I have a soft spot for short stories. I think an entire, fleshed out story in one small dose is worth reading. Short story collections are also a great way to get a sampling of the different voices one author can use, and the collection Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories by Elizabeth Hand is no exception.
Hand’s writing falls into the genre of speculative fiction, which is fiction that is so different that it can’t just be labeled fantasy or sci fi. Speculative fiction comes from a place of no rules; in writing or in the universes in which they take place. It’s a fun if sometimes challenging genre. A collection of short stories is a wonderful introduction to the genre, and this collection by Hand encompasses speculative fiction in all its weird, fantastic glory.
There are twelve stories in Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories. Some of the stories are hopeful, some are incredibly dark. The fact that they come from one author stays in the reader’s mind, and the author’s helpful notes after each story relate where and why Hand wrote each of the stories.
The story from which the collection takes its name Last Summer at Mars Hill opens the novel, and is a standout. It is also the most uplifting and hopeful of the stories- a gentle introduction. The story follows two young friends whose parents take them to a hippie-esque commune in Maine each summer. Jason and Moony are each struggling with being teenagers, complicated by their single parents who both have life-changing issues of their own. The supernatural element of the story is understated and lovely. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers, but the portrayal of Moony is particularly poignant as a young woman trying to make peace with her mother.
Snow on Sugar Mountain is another story of a teenager struggling with both issues at home and issues with the supernatural. Andrew is orphaned when his mother commits suicide, leaving him a gift of ancient origins from the Tankiteke Native American tribe. When Andrew runs away to Maine to deal with his loss and explore his mother’s gift, his life becomes intertwined with a retired astronaut in a relationship defined by loneliness, fear and hope. What makes Hand’s stories excellent, despite the fantastical elements, is that they are rooted in basic human emotions and experiences that readers can easily relate to even if they don’t subscribe to shamanistic rituals.
This review would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the darker stories in the collection, which can be distressing at times but leave a lasting imprint and inspire the reader to deeper contemplation of their meanings. The Boy in the Tree is the story of a futuristic world in which autistic children are used as therapeutic empaths to cure people of serious mental issues. The empaths are linked to patients, with chilling and sometimes deadly results. The story is dark and troubling and the reader is left to question the motives of everyone involved.
I recommend the collection Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories by Elizabeth Hand to any open-minded readers who are interested in challenging and perhaps spooking themselves. This collection is a wonderful introduction to speculative fiction by a wonderfully creative author.
I’ll keep this on my Kindle and recommend it to anyone who is up for a challenge.