Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
324 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2013 (original publ. 1998)
I know Hand’s name and writing primarily from her book review column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Prior to this collection I had only read one short story of hers, and I can’t say I remember anything of it. I guess her first short story collection is a good place to start, and I hope now that I’ll see more of her fiction in the magazines I subscribe to. It would be curious to see how similar or different her writing is now to this.
The story from which this book takes its title is the first and my personal favorite of the bunch. It is also one of the brighter and more uplifting pieces here, though that is by no means why I enjoyed it most. But that opening story seems to best capture the best of Hand’s ability, to tell a captivating story that explores archetypical human themes and emotions in rich, poetic language. She does this without fearing or hesitating to enter into heavy, traumatic, and emotionally crippling directions. In this first story, and in some of the others that follow, Hand manages to do this all with supreme subtlety, and for that I find the first story the most successful and resonant with readers.
At other times, however, her stories deal with traumatic and heavy themes with unforgiving brutality. This honesty has made some of the stories unpalatable to editors, and even it seems unpopular with some readers. Even those that get darkest, though, it is hard to ignore their absolute beauty and the elegance of her prose. Dark or light, horror or fantasy, or even science fiction – her stories are all magical. Suffused with close ties to history and mythology they have that classical feel of the fairy tale, but made modern, feminist, and given a personal twist born from Hand’s own unfortunate experiences of psychological and physical trauma.
Even though I loved the writing throughout, some of the stories just failed to capture my interest on the emotional or plot level. And (as is the case with one story that she explains being written while working in a particularly bad office job) Hand sometimes writes in obvious emotional reaction to some experience in her own life, so transparently that it becomes too little about the characters, and more like a personal venting of the author’s that feel the need to hear, thereby taking you of the story.
Each story is followed by an all-too-brief note from Hand related to the story, and the close of the book includes personal photos and captions and biographical/bibliographical information. On the whole it worked as an effective introduction to Hand for me, and I’m intrigued to see what her later work – short or novel-length showed for her growth.