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Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

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.

Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand

“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.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see:
Available Dark
Errantry: Strange Stories

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

January 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Errantry

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.

Elizabeth Hand almost featuring a halo

Elizabeth Hand almost featuring a halo

 

“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!

 

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see;
Available Dark
Last Summer at Mars Hill

 

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand (Minotaur Books, 2012) is a challenging book in several quite different ways and it’s difficult to offer a review without too many spoilers. So let’s start with the relatively uncontroversial elements. This is the second book using the character of Cassandra Neary (Cass for short), the first being Generation Loss, set in Maine. However, there’s no need for you to have read the first. You can simply accept there’s a risk Cass may be accused of involvement in the death described and so finds it expedient to be unavailable for interview by law enforcement officers. It would be inconvenient to explain how and why she was in the right place at the right time to take a photograph of the victim.

This sets the tone for this second book. When starting out as a photographer, Cass made a name for herself through the publication of Dead Girls. As the title suggests, this was a collection of photographs which, in an artistic way, captured images of death. Because of this, she has a cult following among those who collect the memorabilia of the dead. Unfortunately, it also represents the high or low point of her career, depending on your point of view. She gets by, earning just enough to pay the rent in New York, but never really wants to break into the “big time”, whatever that may be. In part, this reflects her punk lifestyle in which drugs and alcohol fuel her endurance from one day to the next. There’s an essential and deep-seated alienation that prevents her from forming any real relationships. Her one true love from High School, Quinn O’Boyle, was hauled off to jail and she has not seen him since. The circumstances described in Generation Loss were the first time since school that she’d actually spent quality time with people. That this ended in death was unfortunate and, in a way, ironic. Her cult followers believe she has a rare talent, an eye that captures the essential nature of death through the lens of her old Konica. She confirmed that by allowing one of the photographs showing the latest death in Maine to be published in Stern.

Elizabeth Hand and a wall with an anti-nuclear tattoo

Now she’s off to Finland to authenticate a set of six pictures for Anton Bredahl, a rich collector. Why should she agree to go? Apart from the money, it gives her the chance to meet Ilkka Kaltunnen, a photographer who also has a flair for photographing people near or after death. For a while, he was immensely popular, his pictures appearing in the glossy pages of magazines like Vogue. Then nothing. This starts her off on a journey and involvement, both direct and indirect, in a number of deaths. So here’s the question. Does someone “famous” always deserve a diarist/journalist/photographer to shadow daily activities and record events as they occur? Or, put another way, what’s the function of a person who takes photographs? I’m reminded of the photograph taken by Nick Ut of a girl in Vietnam called Kim Phuc. She was running naked down a road following a napalm attack. He won a Pulitzer. She won months in hospital and years of pain. Vietnamese doctors saved her life because the photograph made her famous, but at what cost? She became a communist propaganda pawn, forced to endure media intrusion. Even her defection to, and subsequent political asylum in, Canada could not take the continuing physical and emotional pain from her. She was a victim of war and was further victimised because of that photograph.

Elizabeth Hand introduces us to a world in which people collect and deal in the memorabilia of death. As an author, she takes no moral stance on this trade. It’s simply described for what it is. Yet what is the real power of the photographs? Why are they collectable? What is their value in monetary and other terms? In some cases, the photographs could be trophies collected by the killers and their fans. At the scene of each murder, the murderers’ shadows record the detail of each death for the enjoyment of those in the group. Or they could be for blackmail, containing critical evidence that would identify the killer(s). In addition, the book contains descriptions of different types of metal music that celebrate aspects of death and cultish belief systems. When the action moves to Reykjavik, the need to understand the relationship between the music and the photography grows stronger. When we later add Norse myths and rituals, it all grows very dark — hence the ambiguity in the title of the book.

To be able to take a picture, there must be enough ambient light for the camera to function. This leads to a complex game between the photographer and the environment in which selection of the lens, the shutter speed, the type of film and the availability of light from different sources all come together in the expression of true art. Even in today’s high technology world of pixels, art transcends mere skill to celebrate what the photographer sees through the lens. So how does a photographer capture the pictures? How is there enough dark content to photograph? How is there enough light so viewers can see clearly enough what has happened? Perhaps the best pictures are always the result of careful staging. Yet this does not explain the power of photographs such as taken by Nick Ut. The problem is that he and other war correspondents hover like a carrion birds on battlefields waiting for just the right moment when they can capture a life in danger or about to be extinguished. History is made up of the pictures and the other descriptions they bring back. People collect the uniforms, the weapons used and the medals awarded for valour. They visit the sites of great battles, studying maps and role-playing the parts of generals and foot-soldiers. They play first-person shooter games and read fictional accounts of combat. So, as a society, it’s morally acceptable to be interested in death caused during war or situations where the combat is dignified as honourable. But it’s somehow qualitatively less acceptable to be interested in death caused in the commission of crime or as part of a ritual.

Available Dark is a powerful book. It’s written with a wonderful eye for detail. However, I have serious reservations about the credibility and coherence of the plot, and I’m not convinced by the moral equivalence of the context for the action. Why must photographers end up like voyeurs observing the rape of life or the desecration of death, particularly when there are ritualised or cultish overtones to the situations? Surely, they are allowed to look away. This is not a book for everyone. I would rate it as a brilliant failure. The writing is wonderful but. . .

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see:
Errantry: Strange Stories
Last Summer at Mars Hill

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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