"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Near Zennor" by Elizabeth Hand (2011)

     "....The moon was coming up—it rose above the hill, and it was very bright. Because it was so cold there was hoarfrost on the grass, and ice in places where the rain had frozen. So all that reflected the moonlight. Everything glittered. It was beautiful, but it was no longer fun—it was scary. None of us was even talking; we just split up and crisscrossed the field, looking for our things.

     "And then Moira said, 'There's someone there,' and pointed. I thought it was someone on the track that led back to the farmhouse—it's not a proper road, just a rutted path that runs alongside one edge of that old field system. I looked up and yes, there were three people there—three torches, anyway. Flashlights. You couldn't see who was carrying them, but they were walking slowly along the path. I thought maybe it was my uncle and two of the men who worked with him, coming to tell us it was time to go home. They were walking from the wrong direction, across the moor, but I thought maybe they'd gone out to work on something. So I ran to the left edge of the field and climbed up on the wall."

     She stopped, glancing out the window at the black garden, and finally turned back. "I could see the three lights from there," she said. "But the angle was all wrong. They weren't on the road at all—they were in the next field, up above Ravenwood. And they weren't flashlights. They were high up in the air, like this—"

     She set down her glass and got to her feet, a bit unsteadily, extended both her arms and mimed holding something in her hands. "Like someone was carrying a pole eight or ten feet high, and there was a light on top of it. Not a flame. Like a ball of light . . ."

On Saturday the U.S. writer Elizabeth Hand posted the following publicly on Facebook:

Today marks the 50th (!) anniversary of the eerie events (experienced by myself and two friends) that inspired my novella "Near Zennor".  

As a reader I owe Hand. First, for her recommendation of Josh Malerman's 2017 novel Black Mad Wheel, about which I have written here. Second, for her own uncanny 2014 novella Wylding Hall, (about which here) a tale that got me through the worst day of 2020. 

"Near Zennor" is a 2011 novella. It can be found in the new 2021 collection The Best of Elizabeth Hand. It is a near-flawless  tale in beautifully worked prose. I have read it several times since Saturday; it is free of wrong turns and structural missteps. 

Architect Jeffrey, five months a widower after thirty years of marriage to Anthea, makes an unexpected discovery while cleaning out their house prior to sale. 

Five letters and a locket in the bottom of an old fudge tin reveal a part of Anthea's early life in England Jeffrey knew nothing about. In 1971 thirteen year old Anthea and two girlfriends made their way to Cornwall to visit fantasy novelist Robert Bennington at his isolated property, Golovenna Farm.

The night before that meeting, the three have an extraordinary experience. Though Anthea later shares her passion for Robert Bennington with Jeffrey, she never tells him about the events of that night.


Jeffrey flies to the UK the next day. He meets Anthea's best friend Evelyn. Her details about that night reveal how extraordinary the event was, and how powerful.

     "Thank you, Ev," he said. He replaced each of Anthea's letters into its envelope, slid the photo into the last one, then stared at the sheaf in his hand, as though wondering how it got there. "It's just, I dunno. Meaningless, I guess; but I want it to mean something. I want something to mean something."

     "Anthea meant something." Evelyn stood and put her arms around him. "Your life together meant something. And your life now means something."

     "I know." He kissed the top of her head. "I keep telling myself that."

Instead of returning to the U.S. Jeffrey hares off to Cornwall to retrace teenage Anthea's route. He wants to find that field and Golovenna Farm. This last half of "Near Zennor" demonstrates Hand's exceptional authorial power in its raw momentum.

Jeffrey's fogou experience at Bennington's farm emotionally replicates the Ravenwood pasture ritual experience of teenage Anthea and her two friends: panic, confusion, dilation of time. Three floating lights are exactly the same, even though location and time of day are totally different.

In the end, Jeffrey strikes the reader as reintegrated: grief over Anthea's death no longer poisons his waking and sleeping life. After all, he has shared an experience with her so deep she could never discuss it with him in thirty years of marriage.

Hand demands here a high level of negative capability. She leaves the reader of "Near Zennor" with more questions than answers. My partial list:

What happened to Moira's pencil between then and when Erthy throws it at Jeffrey at the train station as he is departing? Did Moira return to Ravenwood in 1971 on her own? Was she taken by the trio of lights? Or vanish in the Golovenna Farm fogou as Jeffrey might have? (Whose tin fudge container lid did he find in there?)

     How did Erthy find the pencil? Is it the same one?


Those are just a few I noted. 

The reader of uncanny stories, alas, just has to figure these things out for themself. Or try to find balance, and satisfaction,  in the unknowns.


17 March 2021






  1. I felt it pretty clear that Erthy *was* Moira.

  2. 'Earthy' of the dirty blonde hair was obviously Moira in another life. She went to Golovenna farm, entered the fogou (clue: the third fudge container lid) and finally managed to stumble out, a changed person. How much she remembers of her past life is not clear.