Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand
Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand (Open Road, 2013) shows me catching up on the early work of this author — this collection holds stories published from 1988 to 1994 — and thanks are due to this publisher for bringing this book back into print. There’s a timelessness about her prose which, like all the best of the more character-driven literary or poetic stylists, blends what we may loosely call mainstream fiction with more supernatural or fantastic elements. The result is very evocative but in a restrained way. Others who go down this path often end up more baroque. This is masterfully understated, often interweaving everyday experiences with fantasy and myths.
“Last Summer at Mars Hill” won both the 1995 Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award which is a relatively unusual combination depending on the view you want to take of the “force for good”, if that’s what it is. Perhaps they came in a flying saucer or they are a supernatural force. In a way it doesn’t matter. No matter what they are, they can choose people to save from death. We might speculate they need to feast on a little mortality every now and then to sustain their own immortality. It’s hard not to see this as some kind of mutually beneficial exchange for why else would they bother? So many humans come and go from this place without seeing them let alone interacting with them. That makes them all the more enigmatic. And then, of course, comes the real question. If they have granted immortality to those who stay in that place, should they want to accept it? What kind of life is it if you’re trapped in that place? If you had a full life outside and still have things you would like to do, why should you give it all up? In structural terms, the story is a delight because it’s a coming-of-age for both the two teens and their adult parents. Everyone must decide how they are to relate to each other both now and in the future.
“The Erl King” (shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award) is a wonderful story about loss. There are times when you wonder what price people of such little talent had to pay to achieve celebrity. Those who are lucky just lose their virginity on the casting couch but others enter into more long-term bargains. Here’s a wicked story about a couple who knew each other when younger, then parted, but come physically closer when the time draws near. This is a beautifully judged supernatural version of a long-spoon story in which the dark figure returns to collect what’s due to him. “Justice” is an interestingly atmospheric story that has an investigative reporter frustrated by her publisher’s unwillingness to publish some of her more sensational stories. With her latest project spiked, she meets a woman interested in justice for women. The clue as to which myth we’re dealing with comes early if you’re willing to see it for what it is. I’m not sure the story is a success but it certainly does show anger at the way in which our patriarchal society responds to attacks on women. “Dionysus Dendrites” a short poem about a god in a tree. “The Have-Nots” reminds us that, no matter who you are, a little magic can always come into your life to offset all the shit you’ve had to take the rest of the time. This is the story of a woman whose one claim to fame manages to bring back what was lost — remarkably, it was the Elvis connection that did the trick.
“In the Month of Athyr” is another coming-of-age story, this time in a science fiction setting exploring sex and sexuality, asking whether gender relations would be improved by the introduction of a third sex. This would remove the necessity for men to couple with women and leave them to a better, less troubled life. But what of this created creature? It’s only function in life is to satisfy men. No sense or intelligence is required. It’s purely functional and, even to an essentially mindless beast, deeply unsatisfying. “Engels Unaware” is a straight political allegory explaining the forces behind the Black Monday collapse and offering hope for impoverished temp office workers everywhere. “The Bacchae” is also an extended allegory, suggesting there might (or should) come a time when women everywhere should take up the sword and dispose of as many of the men as possible. This might not be very practical in terms of perpetuating the species but, as a matter of revenge for centuries of abuse, it might make them feel better for a while. “Snow on Sugar Mountain” flirts with sentimentality as a newly orphaned boy strikes up a relationship with an old astronaut dying of cancer. Yet despite this, there’s a magic about the story which transcends the threatening mawkishness and ends with a note of quiet optimism as the boy reaches an accommodation with himself and decides what he would like to become.
“On the Town Route” is another of the spot the myth(s) stories as our young couple drop out of the world of responsibility and join in the subculture off the beaten track where ice cream is the real currency. The result is a slow collision between realism and the world of magic where seasons change and some may call out in song to others for company during the winter months. Which brings us the the last two stories in the collection and the first two stories she published. “The Boy in the Tree” is a rather curious story about a girl who is going through testing as a potential weapon. She has been genetically modified and the point of the testing is to determine what if any powers she has developed. This would be a very lonely existence if there was no-one to share the pain. “Prince of Flowers” is a more traditional supernatural story of a kleptomaniac working in a museum who acquires things for her home. This is not a problem until she comes across a doll. Although there are one or two weak links, Last Summer at Mars Hill remains a very fine collection by a young author who has matured into one of the most consistently engaging authors. It has been fascinating to see the first literary seeds planted and this represents very good value to anyone interested in character-driven fantasy and science fiction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.