Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press, 2012) is another wonderful collection of short stories from an increasingly impressive small press. This should be required reading for anyone interested in the craft of writing short stories and approached without any positive preconceptions about genre labels. The majority of these stories simply exist. Trying to categorise them would be to diminish them.
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” was shortlisted for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novella and won the 2011 World Fantasy Award. It’s a pleasingly elegant story that flirts with science fiction and fantasy ideas but never really commits itself. Conventional wisdom says that, if you’re going to write a “science fiction” or “fantasy” story, it must contain distinguishable features of either or both genres. So, for example, if there’s going to be time travel, you need movement, say from today to 1901, where folk from the different temporal regions interact and fail to kill each other’s grandparents. Or there should be aliens aggressively trying to market Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters as hair restorer tonic. If it’s supposed to be fantasy, there should be wizards or ghosts or barbarians waving their big swords around. Without such signposts, readers will be cast adrift, unable to relate to a story of three ageing men (one of whom takes his two sons along for the ride), who go on a trip to film the flight of a model plane. Sadly, they can’t rebuild the original Bellerophon, so the best they can do is fly a model and recreate the sense of the old film that recorded the first powered flight (before the Wright Brothers). They want to do this because an ex-colleague is dying of cancer and it will lift her mood if she can see a recreation of the original film. So be warned. There are no alien monsters in the sea or invisibly on land helping people (and things) to fly. And no-one could ever dream of cameras (or model planes) moving between different times. That would be silly. Really, I can’t think why this story is so good.
“Near Zennor” won the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella which, if nothing else, should tell you how well Elizabeth Hand writes. This opening pair of prize-winning novellas makes the first third of this collection outstanding. Yet again we’re in allusive territory. It’s not so much the nature of events described or the ending which is somewhat predictable. Rather it’s the quality of the journey we take in arriving at the conclusion. When the ordinary writer sets off on a supernatural story, we can expect ghosts and various assorted ghoulies. Should the author decide to stray into fantasy land, there can be something fey or creepy spells can be cast for malign effect. Here we have a husband who’s grieving over the loss of his wife. Going through boxes of her possessions, he comes across a locket and some letters marked “Retuned to Sender”. Perhaps not entirely sure why he’s inspired to investigate, he goes on a quest to discover why she wrote the letters and what, if anything, happened to her when she was barely a teenager and visited an author who lived near Zennor in the south west of England. It’s a beautifully sustained piece of atmospheric writing.
“Hungerford Bridge” beautifully captures the loneliness of living and working in a big city. You’re surrounded by millions of people but never regularly find time to meet up with friends and acquaintances. As a rare compensation for this social isolation, the city itself can offer completely unexpected views of a different world in which the sharing between two people advances to a new level. Except, if that happens, there would often be no-one to tell because that would destroy the magic. “The Far Shore” should remind classical music lovers of The Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius. This short story version of the myth tells of a tragic accident that leaves a ballet dancer unable to perform, yet his spirit aches to fly in grand jetés. The idea of wintering at a deserted camp site sounds a good way of reaching emotional balance. The physical peace of the lake should inspire greater acceptance of the need to find a new career. Except one day he finds a half-dead young man lying in the snow.
“Winter’s Wife” is a wonderful story about living life how it should be lived, respecting nature and the environment, and aiming to have strength in the community with all in harmony. Except, of course, there are always going to be some people who are naturally perverse or who acquire such wealth they no longer believe they need take account of anyone else’s wishes or feelings. So how should long-term residents react to the nouveau riche who feel they are not accountable? In this case, we get more than just a stony-faced reaction. “Cruel Up North” is a short vignette creating the mood and then capturing a moment of inconsequential death. Similarly, “Summerteeth” captures the moment when a man and a woman meet again. This time, they are on an island where the man is running a project to interview people about their first marriages. He wants to immortalise their oral histories as they focus on their failures to relate to significant others. There’s another woman on the island as well and a strange story about two missing cats. Perhaps something took them. It’s poetic brilliance to take your breath away without the need for anything specific to happen (or not happen as you prefer).
“In the Return of the Fire Witch” (which first appeared in Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois) we have a story in honour of the preventive strike. When you know the newly elevated King is literally out to get you, the only sensible thing to do is to get him first. Somewhere there’s probably one of those interminable ballads much beloved by lutenists who think they can sing which celebrates how the mighty are brought low by those they despise. With only magic mushrooms to distract and a plangent melody to play, how can this plan go wrong. “Uncle Lou” encourages us to think about whether we ever really feel comfortable in our own skins. Particularly as we grow older and remember how fit and healthy we used to be, the idea of ending our days as someone different takes hold. Then comes the practicality of casting aside all the material things that used to be so important to us and, having said our farewells, we can move into the secret retirement home we’ve kept in reserve. And finally, “Errantry” has our disparate group wander around their old stamping ground and the immediate countryside. It’s not quite a quest but they do contrive to pull off a rescue in rather strange circumstances. Sometimes when you unfold a piece of origami to see how the “trick” is done, even the paper used can have significance — as if the words used on the page somehow gave thought to the final form. A good note on which to end this review of Errantry: Strange Stories because the words this author uses magically produces an infinite variety of forms. You should read this collection!