Febrile Magic

A superb collection of short and long (mostly long) stories by an award-winning fantasy author.

By Rob LathamMarch 6, 2021

Febrile Magic

The Best of Elizabeth Hand by Elizabeth Hand. Subterranean Press. 552 pages.

PREVIOUS COLLECTIONS FROM Elizabeth Hand, Saffron and Brimstone (2006) and Errantry (2012), bore the subtitle “Strange Stories,” a descriptor the author borrowed from Robert Aickman, who preferred this designation to more traditional monikers like “ghost stories,” “dark fantasy,” or “weird fiction.” (Both were perhaps thinking of Poe’s famous dictum that “there is no exquisite beauty […] without some strangeness in the proportion.”) Hand is, indeed, one of the most proficient practitioners of the form since Aickman and Shirley Jackson, crafting eerie, absorbing tales in which mundane life is quietly invaded by fantastic or folkloric forces. Poised between wonderment and dread, her protagonists — often social misfits or bereaved loners — find themselves slipping into alternative dimensions or confronting mysterious, numinous presences that are at once overwhelming and evanescent as a dream.

Hand’s specialty is the novella, tales of roughly 10,000 to 40,000 words — perhaps the perfect length for this sort of story, as it allows for the gradual development of a fantastic premise while sustaining the engrossing spell of a single-sitting read. Her mastery of this form has been recognized by the World Fantasy Convention, which has nominated a record eight of her novellas for its annual prize, with three winning top honors. (Her novellas have also won a Nebula Award, a Shirley Jackson Award, and an International Horror Guild Award.) While this may be a wonderful length for a strange story, however, it makes the project of collecting them rather problematic since it’s hard to fit very many between two covers. Some of Hand’s novellas — such as Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol (2006) and Illyria (2007) — were long enough to publish as freestanding chapbooks, while others have been interspersed among shorter stories in the author’s various collections.

But what to do when an editor — in this case, the redoubtable Bill Sheehan, author of an excellent critical study of Peter Straub’s fiction, At the Foot of the Story Tree (2000) — undertakes to produce a career compilation, a “best of” volume? Happily, when the publisher is Subterranean, one of the most reliable small presses in the field, the solution is to release a very large book: 550 pages of Hand’s superlative stories, including a full six of her major novellas (the only World Fantasy nominees missing are “Chip Crockett” and “The Erl-King” [1993]). Add in the Nebula-winning short story “Echo” (2005) and the International Horror Guild winner “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” (2002), plus a few other assorted tales, and you have one of the most essential single-author anthologies of the year.

To be honest, though, most of the shorter pieces in the book are somewhat forgettable, a couple of them — “Ghost Light” (2018) and “Eat the Wyrm” (2017) — being mere squibs with O. Henry-esque twists in the tail. “The Have-Nots” (1992) and “Fire.” (2017) effectively display Hand’s command of regional vernacular, but aside from their arresting voices and clever premises (a backwoods encounter with Elvis’s ghost, an exercise in lifeboat ethics amid a raging wildfire), they basically consume themselves in the telling. The only true short story in the book that really sticks in the mind is 1991’s “The Bacchae,” a work of near-future horror in which nebulous climate changes have spurred a gender insurrection, the title evoking Euripides’s classic play in which women turn on men in an orgy of feral bloodlust. Hand masterfully captures the hapless protagonist’s dawning recognition of his own vulnerability, as his female neighbors, even his girlfriend, come to view him as delectable prey. In her author’s endnote to the story, Hand calls “The Bacchae” her “attempt at writing a J. G. Ballard story” and says that the readers of the British magazine Interzone, where it first appeared, “voted it the most hated story of the year.” (Promotional materials for the volume boast of “an illuminating set of story notes,” but this was the only one included in my proof copy.)

Judging by the evidence of the contents gathered here, Hand’s fertile imagination does not lend itself comfortably to a constrained compass. Even her superb story “Echo” has been assembled, along with “The Saffron Gatherers” and “Kronia” (both 2006), into a triptych of tales about ambiguous apocalypses with the collective title “The Last Domain — Three Story Variations,” the length of which amounts to yet another novella. (In her own collection, Saffron and Brimstone, this triptych was actually a quartet, also including “Calypso in Berlin” [2005].) While “Echo” is the best of these episodes, a haunting portrait of an email-based romance stuttering into silence amid a nebulous global catastrophe, the entire triptych packs a powerful affective punch, brilliantly fusing classical myth and “cli-fi” SF in a way that Hand has made uniquely her own (as evidenced by “The Bacchae” and slipstreamish novels such as Glimmering [1997] and Waking the Moon [1994]).

Hand’s embrace of mythology is of a piece with her fascination for all manner of obscure and quirky lore: hermetic magic, rural legends, lepidopteran taxonomies, subcultural rites. Perhaps the oddest body of arcana featured in this collection is the history of proto-aviation technologies that underpins “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” (2010), especially the eponymous device, a demented steampunk contrivance that may or may not have been the first flying machine:

It had a zeppelin-shaped body, with a sharp nose like that of a Lockheed Starfighter, slightly uptilted. Suspended beneath this was a basket filled with tiny gears and chains, and beneath that was a contraption with three wheels, like a velocipede, only the wheels were fitted with dozens of stiff flaps […] and even tinier propellers. […] It was like gazing at the Wright Flyer through a kaleidoscope.

An ancient reel of film (which may well be a hoax) purports to capture this jalopy’s gawky flight, inspiring a gearhead nerd to craft a scale-model replica with the goal of reenacting the event, as a kind of tribute to his former boss, a curator at the Smithsonian Museum who superintended the so-called “Nut Files” (“[g]rainy black-and-white photos of purported UFOs; typescripts of encounters with deceased Russian cosmonauts […]; an account of a Raelian wedding ceremony…”) and who is now dying of cancer alone in a hospice. This bizarre premise forms the basis for a deeply affecting human story, as the nerdish loner musters a wistful crew of old friends whose initial skepticism about the plan slowly morphs into uncanny elation.

The setup is classic Hand, with one person’s weird obsession gradually infecting and recruiting others, a pattern recapitulated in several of the book’s entries. In “The Owl Count” (2020), a widow suffering from mild dementia, in another of the author’s hazy post-apocalypse futures, conscripts a male friend for a nocturnal expedition to catalog the area’s surviving owls, only for the couple to encounter a monstrous presence deep in the woods. In “Pavane for a Prince of the Air,” the narrator participates in eccentric funerary rites for a deceased comrade, a legendary hippie whose wife wants to give him a psychedelic send-off. In “The Least Trumps” (2002), a reclusive tattoo artist, in a protracted psychic tailspin following a torturous lesbian affair, finds herself bringing to vivid life, through her inks, a fantasy landscape encoded in a Tarot deck designed by a Tolkienesque children’s author.

A similar work, and the best of this kind of tale in the book, is “Near Zennor” (2011), a gorgeously strange story that won a Shirley Jackson Award and was nominated for a British Fantasy Award. Once again, the precipitating incident has to do with the work of a mysterious writer of children’s fantasy novels. Protagonist Jeffrey, mourning the sudden death of his wife Moira from a cerebral aneurysm, unearths among her effects a handful of adolescent fan letters to Robert Bennington, author of the popular ’60s series “The Sun Battles,” a Tolkien-influenced but ultimately far darker chronicle of alternative dimensions set in his native Cornwall. Moira’s missives relate a visit she and two of her friends made to Bennington’s secluded rural estate — a revelation that rattles Jeffrey, since the author was eventually accused of sexually abusing minors, a sensational scandal that essentially ended his career. Unaccountably obsessed now himself, Jeffrey quizzes one of Moira’s childhood friends, who denies that anything untoward happened during their stay; they all, she says, “just wanted to believe that magic could happen like in those books […] all that New Agey hippie stuff, Tarot cards and Biba and ‘Ride a White Swan’…” Unable to let the matter drop, the brooding Jeffrey makes an out-of-season trip to Penwith, on England’s windswept southwest coast, and proceeds to trek across the dolmen-strewn fields straight into the heart of a prehistoric darkness.

“Near Zennor” is a virtual compendium of Hand’s characteristic themes. Jeffrey is yet another entry in her compelling gallery of rueful isolates struggling to fill a psychic void, to shake a grief that lingers “like a low-grade flu, a persistent, inescapable ache that suffused not just his thoughts but his bones and tendons.” Like so many of her characters, he finds ambiguous solace in the lingering legacy of the 1960s, in the vaguely tainted but still potent mythographies of a tatterdemalion counterculture. The first story in the book, “Last Summer at Mars Hill” (1998), sets the tone, with its gentle portrait of a hippie artists’ colony lost in time, almost literally immortal, its crew of scruffy oddballs moving through “a soft explosion of antique dreams.” Personally, I have to admit that I found all the whiffs of patchouli oil and pot smoke faintly nauseating, but there is no denying the hypnotic power Hand can summon from the smoldering remains. Like the great Algernon Blackwood, she has a vivid gift for evoking the bewitchments lurking in rural landscapes, especially in her native Maine, but also, as “Near Zennor” testifies, in any locus of ancient sorceries. Above all, “Near Zennor” displays her abiding resistance to genre formulas: like so many of her stories, it does not foreground its fantastic premise but rather keeps it hovering on the margins, from where it casts a mystic glow over the human relationships that are always the author’s main subject. Even the more overtly horrific tales in the book — such as “Cleopatra Brimstone” (2001), in which a rape survivor takes a mutagenic vengeance on men by transforming them into insects — use their occult ideas to probe the seams and fractures of everyday life.

The capstone story, “Illyria,” is a perfect testament to this strategy. At 100 pages, it is the longest tale in the book, essentially a short novel, and it uses its length to its advantage by sketching a richly textured portrait of an eccentric family in midcentury Yonkers. Though it won the World Fantasy Award, the story’s non-mimetic content is fairly slight, consisting of an apparently magical toy theater discovered behind an attic wall in the family’s ramshackle mansion on the Hudson. (The echoes of Angela Carter’s hallucinatory 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop seem quite intentional.) Hand’s fairy playhouse serves largely as a symbol for the kinship dynamics of this fraught menagerie, whose theatrical traditions have decayed since a glamorous female ancestor stalked the boards and shimmered on the silent screen. But her legacy is being revived by a pair of budding teenage thespians, Madeleine and Rogan, “kissing cousins” whose theatrical ambitions — and love affair — are sternly discouraged by their stolidly bourgeois parents, while being secretly kindled by a bohemian aunt. Though a bit quaint and stagy, the story never descends into Auntie Mame–level camp, largely because of the riveting first-person narration by Maddy, whose desperate, almost feverish love for her fey cousin, a naturally gifted singer with a taste for drugs and other dissipations, is balanced by her urge to escape her family and make her own career. “Illyria” sustains an ambivalent tone of melancholy romantic irony borrowed from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a high school staging of which culminates the plot. That Hand, in evoking the febrile magic of theatrical illusion, should reach for such a vaunted comparison is striking evidence of her literary ambition; that the comparison should seem in the end quite apt is evidence of her remarkable skills.

One of these skills, I discovered as I read through the volume, is her uncanny ability to convey the texture of a character’s thoughts or the reality of an imagined environment through olfactory information. This is a book filled with pungent scents, from the burning sage of “Mars Hill” to the “stink like scorched metal” that wafts from the tattooist’s ink-gun in “The Least Trumps” to the characteristic fragrance of a family member’s or a lover’s skin, summoned again and again in these pages: Maddy’s male cousins, for example, have a “tree-house smell, sweetish and slightly rank, ammoniacal; at once green and earthen,” while Rogan reeks of “smoke and sweat […] bitter with nicotine.” The animal hunters in “The Owl Count” have preternaturally heightened senses that allow them to track woodland creatures in the snowy dark, and even the monster they encounter is never clearly seen, manifesting as an eruption of fecal stench. I had read many of these stories before, in magazines and collections, but I had never noticed this tenacious aromatic insistence. The result is a sensual richness that gives Hand’s writing an arresting savor and a palpable density. In terms of the cumulative effect, I think I can smell another World Fantasy Award for best collection of the year.


Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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