December 16, 2012

Book Review: Hand creates new feast of uncommon stories

By JOAN SILVERMAN

Like some of the characters she invents, Elizabeth Hand is a shape-shifter. At times, she's a noir stylist leaving bloody tracks in the Icelandic snow. Other times, she's a dystopian narrator searching for a cell signal, a hint of human connection, on a remote Maine island.

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REVIEW

"ERRANTRY: STRANGE STORIES." By Elizabeth Hand. 320 pages, paperback. Small Beer Press. $16.

Winner of multiple World Fantasy and Nebula awards, Hand moves easily among different genres -- horror, suspense and sci-fi; dark fantasy and crime; magical realism. Factor in her knack for atmospherics and a cinematic flair, and Hand's literary fiction is often a feast for the senses.

Hand, who lives on the rural coast of Maine, is not one to be neatly pigeonholed. Evidence of this fact comes in the form of her new collection, "Errantry: Strange Stories."

Truth in advertising is a rarity these days, yet Hand's disarming subtitle is just right. "Strange Stories" is just enough of a teaser to suggest the mix of oddities within -- eight short stories and two novellas that display the author's bandwidth.

These stories portray an assortment of characters -- stoners, eccentrics and rakes; outsiders and obsessives. Some are driven by forces they may (or may not) understand; others struggle with powers beyond their control. Suffice to say, the author keeps them -- and us -- viscerally alert.

In "The Far Shore," a retired ballet instructor has long dreamed of flight and the fall that prematurely ended his dance career.

"Most of all," Hand writes, "he loved those moments during a performance when he could feel himself suspended within an ephemeral web of music and movement, gravity momentarily defeated by the ingrained memory of muscle and bone."

This story of longing and transformation moves from the mundane to the ethereal, from the promise of a retreat at a rustic Maine camp to a surreal encounter in the woods. The fantasy of flight infuses this lyrical tale.

The standouts in this collection, however, are its two award-winning novellas. In "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon," the author turns to the world of aviation history. Three men recreate the failed test flight of a quirky 1901 airplane by fashioning an exquisite model, staging and filming its passage. The result is a bittersweet, magical sci-fi tale.

"Near Zennor," in contrast, takes a darker tone, mingling loss and dread in a story that could have stemmed from yesterday's news. Sorting through his wife's effects, a recent widower finds a stash of letters she wrote as a schoolgirl to a British author. He Googles the name and learns that the author, a writer of children's books, was later found to be a pedophile.

The letters, and the questions they raise, fuel a taut, menacing journey through the moors of England -- "near Zennor" -- in search of answers.

"Out on the moor and gorse-grown cliffs, the strangeness of the immense, dour landscape had temporarily banished the near-constant presence of his dead wife," Hand writes. "Anthea had been here, too. Not the Anthea he had loved but her mayfly self, the girl he'd never known; the Anthea who'd contained an entire secret world he'd never known existed."

In this and other stories, Hand is constantly blending old and new, real and imaginary, as her characters live at the edge of disparate, often contradictory, worlds.

This collection is host to werewolves and Wikipedia, ghostly spirits and online brides.

And whether here or abroad, the cell phone without a signal remains an emblem of utter modern isolation.

No writer has cornered the market on darkly beautiful, unsettling stories. But it's a niche that Elizabeth Hand inhabits with uncanny ease.

Joan Silverman of Kennebunk writes op-eds, essays and book reviews for numerous publications.

 

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