Writers and filmmakers rarely cast Washington, D.C., as a hotbed of supernatural activity; mystical encounters in New Orleans or L.A. play much more credibly. Yet Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon—an eerie blend of archaeology, goddess mythology, horror, and magic—takes place in the District, defying this city’s suit-and-tie rep.
Hand’s intimacy with her setting is Moon‘s driving force, or at least it will be for local readers; the author stylishly reappraises landmarks that Washingtonians take for granted, and casts ordinary Smithsonian researchers as guardians of a sacred, dangerous archive. Her characters venture from Brookland to Georgetown to Capitol Hill, somehow avoiding interaction with lawyers or members of Congress. Catholic University, Hand’s alma mater, is thinly disguised here as “the University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine” (“the Divine,” for short), and the author truly communicates the school’s weird aura. The Divine is an urban oasis among Northeast’s row houses, and it shelters a secret society of magicians.
Narrator Sweeney Cassidy arrives at the Divine as a freshman in the early ’70s. Her romantic, outsider’s perspective perfectly suits the novel’s overblown assessment of the city. According to Sweeney:
You have a first city as you have a first lover, and this was mine….For all its petty bureaucrats and burned-out storefronts, decaying warehouses turned to disco and the first yawning caverns that would soon be the city’s Underground: still it all had a queer febrile beauty, not haunting so much as haunted. As much as Delphi or Jerusalem or Ur, it was a consecrated place: its god had not yet come to claim it, that was all.
This lofty pronouncement—in florid language typical of Moon—foreshadows the second coming of ancient goddess Othiym, who plans an apocalyptic showdown against her mortal foes. (Imagine a low-tech The Stand, minus Stephen King’s masculine brand of evil.) But that’s 400 pages away. First, Sweeney must meet the woman who will be the earthly vessel of the goddess, Angelica di Rienzi, and fall in love with 18-year-old Oliver Crawford. Angelica and Oliver are members of a Skull and Bones-style campus organization run by “magicians,” and they invite Sweeney to one of their receptions.
In attendance is archaeologist Magda Kurtz, who has in her possession a crescent-shaped totem known as a lunula, a symbol of the moon goddess that compels its bearer to commit human sacrifices. Magda has already used the lunula‘s sharp silver edge to decapitate one of her fellow diggers, and she guards the artifact by wearing it as a necklace. But, at the Divine, sorcerers known as the Benandanti are onto Magda. Like archaeological equivalents of the feds, two Benandanti confront her; she fumblingly passes the lunula to Angelica before she is shoved through a portal to some Lovecraftian fourth dimension. Sweeney, drunk on champagne, witnesses everything. (Oddly, weeks later, Angelica and her pals willingly accompany the same Benandanti on an off-campus retreat, never fearing for their lives. Then again, students will do anything for a road trip, and it gives the goddess a chance to cavort in the moonlit wilderness.)
With Magda out of the picture, Angelica begins a slow metamorphosis into creator/destroyer Othiym that will require some 20 years. One requirement of becoming Othiym is that Angelica sacrifice every person who loves her, and the occasional teen-age boy. To avoid this fate, Oliver commits suicide (with a promise to return someday), breaking Sweeney’s heart and dooming her to an outwardly dull life as an anthropologist for the National Museum of Natural History. She doesn’t come out of her loveless funk until she’s 38 years old—the same year that Angelica/Othiym decides to conquer the planet.
Predictably, Moon‘s fantasy elements sometimes get out of Hand’s hands. The author’s descriptive passages are worthy of Coleridge at his Kubla Khanniest, and her characters are fond of overstatement (one friend calls another’s death “Bad juju, hija. I mean, real bad shit”). The text is sprinkled with incomprehensible but, the author apparently hopes, mood-enhancing incantations; this would be forgivable but for a quoted chunk of Purple Rain‘s “The Beautiful Ones.” There’s even a magical, friendly cabbie—a cabbie!—named Handsome Brown who shuttles the characters to Dumbarton Oaks in their student years and miraculously reappears to Sweeney in the ’90s. Yet a plot involving a monstrous goddess, climate changes, and ritual slayings is bound to seem sort of heavy-metal.
Moon‘s lush atmospheric quality ultimately makes up for its schlock value. Although the action spans two decades, nearly every scene takes place during D.C.’s most sublime season—summer. Neither the wet winters nor the lucid, fresh days of spring and fall are conducive to the sense of fecundity and decay Hand tries to achieve; she lingeringly evokes the hazy, humid mornings, the weighty midday sunlight, the dusks when the air won’t cool down and big bugs scuttle along the sidewalk. Sweeney doesn’t even have a/c in her Capitol Hill town house. And at the conclusion, when Armageddon is nigh, Hand invokes the delirium brought on by a D.C. August. Anything seems possible in such sultry weather; would D.C. residents really be surprised if the sky turned roiling red over the nation’s capital?
Hand exaggerates her new-age themes, it’s true, but she tempers her more bizarre episodes with scenes of the workaday world. Moon is ultimately an impressive work of fantasy, a highly visual novel that makes archaeology—and the District of Columbia—seem sexy. That’s quite an achievement.
Elizabeth Hand signs Waking the Moon at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 15, at the Dupont Circle Crown Books.