A man brings back a mysterious bride from Iceland who slowly reveals her curious powers.
An aviation aide invites friends to witness the flight of an aircraft model he has built in the hopes of recreating a destroyed archival film.
An aging ballet teacher goes to an old camp to contend with his new sense of uselessness and encounters a surprising guest.
Elizabeth Hand’s stories in “Errantry” are strange, yes (the book is even subtitled “Strange Stories”), but they are also classically engaging, tales you could read aloud around a fire late at night to induce trembles and sighs. What Hand often explores is a happening: In almost every story the main character, usually unsettled or devastated by some kind of 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 — special as they are — 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 either wonder or horror, or some combination of the two.
In “Near Zennor,” one of the most memorable stories in the collection, Hand is able to capture a nightmarish feeling without ever touching anything we know as 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. This is the stuff of real nightmares, of waking up trembling in the middle of the night after dreaming about a shoe and thinking, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” while remaining unable to shake how the mind can set a tone that can distort anything. In these moments, Hand’s stories glue right on to memory and become truly resonant and inexplicable. In pieces lacking such mysterious moments, she is more direct, more straightforward, and although these tales are solid and show off her considerable storytelling skills, they do not have the same impact.
Nature is a big player here in building suspense. Some of Hand’s richest prose comes from lush descriptions of the natural world, and how it contains both great 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.”
One of the shorter pieces, “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. In another story, a moment of horror occurs when an ancient pine tree is cut down; Hand gives the incident such a complex context that the tale continues in a blaze of agony and revenge.
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 might have been left out of the collection. “Summerteeth” hits notes of evocation but ultimately is not fully developed. The stories that last and linger here, such as “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” and “Winter’s Wife,” live delicately on that line between the ambiguous and the realized, where Hand builds images that are whole and full and yet somehow elusive at the core. These can be magical pieces, but the magic works best when shadowy and just out of reach.
In the title story, a group of three companions tries 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. The man has an unearthly capacity to 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.
Bender’s most recent novel is “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.”
By Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer. 320 pp. Paperback, $16