Errantry: Strange Stories (2012) by Elizabeth Hand
When I started the first story, 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon', I thought I knew what I was getting. The protagonist, Robbie, begins by reminiscing about his first job, as a security guard at a museum of aviation, and remembering a particular gallery in which a projection of a disembodied head was the main attraction. But the narrative quickly moves away from the obvious creepy angle here and instead weaves a detailed and character-driven tale around Robbie and two of his ex-colleagues; it's certainly uncanny, but evasive about exactly how. The characters – like most of the characters in most of the stories collected here – are middle-aged, not inclined to fantastical speculation, and many of the most effective moments are touching rather than unnerving. 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon' is unusually lengthy for the first story in an anthology, almost a novella in itself, and it sets the tone for a collection in which the 'strange' is often not what you expect it to be, and the longest stories are the most rewarding and surprising.
'Winter's Wife' is told by a boy whose neighbour, the eccentric Winter, suddenly brings home an inscrutable young Icelandic woman as his wife. Winter meets her on the internet, and our narrator thinks she looks like Björk – it's these humanising touches that make Hand's stories so effective; we identify ourselves in the backdrops, if not the mysterious cloud of hummingbirds in the forest, or the character with an apparent ability to bend nature to her will. 'Uncle Lou' spends so much time establishing the relationship between the main characters, a woman and her flamboyant uncle, that the ending has powerful emotional clout, despite taking a real turn for the fantastic. The brief 'Cruel Up North' is memorable chiefly because it doesn't explain its mysteries – what, for example, might the 'lava fields' be?
There are missteps – or, at least, some stories are weaker than others. 'Hungerford Bridge' – a short scene in which an old friend introduces the narrator to a fantastic creature – feels too thin against the richness of many of the other tales; 'The Far Shore' contains some beautiful moments but goes in a predictable direction, the opposite of the clever feints performed by the strongest stories here; and 'The Return of the Fire Witch' is an oddity, the one slice of high fantasy among a set of what might otherwise, per the subtitle, be termed 'strange stories' in the Robert Aickman sense.
But the jewel in Errantry's crown is 'Near Zennor', a flawless work of art that has to be one of the best short stories (strange or otherwise) I've ever read. It starts with a discovery: Jeffrey, a 'noted architect', is organising clutter belonging to his late wife, Anthea, when he finds a tin containing a bundle of letters and a cheap locket. The letters are in Anthea's hand, all returned to sender; when he investigates the recipient, Robert Bennington, he discovers the man was a children's author later vilified as a paedophile. Disturbed by references to a meeting between Anthea and Robert, and tortured by the idea that she could have been a victim of abuse she never told him about, he journeys to her native England to meet with one of her childhood friends. There, he hears a story that will lead him on a journey through the places of Anthea's past; to Padwithiel farm, near Zennor, and to Bennington's abandoned home.
Everything about 'Near Zennor' is absolutely pitch-perfect. The Cornish landscape is lovingly described; there is a true sense of reverence, and an awareness of the power – and menace – of nature runs throughout the whole story. The revelations about Bennington's crimes and reminders of his pariah status mean there's also an underlying current of real horror that has nothing to do with unexplained phenomena. Hand captures the force of a disquieting experience endured in childhood, how the memory can magnify it, give it the status of a legend. Jeffrey's ordeal at Golovenna Farm induces pure terror without resorting to anything as prosaic as an explanation. And there is a final twist that is shocking, and almost grimly funny, but not histrionic. All in all, it achieves the strange, wonderful duality of feeling perfect and complete but also leaving you wanting more, and more, and more, and it feels so real that I was tempted to google Bennington's Sun Battles books and the Cliff Cottage B&B. (This short interview with Hand gives some fascinating context – not just the fact that she deliberately set out to write an Aickmanesque story (an aim at which, in my opinion, she has absolutely succeeded) but that the three girls' peculiar adventure was, in fact, based on an inexplicable childhood memory of her own.)
'Near Zennor' is the second story in the book, and after finishing it, I had to take a break – to absorb its greatness, and because I was so sure nothing else could even begin to live up to it, I wasn't sure I wanted to read on. It's one of those stories that's so good, it's worth buying the whole book for it alone. Errantry is a strong, unpredictable collection of stories, but 'Near Zennor' is a masterpiece.
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