So let's just say, for example, that you're driving along and all of a sudden there are these blinding lights in the sky. And they're not moving like any aircraft that you know of. And once they disappear into the night sky, just as quickly as they appeared, you look around and notice you're about 100 miles off course, and it's now 11pm, when you know for a fact that just a few minutes ago you had looked at the clock and it had been 9. Can you accept the ambiguity and the realization that you will never know for sure what happened on that road?
Or, will you become so desperate for answers that you'll convince yourself it was an alien encounter, and you'll be one of those people, showing up at conventions clutching a copy of Them to your chest and telling anyone who will listen that you're pretty sure you've got a probe jammed up in there somewhere.
In Elizabeth Hand's new collection Errantry: Strange Stories, she sets up encounters between her characters and the inexplicable again and again, and watches to see what happens. There is cryptozoology, shapeshifting, orbs of light, Icelandic pagans, and alien intelligence, but there's also a lot of humanity and realism mixed in with the strange. In perhaps the best story of the collection, "Near Zennor," a man is as disturbed by discovering a dark secret in his wife's past after her death -- a secret he knows he will never know the truth about -- as he is by those weird glowing orbs in Cornwall.
I spoke with Hand about allowing for ambiguity and the real life inspirations for her fantastical tales.
How important were the specific story settings to you? The stories seem to be rooted in these Thin Places, where other worlds bleed through. Particularly your story set in Cornwall, which sometimes seems to be the thinnest place of them all.
When I write, I nearly always start out with a setting, rather than a character or, god forbid, a plot. The landscape comes first; as with most creation myths, human beings arrive later. I’ve always been sensitive to place, and certain places draw me more than others -- high moorlands, remote islands, woodlands, bleak or ruined cities; lakes more than the ocean, maybe because so much of the coast is now developed. Paul Bowles said that he possessed "an unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the earth’s surface contained more magic than others.” I feel that way as well.
I wasn’t consciously thinking of the notion of the thin place when I wrote “Near Zennor,” but that part of Cornwall certainly fits the description -- a place where the borders between our world and another dissolve. I’ve visited West Penwith a number of times over the years: it’s extremely beautiful, but I also find it extremely sinister. The air smells different to me, the water tastes different -- not bad-different, but strange.
North America was inhabited for millennia by indigenous peoples, but they left relatively few physical traces, at least in the part of New York State that borders New England, where I grew up. But in the more remote parts of Cornwall, the evidence of ancient human habitation is everywhere.
Many locations recur in these stories, and in your other writing: London and Maine being the two most frequent in this collection. I'm wondering if these are the same places that recur for you in your personal life, or if some places have a stronger hold on your fiction than on you, or vice versa.
I do spend most of my time in Maine and London, but I’m also unable to write about a place unless I’ve spent time there. At the same time, I don't like being overly familiar with a setting, because then it loses some of its mystery for me, at least in terms of being fictionalized. Fortunately, London is a city where one could spend several lifetimes and just scratch the surface of what’s there.
Mainers have a term for people like me who fetch up here but originally came from somewhere else -- we’re “from Away.” I think most of my characters are like that: one way or another, they’re all from away.
In many of your stories, nature comes across not as this restorative, grounding place, but as wild and menacing. Your outdoor spaces certainly don't give off the kind of hippy, one-with-the-earth vibe. What, I guess, do you have against nature?
This reminds me of Woody Allen’s comment: “I am two with Nature.” I don’t have anything against nature -- if I did, I wouldn’t live in rural Maine! Since childhood I’ve been fairly obsessed with wilderness, or the idea of wilderness; in particular the northern wild. When I was eight and nine years old, my family took several camping trips to Maine and Canada, once to a remote part of Newfoundland. I think it must have imprinted on me, though by then I was already in love with the idea of getting lost in the woods. I lived in a city, Yonkers, till I was ten, but I dreamed of living in the country. In 1967 we moved to what was then a still-rural part of New York, a town founded in 1609, and it was heaven.
But I was always aware that the trees could turn on you. I read Algernon Blackwood’s stories as a kid, and he does a brilliant job of demonstrating how sublime and threatening uninhabited places can be -- beautiful yet terrifying.
I tried to capture this in “Near Zennor.” When I was thirteen, I was with two girlfriends, and we experienced the bizarre event that I describe in the story, only in New York and not Cornwall. To this day, I can’t explain what happened; Evelyn's account in “Near Zennor” is pretty much exactly what occurred to us….The moral of the story: Watch out for the Thin Places.
"Watch out for the Thin Places" could be the tag line of this collection. Also, "Are you sure that person you love with isn't a shapeshifter?" But the feeling I got most from this collection was awe. As in, everyone (that lives) has a sense of both respect and fear about what they don't quite understand, and there's no need to classify and rationalize or even to pursue the mysterious. The mysterious can sort of live off to the side. Is that a reflection of how you see your mysterious event? Like, maybe we can let this lie in the "unknown" category, and we don't have to find a scientific explanation, or even a paranormal explanation?
I don’t like explaining away the fantastical elements in my fiction. I know this causes consternation for some readers, who want more resolution or a tidy explanation (or excuse) for supernatural events, like the toy theater in “Illyria,” or the lights in “Near Zennor,” or whatever it is that happens in “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s 'Bellerophon.'” I work hard to capture a particular sensation or experience -- what it would be like to actually have an encounter with the inexplicable -- and to offer a neat rationale would defeat the purpose of writing the way I do, about the things I do.
I love traditional and more conventional fantasy novels, where characters pass through a portal into Narnia or Vandarei or Fillory. But if such a thing were to happen in real life, you wouldn’t receive a guidebook -- you’d find yourself in media res, immersed in a world that I believe would be terrifying in its very strangeness. So I want the reader to work a little harder, to imagine how she would react when confronted with the unknown. I want my fiction to be a map to terra incognita, and not a set of operating instructions.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.