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DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

Last Summer At Mars Hill
Elizabeth Hand
HarperPrism/325 p./$13
ISBN 0-06-105348-1

Like the work of Peter Straub, Ursula LeGuin, Kate Wilhelm, Harlan Ellison, and other writers who have successfully blended the strengths of mainstream fiction with elements of the fantastic and the supernatural, Elizabeth Hand's writing serves both as an example of outstanding genre literature and at the same time transcends common expectations of such. The stylish, eloquent stories in this volume (which gathers all of Hand's short fiction from 1988 to 1994) work on this "higher level" for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are Hand's technical prowess, a rich use of descriptive language, and strong characterizations.

Hand also tends to use the power of ancient myths to add to the substance of her themes. With the exception of Hand's first published story ("Prince of Flowers" featuring a demonic puppet) and "Engels Unaware" (a yuppie-bashing tale that is almost pure allegory), the stories in Last Summer on Mars Hill effectively combine elements of primal myth with contemporary life and symbols of popular culture to produce a resonant tactility for modern readers. She creates new legends for our times.

The three most luminously memorable of the stories in Mars Hill revolve around people facing the challenges and disappointments of adulthood, building their own mythologies to replace the failed or outmoded myths of their parents. The title novella, which won both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Awards, is set in a small town that was originally a "spiritualist community" in the nineteenth century. The story's adult characters are aging hippies who congregate there each year, attracted by the magical presence of "the Light Children." Not everyone can see these wondrous beings -- supernatural, magical, or possibly alien in origin -- but to those who can they offer hope and the possibility of miracles. The younger heroes of the tale are Maggie, whose mother has untreated breast cancer, and Jason, whose gay father has already lost his partner to AIDS and now faces life alone and is HIV positive himself. Maggie and Jason, full of the miraculous potential of the future, are forced to learn lessons in both harsh reality and the comfort of belief.

cover In "The Erl-King," Hand evokes the tragedies of Sophocles and Goethe in a fatalistic tale of incest and death centered around Linette, the daughter of a survivor of the glitterati Warhol set of the '70s. She and her friend, Haley, meet Lie Vagel, a reclusive former rock star who Linette's mother once knew. Vagel can see magical beings through the windows of his rather creepy fantasy art-filled mansion, but -- unlike the beneficent Light Children -- these are dark creatures from fairy tales. Haley and Linette are drawn to Vagel by what we eventually learn are powers of fate and evil.

"Snow on Sugar Mountain" features a boy who inherits an ancient Native American artifact that gives him the ability to change shape. He encounters a retired astronaut who, although famous for having gone to the moon, never actually set foot upon it. Now retired and alone, he deals with his perception of failure. Dealing with issues of the acceptance of death, the limitations of reality, and the validity of magic, the story smoothly balances fantasy with the fact that men once walked on the moon -- a fact fast slipping into legend.

These three stories are set in isolated, almost otherworldly New England villages or, in the case of "The Erl-King," a semi-magical forest-- places where the extraordinary and miraculous just might be possible in the modern world. In all three stories the parent figures are dying, leaving their offspring to survive as best they can by patching together a worldview from remnants of the past and their own present resiliency. Most importantly, in each story Hand offers her readers a reminder that when Pandora loosed all the evils of humankind upon the world, that which remained was hope. (Even in the tragic "The Erl-King" there is a young survivor who learns this.)

Hand offers less hope and more disquietude when she turns her eye toward issues of gender inequality. "Justice" is a fairly predictable tale that builds on a disturbing vision of female payback. Its effectiveness lies in the atmosphere of fear Hand conjures and the very real but still strangely surreal setting in Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains. "The Bacchae" takes place in a near-future environmentally-altered Earth where womankind punishes mankind with a bloodily feral form of justice. "In the Month of Athyr," the collection's most identifiably science fictional tale, features another "youth coming of age" motif -- this time set against the complexity of a far future subculture in which adherents to a new religion completely reverse gender roles in an effort to atone for past inequalities. Hand's elegant mythic evocations speak to the reader in both a timeless and modern voice. With an agelessness essential to both superior storytelling and literature, the stories in this first collection serve to demonstrate Hand's vast talents as a writer. -- Paula Guran, originally published by Event Horizon

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Copyright © 2002 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.