Errantry: Strange Stories
by Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer Press
There’s a phrase used by some in Maine, where Elizabeth Hand lives part of the year, to describe those who aren’t Mainers: they are “from away.” It’s a fascinating phrase, rich with the insular, New England suspicion of outsiders and a pride of place that suggests Maine as the proper center of the universe. Many of the characters in Hand’s recent collection of novellas and sketches, Errantry, are from away, but originate places from much, much farther away than Massachusetts or New York.
Regardless of where they hailed from, these from-away figures become a close, uncanny presence in the lives of the stories’ characters. One such person is the titular woman in “Winter’s Wife.” When Roderick Gale Winter, a wild backwoods bachelor, fetches a bride from (he claims) Iceland and brings her back to rural Maine, Winter’s friends are happy for him. But as they get to know his wife, Vala, better, they observe odd things about her: her touch is so cold that it can cause blood to well up from skin and she seems abnormally, viscerally attuned to the rhythms and wonders of nature. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Vala is indeed from away, but she’s certainly not from Iceland—at least not the human part. That revelation might not come as a surprise in collection subtitled “Strange Stories,” but where other writers might take this theme towards menace or horror, Hand treats her characters’ encounters with the mysterious as opportunities for wonder and even joy.
That same hidden-nature-leading-to-wonder is present in the naked, injured young man that Philip, the main character of “The Far Shore,” takes in and looks after discovering him on a nighttime hike. While “Winter’s Wife” ends with a just-so act of supernatural revenge (or, depending on your perspective, justice), “The Far Shore” ends with love, transformation, freedom, and adventure. Both stories demonstrate Hand’s restrained, lyrical approach to genre. While both stories contain elements of fantasy and fairy tale, they’re not entirely magical nor entirely mundane. They’re stories of odd, unusual occurrences, some of which are frightening, others beautiful or dreamlike.
Since these stories are populated by people from other worlds, it’s no surprise that those worlds stand close by to our own. A number of the stories here concern the places where those worlds rub up against ours, the soft spots between them, and the odd experiences that befall those who stray too close to these liminal places.
Perhaps the most affecting story in the collection, “Near Zennor,” highlights Hand’s effective treatment of these soft spots. The story concerns a widower who, when going through his recently deceased wife’s belongings, discovers evidence that in her teens she briefly knew, corresponded with, and visited the reclusive author of a series of British fantasy novels. His wife remained a fan of the novels and even introduced them to her husband during their college years, so he’s surprised that she never mentioned this to him—and more concerned and curious when he learns that the author was later convicted as a pedophile. Determined to learn more, he sets out for England and his wife’s oldest friend. In doing so, he travels—as his wife did as a girl—to Zennor, the town where the author lived, and to his house. There, in a series of subtly tense and measured scenes, he discovers a strangeness in that part of the world, one of these soft spots, and answers more questions about his wife and her experiences than he knew to ask when he set out.
Handled by another writer, the deep eerieness of “Near Zennor” would resolve in gruesome revelation or bombastic fantasy. Instead, Hand eschews more lurid shocks and treats the story as a meditation on the mysteries of the ones we love and the mysteriousness of the world. While there are chilling scenes, the story leaves the reader with a rich sense of wonder, menace, and the fantastic.
“Near Zennor” is a strong encapsulation of Hand’s approach to genre. While there are some unsettling and eerie moments, it is not quite horror. Other stories, such as “The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon” or “Hungerford Bridge” edge close to science fiction and fantasy, respectively, before scooting off in other directions. The only container in which these tales seem to fit is, as the book’s subtitle aptly puts it, strange stories.
Despite the presence of genre elements, the focus of these strange stories, their greatest concern is the characters, their emotional experiences, moods evoked, language. Those seeking straight-ahead genre work will be disappointed, but if you enjoy probing the soft spots between genres, especially when one of those genres is literary fiction, you will find much to treasure in Errantry.