Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand’s literary punk fantasias, of which I’ve read eight so far including this collection, have quickly become some of my favorite works of literature. Halfway through the second story collected here I realized that she may be my favorite living writer. Across a variety of genres and lengths, Hand consistently brings an incredibly high degree of craft and art to bear on stories with a punk feminist energy that has worked for me every time. From nordic noir gothic, to fantasy, to historical mystery, to literary horror, to science fiction her voice adapts to the material but remains consistently her own. She’s not generally listed among the authors who comprise the New Weird (M John Harrison, Vandermeer, Mieville, KJ Bishop, etc), but her approach to genres, in that she largely ignores the borders between them, and her focus on language and atmosphere puts a lot of her work, including these stories, comfortably on the same shelf.

Last Summer at Mars Hill- Highly Recommended- A beautiful story of aging, grief, and loss that reminded me of Pavane For the Prince of the Air from her second collection. She said in the afterward that there was some wish fulfillment here in the particular way that magic intrudes on the story, but it really worked for me.

The Erl King- Canon Worthy- Hand is obsessed with punk and with many things counterculture and this riff on the fairy tale/myth of the Erl King draws in the aging survivors of Andy Warhol’s circle. It is a great story.

Justice- Canon Worthy- The best of the collection for my money. It’s atmosphere evoked the same landscape as Near Dark or No Country For Old Men. A feminist journalist is waved off the shocking and notorious case of abusive men and is put on to a weird spate of animal mutilations in rural Oklahoma. It gets stranger from there. This apparently made some people mad when it was first published. Good. It’s anger is well placed. It intersects with myth, but I won’t be more specific than that so as not to spoil the excellent climax.

Dionysus Dendrites (poem)- Highly Recommended- This poem resonated more after reading The Boy in the Tree and circling back to read it again, or it could have just been the effect of reading a fourth or fifth time. I’ve been on a poetry kick lately, and I was glad this was included in a collection otherwise completely dedicated to prose.

The Have Nots- Highly Recommended- This was both hilarious and sad.

In the Month of Athyr- Highly Recommended- One of two science fiction stories in the book. It works well, though I wish I had read her novels set in the same world, as I think that would clarify some things for me.

Engels Unaware- Highly Recommended- As the title indicates, a fantastical satire on capitalism and office life. Weird and horrifying in the right ways.

The Bacchae- Highly Recommended/ Canon Worthy- She said this was her attempt to write a JG Ballard Story. Having not read any Ballard, I can’t speak to how well it captures the spirit of his work, but as a modern day fantasy retelling of the titular myth it works like gangbusters.

Snow on Sugar Mountain- Canon Worthy- An orphaned boy who can shapeshift mourns his mother’s death as his life intersects with an aging astronaut. Hand said that it was an early attempt at trying to understand suicide. It’s a sad story but a beautiful one.

On the Town Route- Highly Recommended- This feels like an influence on Kelly Link. It’s got elements of Southern Gothic. A very disturbing story.

The Boy in the Tree- Canon Worthy- Hand said she started this as a scifi riff on The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. It is that, but to say it was just that would be reductive. Great story all around. It also prompted me to read The Great God Pan this weekend, and I’m a few chapters into The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison, which she said was his riff on the same novella. The cumulative effect of reading all three stories in a relatively short period of time has been a great reading experience.

Prince of Flowers- Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy- It’s hard to believe this was her first published story. It’s a fully formed and realized literary horror story.

As I said above, I think Hand is probably my favorite living writer. I’m glad that I still have well over half her work yet to read. This and her other collection, Saffron and Brimstone, also comprised of mostly literary dark fantasy/horror stories, may well be my favorites of hers so far, though I’ve yet to read something I didn’t like. I will be returning to at least some of these, if not all of them, often.

Overall Collection- Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 54/75

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