The Best of Elizabeth Hand
By Elizabeth Hand, edited by Bill Sheehan (2021)
Death, darkness, dismay, and the supernatural are hallmark characteristics of Elizabeth Hand’s highly literary weird fiction, and The Best of Elizabeth Hand collects a dozen exemplary stories from across her long career.
The book contains a number of her award-winners, among them her widely admired novellas Illyria, which Hand in her author’s note calls “my version of (Shakespeare’s) Twelfth Night,” and The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon, about the possibility of a pre-Wright brothers flight.
More than a third of the stories in the selection are set in Maine, and among them, “Last Summer at Mars Hill” helped put Hand on the fantasy and science fiction map in the 1990s. The fictional town of Mars Hill is on the Midcoast in the vicinity of Hand’s actual residence in Lincolnville. (She admits in an author’s note that at the time she wrote the story, she did not know there was an actual town of Mars Hill in Aroostook County.)
When Ivy goes to Rockland to visit her mother, she on a whim buys an odd deck of Tarot cards…
The central character is a young woman, Moony, who’s a summer resident of the coastal spiritualist community, along with her aging-hippie mother Ariel, a “stoned 43-year-old woman with breast cancer and a few weeks left to live,” as Moony thinks at one point.
Ariel refuses conventional treatment for her illness, and Moony’s frustration with this provides the emotional vortex of the story. Meanwhile, there is among the spiritualists a legend about a mysterious apparition they call “the Light Children,” akin to Victorian fairies but with more facets, including a healing potency.
Moony is inclined not to believe it. Her boyfriend Jason, though, accepts the common belief that the Light Children were the original attraction of the spiritualist settlers to the place.
The story’s setting, characters, plot, and intersections with the supernatural are distinctly realistic, maybe a late 20th century, slightly punkish update on the late 19th century stories of Arthur Machen.
That realistic feel—interweaving the supernatural believably into life as we know it—is Hand’s fundamental literary accomplishment.
In “The Least Trumps,” Ivy, a tattoo artist, lives in a house on an island in a pond on an island in Penobscot Bay that her flamboyant writer mother, now elderly, fitted out for her little family years before.
When Ivy goes to Rockland to visit her mother, she on a whim buys an odd deck of Tarot cards in a junk shop. All the cards are blank except one. Ivy takes the weirdly named “Least Trumps” deck back to Aranbega Island and proceeds to tattoo the image from the one card onto her own leg. A personage from her past then shows up randomly at the island, and we are launched into a sort of phantasmagoric recounting of Ivy’s life and past lesbian relationship.
It’s a haunting, realistic story with superbly detailed passages describing tattooing and the deep-felt sense of autumn in the Midcoast.
Also haunting are two imaginations of what Maine might be like at the end of civilization—a recurring theme in Hand’s dark vision. In “Echo,” a writer-scholar lives on a Maine island, alone except for her dog and a long epistolary relationship with a man whom she contacts less and less because radio signals from the mainland are more and more sporadic in the lingering aftermath of some unspecified catastrophe. “Who would ever have thought it could be all gone, just like that?”
“The Owl Count” shapes the same decaying-civilization sensibility. Two friends living in the North Woods in the climate-change-battered future maintain a years-old routine of making the annual owl count in the forest. The environmental-group sponsor of the count has long since disappeared amid social, economic, environmental, and infrastructural crumble. But the characters’ insistence on maintaining their lifeways, together with slick descriptions of the woods, evokes feelings of remoteness and near-lostness that seem all too accurate to what may actually be looming for us.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but “The Owl Count” turns out to be a horror story.
Finally, the four-page murder mystery “Ghost Light” sounds for all the world like revenge inside the Camden Opera House.
The Best of Elizabeth Hand provides a nice look at her appeal to the literary wings of the SF and fantasy worlds in the last four decades, with her Maine connections vividly evoked.
Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.