Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review - Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

Stories included:
The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon
Near Zennor
Hungerford Bridge
The Far Shore
Winter's Wife
Cruel Up North
The Return of the Fire Witch
Uncle Lou

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Errantry: Strange Stories is a collection of short fiction by Elizabeth Hand. The dominant theme of the collection seems to be melancholy and regret, and the stories mostly seem to occupy that netherworld that exists right on the edge between fantasy and reality. In many ways the stories in this collection reminded me of the stories from John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights, or perhaps Ray Bradbury's Medicine for Melancholy. The end result is a beautiful collection of strange and sad stories.

The opening story is The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, a story about the kind of regret that comes with middle age, when someone realizes that the dreams of their youth have faded to grey while there is still a lot of life left in front of them. The protagonist is a widower raising his son following the untimely death of his spouse. He works a menial job to make ends meet and keeps loosely in touch with a couple of people from his halcyon days working as a security guard at the National Air and Space museum. This meager, decades-old connection results him setting out on an expedition to North Carolina's outer banks to fly a model of the titular aircraft in honor of a dying woman who worked as a researcher at the museum. The ties between the characters in the story are whisper thin, but they are all any of them has, so they engage in this crazy and quixotic quest. The only trouble with the story is that the fantastical element seems almost pointlessly thrown in and more or less irrelevant to the plot in any substantial way.

Near Zennor also deals with loss and a quest following a wife Anthea's death (a grief further compounded by the fact that their only daughter had previously died as an infant), but this time the protagonist, Jeffrey, goes in search of answers to a mystery that hovered about his spouse. It seems that his deceased wife was a fan of the obscure children's book The Sun Battles by the now disgraced author Robert Bennington. Bennington's reputation has been tarnished by accusations of pedophilia, and his writing career was ruined as a result. But in looking through Anthea's effects, Jeffrey finds that she and three of her friends seem to have contacted the author when they were young girls. Searching deeper, he finds that they went to see him, and something terrible appears to have happened that Anthea and her friends never spoke about. Jeffrey goes to England to search the area where Bennington lived, and where the mysterious event seems to have happened, and has a series of odd things happen. None of them are odd enough to definitively declare them to be otherworldly, but they do give the story and eerie and haunting quality. The story meanders at times, but the final pages are so creepy and effective that they make up for it.

Hungerford Bridge is a story that seems like it could have been written by John Collier, and it depicts a reality that could be our reality and we would never know it. The story is short, detailing the passing of a beautiful secret from one person to another. It is one of the few stories in the collection that doesn't deal with death and loss, but rather a shared knowledge, but it still manages to be melancholy. More fantastical than Hungerford Bridge, is The Far Shore, a story about an aging ballet instructor who moves into an off-season summer camp after losing his job with the ballet company he has been part of for his entire career. The story contains many themes, most of them about coping with injury, the loss of the dreams of our youth, and the inevitability of age, but it also contains the joy of finding a new love. The only thing that was somewhat disappointing about the story was that having a male ballet dancer turn out to be gay seems so predictable and stereotypical that the protagonist seem almost to be a caricature rather than a well-developed character.

Winter's Wife is a story featuring folk tale elements set in a rural Maine county. Told by a fatherless teenage boy who has struck up something of a foster relationship with a quirky nature-loving man named Winter, the narrative tells of Winter's conflict with a wealthy local named Tierny over a group of ancient trees in a nearby wood. As the title would suggest, Winter's wife, a tiny Icelandic woman who spends much of the story pregnant,  features prominently in the plot. The story deals with the arrogance of wealth and how nature might respond if it had the power to do so with the fate bestowed upon the villainous Tierny being poetic, albeit somewhat gruesome, justice. But the story is also about families, and how the family we choose is just as important as the family we are born into. Following immediately after Winter's Wife is Cruel Up North, the shortest and one of the most mysterious stories in the book. Taking up a mere three pages, the story tells of a woman's exploration through a city block and the odd discovery she makes.

The most perplexing story in the collection is Summerteeth, which seems to be an odd mixture of a mood piece and the first half of a summer horror film. Set on an island retreat frequented by artists and writers and told in punctuated, and at times seemingly unrelated, vignettes, the whole atmosphere of the story is one of confusion, loneliness, and despair. The story feels almost as if Hand was trying to convey the angst that an artist feels while immersed in the creative process, but layered over this are the hints of a mysterious danger stalking the individuals who sojourn on the island. Like several other stories in the volume there's nothing explicitly supernatural about any of the happenings that take place during the tale, but the odd happenstances give it an unsettling, albeit confusing air.

In contrast to the off-kilter reality of Hungerford Bridge, Near Zennor, and Summerteeth, The Return of the Fire Witch is the most unabashedly fantastical story of the bunch. In the tale a fungus witch named Saloona is roped into helping her neighbor, the fire witch Paytim's quest for revenge against the freshly crowned Paeolina of the Crimson Messuage. Paytim has acquired an extraordinarily powerful and lethal charm to accomplish this goal, but she needs Saloona's aid to pull off her objective. Unlike so many of the other stories in the collection which include only a sparing dash of fantasy or science fiction, The Return of the Fire Witch is filled with huge ladles full of magical elements. Both Saloona and Paytim live surrounded by magical charms, magical devices, and magical beasts to such an extent that these surroundings begin to seem almost mundane as the story goes on. Both of the women make their way to the Crimson Messuage, and begin to carry out their plan, although there are a couple complications and a betrayal along the way. In the end, this story seems to be a commentary upon the absurdity of many fantasy tales as well as the pointlessness of revenge.

As with many of the stories in this book, Uncle Lou is focused on the tiredness that comes with age. The titular character is an irascible old bachelor now retired from a long career of writing travel guides aptly named the "By Night" series because they tell people where to find the best night spots around the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of his favorite niece who seems to be a frequent caller upon the old man. Uncle Lou invites his niece to accompany him on a trip to night time benefit for a zoo. This being something of a modern fairy tale, the trip takes an unexpected course, although it seems that the unusual retirement that Uncle Lou enters into is one that he not only anticipated, but prepared for.

Errantry is at the same time the strangest and the most mundane story of the collection. A group of three friends, including a musician named Tommy who is obsessed with a fictional woman named "Estelle", set out on the trail of an unknown person they only know as "the folding man", so named for his proclivity for leaving little folded paper sculptures behind wherever he goes. None of the trio have ever actually seen the folding man, and they only know of him as a result of occasionally finding his creations in local bars and restaurants. The story details their pursuit of the mysterious origami aficionado through several venues until they wind up in an abandoned house in the countryside. Exploring the house only results in more mystery, as it seems that the long gone occupants hoarded everything, and most notably piles and piles of newspapers. Eventually they uncover something even more disturbing than piles of trash, which seems to connect to Tommy's obsession with "Estelle", although not in such a way that would confirm that anything supernatural was taking place. The story is somewhat unnerving, but not because of anything that might be definitely called magic, rather because it seems so close to what reality would be if seen through a distorting lens.

Filled with stories that seem to exist just to the side of reality and laced through with themes of loss, loneliness, sadness, and death, Errantry: Strange Stories is an engaging and sometimes disturbing collection. Every story in the volume is interesting, even if some of them seem simply inexplicably odd, and a few, notably Winter's Wife, Near Zennor, and Errantry, are excellent. Overall, this is a lovely collection of stories that will leave the reader feeling full of melancholy, full of sorrow, and full of wonder.

Note: This volume contains The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, a 2011 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette and a 2001 nominee for the Locus Award for Best Novella. This volume also contains Winter's Wife, a 2008 nominee for the Locus Award for Best Novelette as well as Near Zennor, a 2012 nominee for the Locus Award for Best Novella. The entire volume as whole was nominated for the 2013 Locus Award for Best Collection.

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

2008 Locus Award Nominees
2011 Locus Award Nominees
2012 Locus Award Nominees
2013 Locus Award Nominees

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