Dark mysteries and natural wonders


Elizabeth Hand shows off her storytelling skills and rich prose.

Elizabeth Hand’s stories are strange, yes, but they are also classically engaging, tales you could read aloud around a fire late at night to induce trembles and sighs. In almost every story, the main character, usually unsettled or devastated by loss, finds him or herself in a situation where the world doesn’t behave as it usually does. There is an infiltration, a witnessing or an encounter. Yet these events don’t feel outrageous; one of the strengths here is that none of the oddness comes across as shocking or out of place. It seems to grow naturally and allow for wonder or horror, or some combination of the two.

In the memorable Near Zennor, Hand captures a nightmarish feeling without ever touching anything truly frightening. Her feat in this piece about, partially, an afternoon exploratory walk, is to cull a sense of dread and terror from the slow buildup of the story so that an image, a moment, one that is not directly horrific, becomes so. In these moments, Hand’s stories glue right on to memory and become resonant and inexplicable. In pieces lacking such mysterious moments, she is more direct, and although these tales are solid and show off her considerable storytelling skills, they do not have the same impact.

Some of Hand’s richest prose comes from lush descriptions of the natural world, and how it contains beauty and dark mystery. One image offers pure loveliness: “A thin rind of emerald appeared on the horizon, deepening to copper then gold as it overtook the sky.” Another might suggest deep uneasiness: Birds “circled above the lodge, making a wild, high-pitched keening; then arrowed downward, so close that he could see the indigo gleam of their bills and their startlingly bright, almost baleful, golden eyes.”

Hungerford Bridge tells of a man whose old friend wants to take him on an excursion. They go on a walk, staking out a little garden area past a bridge. What makes this story work is its quietness. Something is seen, and something happens, but it’s nothing big and dramatic. It’s the quiet wonder of the unfathomable natural world, suddenly made new and passed along as a great intimacy.

Other stories don’t quite reach the same depths. The Return of the Fire Witch, a fantasy story with a comic flair, isn’t as layered as the others, and Summerteeth hits notes of evocation but ultimately is not fully developed.

In the title story, three companions try to track down a local figure known as the Folding Man, who spends his evenings in a bar drinking and making his own kind of origami. He can fold items that evoke an image out of nothing. The companions see a paper sculpture of Angelica Huston, but when they unfold it, they cannot find her face anywhere on the magazine clips. Later in the story, the main character picks up a creature created from foil: “Inexplicably, and despite the pervasive smell of mildew, my mouth began to water. It was only after I unfolded the little form that I saw the Arby’s logo printed on it.”

At her best, Hand does just this: We find ourselves wrapped in an evocation without knowing fully how she got us there, shivering with fear at an image of lights or blinking with awe at the modest beauty of a small, rare creature living its life, seen from a distance.

Aimee Bender reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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