Friday, March 18, 2016

Review of Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

Seeming to prize quality over quantity, Elizabeth Hand’s short fiction appears regularly in magazines and anthologies but not often.  Only a couple of stories published per year, each seems to receive special treatment.  The characters are fully nuanced, the prose sharpened to fit scene and mood, the structure rendered as conveyance, and touches of the fantastic nimbly inserted to give that little extra shine (or in some cases, shadow), thus offering the reader a complete product in each story.  Hand’s latest collection Errantry: Strange Stories captures everything published between 2007 and 2011, and is another strong example why the author is one of the best writing today.

There are some common themes which stretch their way through most of Hand’s stories, regardless long or short.  One of which is the idea of loss.  Perhaps the longest piece in the collection, “Near Zennor” tells of a man whose wife has just died of a brain aneurysm.  Going through her old boxes, he discovers fan letters she wrote to a since disgraced author of children’s books, the Englishman Robert Bennington.  After hearing a bizarre story from one of his wife’s friends about the writer, he decides to take a trip to England to visit the man’s home, and walking the heath and moorlands discovers just why the story was so bizarre.  One of the most classic, straight-forward stories in the collection, “The Far Shore” tells of a ballet dancer convalescing in a remote Maine cabin after permanently injuring his leg, and the strange person he finds laying partially frozen in the snow outside one day.  Escalating smoothly from realist to symbolism, the ending is nevertheless poignant.  To describe precisely how “Uncle Lou” involves loss would be to ruin the story, but suffice to say it’s about a young woman and her eccentric travel writer of an uncle who takes her on a most interesting escapade to a zoo one evening.

And Hand’s home, Maine, is likewise a common theme.  It appears in the aforementioned “The Far Shore,” is overtly hinted at in “Summerteeth,” but is perhaps better characterized in “Winter’s Wife.”  Despite ending on one of the less subtle notes of the collection, its attention to character detail recourses through the story, making its sentiment real.  About a jack-of-all-trades, his mysterious Icelandic bride, and the corporate guy who buys a nearby piece of property, the story was originally published in the Dozois and Dann’s Wizards anthology but would be perhaps the most subtle example of such material the reader might expect. 

Some of the works artistic as much as story, “Summerteeth” is a drastic change in style.  An abstract tale flitting in and out of comprehension to arrive in a gritty pagan/fairy place, it is more evocative with imagery than it is “informative” in story.  The second person narrative pushes the reader’s perceptions to unfamiliar places while the visuals spin the merry-go-round faster.  A bizarre piece that induces feelings (perhaps) unbidden, I would consider the experiment a rousing success but note such stories are not to everyone’s taste.  “Cruel Up North” is a splash of apocalyptica whose play with color and light and texture resolves itself in strangely touching fashion come the final few sentences.

Capturing something more recognizable but ethereal, “Hungerford Bridge” is a quick look at the moments in life in which new directions are struck upon, and the bittersweet feelings—what you hope and what you leave behind—that result.  Like a precisely placed brush stroke, the added bit of the fantastic is superb.  “Errantry” is the story of three down-on-their-luck Brits who, amongst drugs and music, chase the Folding Man.  A mysterious entity that leaves behind intricate pieces of origami like clues, when they find him, they are left reeling—and perhaps too the reader, having been slungshot out of the collection.  (In fact, I believe this is why it is the title and final story in the collection.)

But all of this has skipped the first, and perhaps the best piece in the collection, The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon.  The story of three men who organize an act of kindness for a woman who meant a lot to their early careers at the Smithsonian, and in one man’s case something more, it is an emotional piece that involves the history of the U.S flight program in North Carolina and a little something extra.  Hand’s fine prose telling an affective story with real substance, it is arguably one of the best things she’s ever written.  (For a longer review, see here.)

The odd man out in Errantry is certainly “The Return of the Fire Witch.” A story originally appearing in the Jack Vance tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, it has a mainstream genre feel with a touch of the linguistic barqoue.  Hand no stranger to such material (she writes Star Wars novels and movie adaptations in parallel to her more serious work), the fact the story exists is not odd, rather its relative oddity in the context of the collection.  Not trying to emulate Vance’s precise style, rather produce an affected authorial voice, the story is a bit of revenge in a wildly exotic setting.  Would the collection be better without this story?  Tough to say.  For some readers it will disrupt the mood, while for others it will provide a recess—an intermission for tea and a biscuit—from the stories before and after.

In the end, Errantry: Strange Stories is proof Hand is aging like wine.  Details only getting more subtle, it is yet another high quality collection from one of the best writers working in the fantasy field today.  From novella to vignette, mainstream genre to literary fabulism, straight-forward exposition to abstract prose, there is a variety of lengths, story types, and styles present in the collection.  It showcases not only how versatile Hand has become, but also represents a writer in touch with the craft itself. 

The following are the ten stories collected in Errantry: Strange Stories:

The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon
Near Zennor
Hungerford Bridge
The Far Shore
Winter’s Wife
Cruel Up North
Summerteeth (aka “Vignette”)
The Return of the Fire Witch
Uncle Lou

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