one of these parties, Lit touches a statue, and learns she has much more of a role to play in this world than she ever thought possible. Ornate and decadent, Black Light visits an irresistible world of ancient gods and secret societies as enthralling as it is dangerous.
•Secret societies…ancient gods…depraved parties…dark ceremonies…and a gothic mansion full of hidden passageways. Could a book possibly be more firmly set in the classic weird genre? I see Black Light as the core of this bundle, representing many of the tropes and traditions of classic weird—yet doing so with plenty of twists and surprises along the way. Hand is that kind of writer, able to pay homage to a literary genre while bringing it to life in bold new ways for new generations of readers. I love this book, as it tells the story of a young woman attending a Halloween party held by her renegade filmmaker godfather in a mysterious mansion in the 1970s…in the process discovering a connection to mystic forces she never imagined would touch her life. The setting is as thick and rich as the surprising narrative and layers of emotional resonance, all of it memorable in the way that the best weird fiction—the best fiction, period—always is. – Robert Jeschonek
"This audacious and playfully malicious followup to Elizabeth Hand's masterpiece Waking the Moon (fans of that book will surely be delighted to find themselves once again in the raffish company of Balthazar Warnick) reads at times like a crazed, sexed-up Alice in Wonderland. At other times, you'll think it's a lost Buffy episode."– Leslie Bialler, Vine Voice
"Immersive, cloying horror. Perfect for those who love creeping dread."– There Might Be Cupcakes Podcast
"Hand brings ancient mythology to terrifying life."– The New York Times Book Review
1. Helter Skelter
MY MOTHER CLAIMED TO have been on the set of Darkness Visible when Axel Kern fired a revolver into the air, not to goad his actors but out of frustration with a scriptgirl who repeatedly handed him the wrong pages. My mother had, indeed, very briefly worked as a scriptgirl for Kern—this was before she settled into her eternal and prosperous run as Livia on Perilous Lives—so it wasn't considered good form to doubt her, or even to demonstrate normal curiosity upon hearing the anecdote repeated whenever the subject of artistic temperaments arose; which, in our family, was often.
My father was friends with Kern long before Axel became a world-famous director. When I was born in 1957, Kern was my godfather. When I was a child he was around our house a good deal, and my parents dined often at Bolerium, his vast decaying estate atop Muscanth Mountain. But as I grew older Kern stayed less often in Kamensic, and by the time I was a teenager it had been years since I'd seen him. He and my father had a long history, as drinking buddies and fellow members of a loosely allied, free-floating group of bibulous Broadway and Hollywood people. Most of them are dead now; certainly their vices have gone out of style, except as veteris vestigia flammce. Only Kern made the leap gracefully from the old Hollywood to the new, which in those days wasn't Hollywood at all, but New York: Radical Chic New York, Andy Warhol's Factory New York, Black Light New York.
He was always a seeker after the main chance, my godfather. When, for a moment in the late '60s it looked as though the movie industry was turning back to the city—where, of course, it had begun when the century was new, in warehouses and a brownstone on East Fourteenth Street—well, then Axel moved back, too, inhabiting a corner of a Bowery block that could best be described not so much as crumbling as collapsed. Exposed beams and girders laced with rust, sagging tin ceilings that exposed the building's innards: particle board and oak beams riddled with dry rot and carpenter ants. The place was infested with vermin, rats and mice and bugs and stray cats; but there were also people living in the rafters, extras from the stream of low-budget experimental films Axel was filming in the city. Some had followed Axel out from the West Coast, but most of them were young people who had been living on the street, or in tenth-floor walk-ups in a part of the city that was light-years away from being gentrified. Speed freaks with noms du cinema like Joey Face and Electric Velvet; trust-fund junkies like Caresse "Kissy" Hardwick and her lover Angelique; a bouquet of sometime prostitutes, male and female, who named themselves after flowers: Liatris, CeCe Anemone, Hazy Clover. They were young enough, and there were enough of them, that Rex Reed christened Axel's production space the Nursery. The name stuck.
In the movies Axel shot back then—Skag, Creep, House of the Sleeping Beauties—you can see how a lot of those people were barely out of junior high school. Joey Face for one, and CeCe, were only a few years older than I was, with acne scars still visible beneath their Bonne Bell makeup and eyeliner inexpertly applied. None of them were beauties, except for Kissy Hardwick, who possessed the fragile greyhound bone structure and bedrock eccentricity of very old New England money. Axel seemed drawn to them solely by virtue of their youth and appetites: for food (the gloriously obese Wanda LaFlame); for amphetamines and heroin (Kissy, Joey, Page Franchini); for sex (everybody). In Hollywood, Axel had been legendary for always bringing his projects in under budget; quite a feat when you consider movies like Saragossa or You Come, Too, with their lavish costumes and soundstages that recreated Málaga during the Inquisition or fifteenth century Venice. Now, in New York, he was famous for letting a Super 8 camera run for six hours at a stretch in a blighted tenement loft, and having the results look as garishly archaic as Fellini Satyricon.
I visited the Nursery only once, for a Christmas party when I was twelve. Traditionally my parents held a party at our house in Kamensic, rich plum pudding-y parties where the children ran around in velvet dresses and miniature suit jackets and the grownups drank homemade eggnog so heavily spiked with brandy that a single glass was enough to set them off, playing riotously at blindman's buff and charades, singing show tunes and "The Wessex Mummer's Carol." Axel Kern was usually a guest at these holiday gatherings, but by 1969 he had set up shop at the Nursery and wanted to throw his own party there. In keeping with the pagan tenor of the times, it was a solstice celebration and not a Christmas party; but really it wasn't even that. It was a rout.
This was before my father achieved his commercial success as TV's Uncle Cosmo. He was signed to do summer rep at the Avalon Shakespeare Theater in Connecticut, and my mother was on one of her infrequent sabbaticals from Perilous Lives, Livia having shaved her raven tresses and joined an Ursuline convent in the French countryside. The birth of a new decade, 1969 swandiving into 1970, seemed almost as propitious as the birth of a new century. Radio DJs rifled through the hits of the last ten years and analyzed them as though they were tarot cards. In health class we watched grainy films that showed teenagers who took LSD, staring transfixed at candle flames ("look at the pretty blue flower!") before they went mad and were trundled off to the loony bin in an ambulance. To my parents, the prospect of Axel Kern's party must have seemed as much anthropological exercise as social obligation. So they put their own annual gathering on hold and we traipsed down to Axel's place on Chrystie Street, with high hopes of an urban adventure.
In fact, the Nursery was disgusting. Even my father, who had holed up with Axel in a ruined East End London warehouse while he shot The Age of Ignorance, was hard put to conceal his revulsion at the broken furniture and overflowing trash cans, the rats skittering in the stairwells and longhaired boys nodding out in corners. Still, neither he nor my mother would leave. At the time I thought that this was some form of grownup loyalty, on a par with playing bridge with people you hated or taking roles in plays that were doomed to flop.
But I was frightened, and only slightly reassured when numerous adult friends from Kamensic showed up as the afternoon progressed. None of them brought their children, though. None of my own friends were there, and that was odd. People in Kamensic were not usually inclined to shield their young from the kind of bohemian horrors that the rest of the country was reading about in cautionary Life magazine articles.
The Nursery was on the top two floors of a building that had once been a herring processing factory. Inside it smelled of rotting fish and urine. An ancient cage elevator bore us up, cables shrieking, and finally opened onto a big seemingly empty room its bare plank floor coated with a layer of cigarette ash so thick it looked as though it were upholstered in gray velvet. In fact, there were a few people already there—it would be a stretch to call them guests, since they seemed to be in the process of crawling away from a terrible accident which had occurred somewhere just out of sight. Two women wearing silver Lady Godiva wigs and little else sprawled in a corner, one of them frowning as she dabbed at a series of small bloody puncture wounds in her friend's arm.
"You think a doctah, maybe?" she asked, but her friend was silent. "You think a doctah?"
In the middle of the room a boy lay groaning, his blue jeans black with grime and hiked so low on his hips that I could see his pubic hair. My parents could see it, too, but they only raised their eyes to the ceiling (not much of an improvement) and hurried me to the next room.
Here there was more of an effort at the holiday spirit. The walls were painted black and hung with multicolored lights. A scrawny Christmas tree bowed threateningly close to the floor. Beside one wall there was a table where a woman in a sequined halter dress played bartender. The stereo blared "Come Stay with Me" while a few dozen or so people flopped around on a sectional sofa.
"Well," my father said, arching one bristly eyebrow. "Will they let us join in any of their reindeer games?"
"Leonard! Audrina!" A man in a Nehru jacket and harem pants crossed the room to greet my parents. "So glad, so glad—"
While they exchanged hugs and my mother's Tupperware bowl of homemade whitefish dip, I wandered over to inspect the Christmas tree. It was devoid of lights or Christmas balls, instead was covered with marijuana cigarettes, hanging from wire tree hooks. I eyed these dubiously: Were they even real? If they were, wasn't anyone afraid of the police? In addition to the joints there was a half-hearted attempt at a decorative chain, orange thread strung with pills—Miltowns, black amphetamine capsules, a few Saint Joseph's Baby Aspirin thrown in for color.
"Looking to see what Santa left for you?" a babyish voice piped behind me. "You look like you've been good."
I looked around, embarrassed. A girl stood there, as old as some of the New Canaan girls who baby-sat for me. But this girl's patrician features—dark brown eyes, retroussé nose, sharp chin—were all but lost beneath a patina of nicotine and mascara. She was terribly thin, with boy-cropped black hair, her face so thickly smeared with kohl it looked as though she'd just woken up and knuckled the sleep from her eyes. She wore a very short electric blue dress, sleeveless, and long dangling earrings shaped like fish. Her hands were small and dirty and yellow-stained, with nails so badly chewed they were like ragged bits of cellophane stuck at the ends of her fingers. A patchwork bag was slung over her shoulder. As she leaned toward me I caught a whiff of something sharply chemical, like gasoline or paint fumes.
"Hey, you know what, this isn't a very good place for a kid." She smiled, showing small white teeth. "I don't want to bum you out. But maybe I could call your mother or father to come pick you up?"
I pointed across the room. "That's them there."
"Yeah? Well, that's cool, that's cool, that's cool." She fingered one of her earrings, and seemed to forget about me. After a minute I shrugged and turned to walk away.
"Bye," I said.
"Oh!" She looked up, stricken; gave me a meltingly apologetic smile. "Nice talking to you! Bye-bye."
She waved, a teensy little-girl wave. I thought she would leave, but she remained where she was, in the shadow of that pathetic tree, and scowled ferociously at her dirty bare feet.
"Charlotte! Oh, Charlotte, there you are—"
I looked up guiltily as my mother draped an arm across my shoulder. She was offhandedly elegant in black charmeuse, plastic champagne glass in one hand, cigarette in the other. "Lit, honey, will you be okay for a little while? Because there's something your father and I have to do…"
It turned out that my parents had been corralled into going upstairs with a few others of the chosen, to watch Axel's most recent opus. This was an underground film of a play inspired by Aubrey Beardsley's The Story of Venus and Tannhauser. It had played briefly in a MacDougal Street storefront before being loudly condemned by Cardinal Spellman, among others, and finally closed by the New York City Department of Health.
And now, despite her laissez-faire attitude toward other aspects of my education, my mother had no intention of letting me see it.
"Sweetie, I know this is awful and you're bored. We should have thought to ask Hillary to come with us. I don't know why we never think of these things. I'm sorry—"
She sighed, smoothing back my hair, and smiled briskly as a producer we knew wandered past. "But we do have to see this, Axel thinks it could be a real movie and apparently there's a part in it for your father though god only knows what that could be, I think the whole thing's done in the nude. Here now, have some of the whitefish, we brought it so we know it's safe, and maybe you can just curl up in a corner and read for an hour, all right, sweetie?"
She took my head in her hands and kissed me on the brow. "There! Bye now, darling—"
So I was left to wander the Nursery by myself. After a few minutes my unease dissipated. I just grew bored, and sat dispiritedly on a cinder block beneath a very large painting of a woman's shoe. I'd been to enough grownup parties in Kamensic to know that adults behaved strangely on their own, but I was also young enough to have no real perspective on what I was seeing.
And what I was seeing appeared to be some grimy street scene, complete with bums and teenage runaways, that had been miraculously picked up and then plonked down some ten stories above the Bowery. Neighbors from Kamensic floated past, like well-dressed puppets moving across a dirty stage. For fifteen or twenty minutes a band played, deafeningly loud guitars and a cello held by a bearded man in a pink dress. Later I saw the bearded man fondling a woman while someone else filmed them. I sat on my cinder block, watching the door through which my parents had disappeared the way a cat will watch a mousehole. Around me, the crowd swelled until it seemed impossible that anyone could move. Then, abruptly, the place emptied. I was alone, and frightened. Had the other guests somehow been forced to leave? If so, were my parents being held hostage somewhere in this bizarre maze of rooms and bad behavior?
The thought terrified me. From somewhere far away I heard laughter, the shivering echo of breaking glass. With a cry I jumped up and headed for the door where I had last seen my mother.
It led into a narrow corridor: bare concrete floors, walls and ceiling painted black. There were other passages leading off this one, all crooked doorjambs and rotted sills, some of them strung with Christmas lights and one with barbed wire. I started down the first hall, almost immediately found myself entering a room where the floor was covered with writhing bodies. In one corner a thin young man in a black-and-white striped sailor shirt stood behind a Super 8 camera and trained a blinding spotlight on the proceedings. As I hesitated in the doorway he looked up at me.
"Hey," he said, and frowned. "You're early …"
I turned and fled.
Further down the passage there was more of the same: darkened rooms illuminated by 100-watt bulbs, handheld cameras grinding away as people danced or coupled or just sat vacant-eyed in the middle of rooms that were uniformly devoid of furniture. I had no idea where I was, and my anxiety was now full-blown panic.
Where were my parents?
My hands were sweaty; I had wiped them on my velvet dress so much it began to feel like damp suede. My short hair, neatly cut and combed for the holidays, was now stiff with dust, and stank of cigarettes and pot. Every room I passed seemed crammed with strangers. But except for a peremptory nod from one of the figures behind a camera, no one acknowledged me at all. I could feel the tears starting and I bit my lip, desperate not to cry, when in front of me the nightmarish corridor abruptly ended.
"Oh, please," I muttered.
There was a door there, tall and painted with the same glossy black enamel as the rest of the Nursery. I stood a few inches away from it, held my breath, and listened: silence. Behind me slurred voices called out, names tossed from room to room—"Bobbie? Has anyone seen Bobbie? Where's Bobbie?"—and then suddenly music roared on.
I reached for the metal doorknob.