Across a twenty-five-year writing career, Elizabeth Hand has amassed a formidable reputation and an impressive number of awards. No fewer than seven novellas by her have been shortlisted for World Fantasy Awards, and three of them went on to win. Errantry—her fourth collection of short fiction, after Last Summer at Mars Hill (1998), Bibliomancy (2003), and Saffron and Brimstone (2006)—gathers ten stories she published between 2006 and 2011, leaving out the (WFA-winning) novella Illyria (PS Publishing, 2006).
Perhaps because it represents a body of work over a relatively short period of time, there are some clear tonal and thematic similarities on display. With one exception, the stories in Errantry are very much of a piece: low-key tales of the fantastical lurking on the edges of the everyday, of marginal or (self-)marginalized figures—a widower mourning his wife, an injured dancer mourning his career, three former high-school friends opting out of adult life—withdrawing from conventional ways of seeing the world, and experiencing moments of transcendent shock.
The collection’s headline inclusion is the WFA-winner and Hugo-shortlisted "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" (from Stories, ed. Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio , and available to read at the author's website). When they hear that an eccentric former colleague, Maggie, has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, a security guard and a curator at the Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace cast about for something they can do for her. They hit upon the idea of recreating lost footage of the titular aircraft launch (and crash) with which Maggie had a lifelong fascination. Both men have their doubts about the rather wacky form Maggie's fascination took (she firmly believed, against all apparent evidence, that the launch was a success); as one explains it to his son:
Robbie shook his head adamantly. "She was completely nuts. Obsessed with all this New Age crap, aliens and crop circles. She thought that planes could only fly from certain places, and that’s why all the early flights crashed. Not because there was something wrong with the aircraft design, but because they were taking off from the wrong spot."
"Then how come there's airports everywhere?"
"She never worked out that part." (p. 20)
Nonetheless, out of a combination of affection and survivor's guilt that rings all too true of the reactions of well-meaning onlookers to another person’s terminal illness, they decide to film something that they tell themselves will be meaningful for her ("You don't need to understand," says Leonard, when Robbie questions part of the process; "Maggie will" (p. 44)). The story is charming, juggling an infectious delight in the process of creation and discovery—Robbie and Leonard's expedition to the beach to do their filming is fun—with an undertone of melancholy, as when Leonard shows off the tiny Maggie doll he has made to go in their Bellerophon miniature ("The sight of Leonard holding a tiny Maggie Blevin tenderly, as though she were a captive bird, made Robbie feel lightheaded and slightly sick" (p. 44)). But taken as a whole it's rather slight, with a sentimentality that goes less examined than you might hope for.
More successful, for this reader—or at least, more to my taste—is "The Far Shore" (originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2009). Whereas the glimpse of the fantastic in "Maiden Flight" is consolatory, "Far Shore" leans more towards the uncanny. Some of this is a function of setting: the former story is about people with steady jobs and houses in suburbia, while the latter combines a almost claustrophobic focus on a single character's close fantastical encounter with a striking but unwelcoming environment. A cabin on a deserted Maine campsite in November, is, it turns out, not exactly cozy ("The place had most of the original furnishings, along with the original windows and concomitant lack of insulation, which meant one was warm only within a six-foot radius of the woodstove or fireplace" (p. 132)), and evocative attention is given to the protagonist's physical discomfort and the vulnerability of his position as temporary caretaker of this remote, out-of-season place. (The Shining is referenced, of course.)
No lights shone beyond the windows of his room. The reflection from the bedside lamp seemed insubstantial as a candle flame; the darkness outside a solid mass, huge and inescapable, that pressed against the panes. His room sat beneath the eaves, where the wind didn't roar but crooned, a sound like mourning doves. (p. 141)
Having lost his job as a dance instructor, the camp seems to Philip the perfect place to find escape and isolation. What he finds instead is the wild, although he doesn't realize it at first; he encounters a young man, naked, "emaciated," with a "leaden pallor" to his skin (p. 135), and strange white hairs on his arms and legs ("not sun-bleached but silvery, a bizarre contrast to the oil-black hair that fell to his shoulders, the dark hair at his groin" (p. 136)). There are shades of Johanna Sinisalo's Not Before Sundown (2003) in the way a primal, unspoken attraction grows between Philip and this otherworldly youth, but where that novel is earthy and grimy and pitiless, "Far Shore" looks upwards and outwards, its coupling of human and non-human offering "fellowship and flight" to a dancer who had thought himself permanently grounded:
Pinwheels of snow spun in their wake, extinguished by the black waters of Tuonela. With every step Suru took, more birds appeared. The air became a living whirlwind, wings and shrill chatter, whistles and croaks; over it all a solitary, heartrending song like a mockingbird's, that ended in a convulsive throb of grief or joy. (p. 151)
Sticking with the ice and isolation of the north-eastern US, "Winter's Wife" (2007) is another tale strong on atmosphere and chilly, remote sense of place. Its young narrator, Justin, is less of an outsider than Philip in "The Far Shore"; he was born in such a landscape, his mother, consumed with dreams of living off the land and "hang[ing] crystals in the windows," having moved while pregnant to a small, snowbound town ("a place where you have to drive two hours to a skate park and it snows from November till the end of May" (p. 157), as Justin puts it, with a small-town adolescent's mix of fondness and frustration). Nonetheless, it is clear from the way Justin describes the town that he still thinks of himself as something of an outsider—or, put another way, that some people there are more insider than others.
Chief among the latter is Winter, a down-to-earth jack-of-all-trades whose kindness saved Justin's mother’s ill-prepared life when she first arrived and was the talk of the town as "this crazy lady from away" who was sure to "freeze to death or burn the camp down—probably both" (p. 158). At the time of the story, Winter has recently met, over the internet, an Icelandic woman named Vala. Vala's apparent age varies ("sometimes she would look old, like my mom does, and other times she'd look the same age as me and my friends" (p. 172)), and in her company the natural world seems just that little bit wilder, and weirder, like this sight of a bush saturated with hummingbirds:
I thought something had gone wrong with my eyes, because the bush seemed to be moving. Not moving in the wind—there wasn't any wind—but moving like it was breaking apart then coming back together again, the leaves lifting away from the branches and flickering into the air, going from dark green to shining green like metallic paint, and here and there a flash of red like a flower had spun off, too. (p. 175)
Vala is, Justin assures us, "strange" (p. 172). It's a label Hand has twice now claimed for her own work, in the subtitles of this and another collection, but Hand is rarely strange for the sake of it; in many ways what Errantry is most strongly about is the estrangement—the making strange—of the quotidian and familiar. For instance, where "Winter's Wife" and "The Far Shore" both focus on human communion with the animal world, and on individuals who bridge the human and the supernatural in various ways, the narrative gaze in "Errantry" (2007) is fixed squarely on the small town itself, and the characters' relationships with it and with each other. The central trio have known each other since high school. Thirty years later, through a combination of nostalgia, affection, and inertia, they've overcome the comparatively temporary distractions of marriages, jobs, and houses sixty miles away to end up listlessly re-running their old patterns of interaction back home. "[H]eld together by the wobbly gravitational pull exerted by adolescence and the strange, malign beauty of Kamensic, a once-rural town that had since been ravaged by gentrification" (p. 264), they've never really moved on from their teenage selves and habits:
I thought, not for the first time, how little had changed since we really were kids: still bombing around on a Saturday afternoon, drunk or stoned or generally messed up, still screwing each other when no one else would have us, still singing along with the radio. (p. 267)
In quieter moments, narrator Vivian can’t help but link Kamensic's decline to the trio's own self-willed, self-destructive directionlessness. Kamensic, though, is that little bit stranger than the average run-down middle-of-nowheresville: when a mysterious, half-legendary local figure dubbed the Folding Man leaves an origami flower for the trio at their local bar, it turns out to be a map pointing them to a dilapidated old house filled to the rafters with piles of what seems to be miscellaneous junk ("I wondered if it was like an archaeological dig, or geological strata: was there a Golden Age buried under there, before People magazine ruled the earth?" (p. 280)). On further examination—or, put another way, given a narrative by the trio looking through it—the junk starts to take on more significance: old records they loved, books they’ve read. And there is another surprise waiting for them at the center, which may be the key to the whole thing. Or just proof of how stoned they all are.
Elsewhere, Hand's strangeness is redolent of the sort of disturbing, uncanny children's books that gave you nightmares at the age of nine (for me, Alan Garner): books with malevolent forces lurking under sunny hillsides, where adults aren’t going to save our heroes, and whose endings are staggeringly bleak. "Near Zennor" (2011, another World Fantasy Award shortlistee) swaps icy New England for bucolic old England, as widower Jeffrey, numb with recent sorrow ("He experienced grief as a sort of low-grade flu, a persistent, inescapable ache that suffused not just his thoughts but his bones and tendons" (p. 59)) heads for Cornwall in an effort to solve a mystery from his late wife's childhood. At first he is transported by what he sees when he arrives,
a landscape that was a dream of books he'd read as a child—granite farmhouses, woolly-coated ponies in stone paddocks, fields improbably green against lowering grey sky, graphite clouds broken by blades of golden sun, a rainbow that pierced a thunderhead then faded as though erased by some unseen hand. Ringnecked pheasants, a running fox. More fields planted with something that shone a startling goldfinch-yellow. (p. 82)
But soon it becomes clear that the series of books his wife and her friends were obsessed with as children may have been more real and creepy than they seemed. Unfortunately in this case the snippets of the novel-within-the-story that Jeffrey reads end up being more compelling than the slightly run-of-the-mill story itself; the story never quite achieves the affect of its inspirations.
And every now and then Hand is extravagantly strange. "Return of the Fire Witch" (2010)—a baroque, spiky Dying Earth tale of Saloona Morn, a self-described "humble farmer of psychoactive fungus" (p. 217), and Paytim Noringal, a fire witch from the neighboring estate—sits a little uneasily in this company, but it proves a welcome change of tone within a collection that is otherwise largely about brief flashes of weird within the mundane. In contrast to the collection's restrained use of language and dialed-down emotion, "Fire Witch" tells high drama through arch, witty, extravagantly overblown affect. Thus characters say things like "My leman swears I appear more distinguished than this time yestermorn" (p. 211), and "Do not think you can thwart me, Saloona Morn!" (p. 216); we're told of Saloona that,
It was twelve years since she had felt the slightest stirring of ennui or regret, two decades since she had suffered from despondency or alarm. Timidity and childish insouciance she had never known. (p. 209)
while a marvelously over-the-top anecdote about Paytim sketches a life of elaborate dissolution and poor impulse control:
The fire witch's villa nestled in a small valley near the caves of Gonder. The structure had seen better days. It had been commissioned as a seraglio by the Crimson Court lutist Hayland Strife, whose unrestrained dalliances caused three of his aggrieved lovers (one of them Paytim Noringal) to first seduce then subject him to the torment known as Red Dip. When, after seventeen days, the lutist expired, the fire witch prepared a celebratory feast for her fellow torturers, using skewers of oleander for the satay. All died convulsing before daybreak. (p. 212)
So, indeed, it proves, when Paytim cajoles Saloona into accompanying her to the new ruler's coronation, so that she can help Paytim kill him, mostly on a whim ("My intent is to destroy the entire lineage of Paeolina, so that I will never again be subjected to their abhorrent notions of festivity" (p. 221)). We're treated to some fabulously grotesque descriptive language, and it's hard not to wish that a story this much fun had been placed a little earlier in the collection, if only for the contrast it provides:
The King's gaping mouth unhinged. Strands of pliant flesh unfurled from his sallow face to form a crimson lyre. Ribs sprang from his chest like tines and commenced to play a mesmerizing glissando. With an echo of kettle-drums, his skull toppled from its gory spindle and cracked. (p. 244)
The flights of linguistic and imaginative fancy in "Return of the Fire Witch" do possess an energy, an extra spark of the strange, that elevates it above most of the rest of the collection; for me, only "The Far Shore" really matched it. Errantry's strength is as a collection of intricate, deeply considered pieces of work, of a sort that regular readers of Strange Horizons's fiction department are likely to appreciate: stories concerned with people finding, and being transformed by, a brush of the supernatural within settings and lives that are familiar. Or more accurately, within settings and lives that are made to feel familiar, even when they are half a world away from a given reader's living room. This is because Hand gives real space within her stories to landscape and townscape: not simply in terms of descriptive passages, but rather through the connections of emotion and memory her characters have with their environments. When it doesn’t work, it can feel flat—as in the case of "Maiden Flight," whose characters don't feel like a part of the setting in the same sort of way, with the result that the sudden appearance of the strange is less anchored in a sense of place, and less earned, than it is elsewhere in the collection. It becomes de-familiarized, in other words, before it has had the chance to be familiar.
Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle University. (All the Oxford-resident books have now migrated northwards, along with about half of the books in the stacks, aka her parents' place. She has a lot of bookshelves, and still not enough space.) She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.