Errantry by Elizabeth Hand
An interesting sounding book as reviewed in the Washington Post:
Elizabeth Hand’s stories in “Errantry” are strange, yes (the book is even sub*titled “Strange Stories”), but they are also classically engaging, tales you could read aloud around a fire late at night to induce trembles and sighs. What Hand often explores is a happening: In almost every story the main character, usually un*settled or devastated by some kind of loss, finds him or herself in a situation where the world doesn’t behave as it usually does. There is an infiltration, a witnessing or an encounter. Yet these events — special as they are — don’t feel outrageous; one of the strengths here is that none of the oddness comes across as shocking or out of place. It seems to grow naturally and allow for either wonder or horror, or some combination of the two.
In “Near Zennor,” one of the most memorable stories in the collection, Hand is able to capture a nightmarish feeling without ever touching anything we know as truly frightening. Her feat in this piece about, partially, an afternoon exploratory walk is to cull a sense of dread and terror from the slow buildup of the story so that an image, a moment — one that is not directly horrific — becomes so. This is the stuff of real nightmares, of waking up trembling in the middle of the night after dreaming about a shoe and thinking, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” while remaining unable to shake how the mind can set a tone that can distort anything. In these moments, Hand’s stories glue right on to memory and become truly resonant and inexplicable. In pieces lacking such mysterious moments, she is more direct, more straightforward, and although these tales are solid and show off her considerable storytelling skills, they do not have the same impact.
Nature is a big player here in building suspense. Some of Hand’s richest prose comes from lush descriptions of the natural world, and how it contains both great beauty and dark mystery. One image offers pure loveliness: “A thin rind of emerald appeared on the horizon, deepening to copper then gold as it overtook the sky.” Another might suggest deep uneasiness: Birds “circled above the lodge, making a wild, high-pitched keening; then arrowed downward, so close that he could see the indigo gleam of their bills and their startlingly bright, almost baleful, golden eyes.”
One of the shorter pieces, “Hungerford Bridge,” tells of a man whose old friend wants to take him on an excursion. They go on a walk, staking out a little garden area past a bridge. What makes this story work is its quietness. Something is seen, and something happens, but it’s nothing big and dramatic. It’s the quiet wonder of the unfathomable natural world, suddenly made new and passed along as a great intimacy. In another story, a moment of horror occurs when an ancient pine tree is cut down; Hand gives the incident such a complex context that the tale continues in a blaze of agony and revenge.