Friday, 24 May 2013

Last Summer At Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Twelve exceptional stories by the multiple award–winning author of Waking the Moon and Black Light prove that Elizabeth Hand is just as adept with short fiction as she is in the novel form. The title story traces a world-changing summer at a New England artists’ colony for young Shadowmoon Starlight Rising, who comes to know life, death, and an unbelievable secret about the strange apparitions that dwell in her community.

Other stories include “Snow on Sugar Mountain,” which features a young boy who has the power to shapeshift into any form with the help of a Native American artifact; “The Bacchae,” in which womankind rules a savage futuristic version of our world; and “The Erl-King,” where a fairy tale horrifyingly comes true. Each story includes an afterword by the author.

From Goodreads description 

Before I started this blog I had read very few collections of short stories, but since starting I have discovered just what I had been missing. This collection is no exception.

Elizabeth Hand is a writer of speculative fiction and horror. This collection of short stories first appeared in 1998 and has just been issued as an ebook. The story that gives its name to the collection won the 1995 Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. 

When is speculative fiction magic realism? It seems to me that especially in short stories the boundaries can very definitely overlap. This is partly because the brevity of short stories makes it easier to start in reality than in a constructed world. There are a number of stories in the collection for which a strong case can be made that they are magic realism. 

My two favourites were Last Summer at Mars Hill and Snow on Sugar Mountain.

The wonderful Last Summer at Mars Hill is set in a spiritualist retreat in Maine. The characters and their alternative beliefs are recognizable, as they try to deal with their feelings about their mortality. The magic element is used brilliantly to look at those feelings in a totally different perspective.

In Snow on Sugar Mountain a teenage boy who has inherited from his mother an amulet that allows him to shapeshift meets with a dying former astronaut. The story follows the growing relationship between the old man and the boy. It has one of the best opening lines I have ever read: When Andrew was seven, his mother turned into a fox. 

The Have-Nots is a tale of a woman deprived of her new-born child but given a cadillac by Elvis. It is narrated by a cosmetics saleswoman to a customer, which at times got wearisome, but nevertheless is engaging with a magical twist in the tail. 

Engels Unaware focuses on a down-at-heel (literally) temporary secretary working in a financial investment house at the height of a financial boom. The arrival of brother and sister Graedig and Avaratia Engel sets in train financial Armageddon. 

As you might have observed, my favourites in the collection tend to be the stories with the more optimistic endings. But Elizabeth Hand is known for her horror and some of the stories are distinctly dark. The Bacchae was even voted the "most hated" story by Interzone readers in 1991! The Erl King is a take on the fairytale and Goethe's poem, and reflects the bleakness of the originals. Hand's work has been described as having heart and also sharp little teeth, which I think is an excellent description of this collection. 

Elizabeth Hand is obviously much inspired by Greek myths - Justice is inspired by Circe, On The Town Route by the Persephone story (with a bit of Pied Piper of Hamelin thrown in), then there is the Bacchae...One of the pluses with this collection is that after each story we get the author's notes on its creation and influences. These make for fascinating reading.

The weakest story, to my mind, is the Prince of Flowers. The story of a malevolent puppet is not original. It is interesting though to consider why puppets in literature (and film) are so often stereotyped, but that would take up a whole post. Nevertheless it, like all the stories in this collection, is beautifully written. Hand is a wonderful writer - every word is chosen for its contribution, building strong images and stories. I may not be a fan of the horror genre, but I am delighted that the publisher offered me this book to review.

This book was given to me, via Netgalley, by the publisher in return for a fair review.


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