In an article about Alphonse Bertillon, a pioneer of crime scene photography, I stumbled upon the most striking description of his technique and effect. The article highlights how photographers decide how their subjects are posed, lit, and cropped, with each decision altering how the image is perceived over the course of its life in the public eye. Even as the camera bears witness to what has happened, it sparks as many imagined reconstructions, interpretations, and emotions as there are individual viewers. In Bertillon’s own words: “One can only see what one observes, and one only observes things which are already in the mind.”
Whenever I come across a piece of Chloe N. Clark’s writing, it sucks me right in, usually with a tantalising first sentence that makes me curious to know more. And then when I’m done reading, the story often leaves me with a sense of something lingering, a little shadow of its contents, a pocket haunting. These haunting, dreamlike images again don’t reveal their meanings. You have to bring your own.
Clark’s latest collection of twenty-six pieces of short fiction is entitled Collective Gravities, which at first conjures visions of space exploration—and indeed some of the stories are clearly categorisable as science fiction and share a space element—but the more you read the more it becomes obvious that the titular “gravities” are also psychological and emotional: Clark’s characters stray too close to some metaphorical black holes that threaten to swallow them. Rather than horror, though, the prevalent mood that the author creates is a sense of loss, or grief, the intense feeling that something lost might never be found again—or if it is, then whatever has happened in the meantime will have changed it irrevocably, and it will never be the same.
Most of the protagonists of Collective Gravities (and indeed, all of the characters that can in any way be defined as “central”) are women. The narratives are often interspersed with memories, which are less about nostalgia than about establishing connections, providing the characters with a sense of coherence as they navigate dreamlike places and events. Their stories are often centered around a surreal image rather than a scene, topic, or character—and, since these images are never fully explained or interpreted, there is a lot of space left for the reader to fill in. In this way, Collective Gravities ensures a different and very personal reading experience for every one of its readers. For instance, in “These Arms of Yours”—a piece of flash fiction that is quite intense for all of its brevity—two girls find a little cabin in the woods, its windowsills full of disembodied mannequin arms. This image is what they—and the reader—are left with, without any comment or context: just an array of disembodied plastic arms, reaching up. Walk away from the text and see how it makes you feel. I promise that this image, and many others from this collection, will stay with you for a while.
In “The Collective Gravity of Stars,” the story that gives the collection its title, the protagonist can feel the movement of the Earth. In her dreams, she is flying. Reading this was the weirdest experience for me, since by some random synchronicity I suffered some stress-related hearing loss and had to have my ears checked and get an MRI while the protagonist was having her ears checked for balance issues and also getting an MRI (p. 38). How could this not make me feel as dizzy as her? And possibly wonder why I unlearned how to fly in my dreams, like I did as a child? This story also contains some playful approaches to language (“Ned Kelly the wombandit” [p. 39]; “Jewels by Jules” [p. 41]), which sometimes evoke strange images and associations: “An anomalous machine, it sounded like a band name” (p. 46).
Incidentally, some of the other stories felt really topical from the point of view of a reader in COVID-19 lockdown. “They Are Coming for You, So You Better Run, You Better Run, So You Can Hide” is set in a world where the zombie apocalypse has come and gone, and all that’s left is this notion that while things have ostensibly returned to normal, “normal” has gone and is forever irretrievable: “The presumed end of the world, claiming so many people’s lives, [has] all [been] reduced to some lines of precautions on the news in a very short time” (p. 106). However, the story’s main characters share memories of vaguely recognising people from the neighbourhood in the zombies that they shot during the peak of the disaster:
The man looked startled, eyes to the sky, one hand outstretched. When they died, zombies always just looked like us again, you couldn’t see the change anymore. They just looked like us. (p. 104)
There is more. As they try to rationalize and excuse their past actions, back when they fought for survival (or so they thought), a new element is added, one of more recent knowledge:
A friend, years after, told me about what it had been like to have to kill their ex-boyfriend. […] “It wasn’t him, though, right?”
But we already knew better; we already knew that they could be turned back. (p. 105)
And from this position of impossible “what-ifs,” we get the perspective of somebody whose best friend committed suicide in order to escape it all, and how they miss her and fantasize about their missed chances, over and over, of saving her from the zombie apocalypse (p. 106).
“Balancing Beams” is another story that conjured now-familiar echoes for me, by juxtaposing images of a traumatizing event on a space mission with everyday trivialities (which make them even more jarring), all from the perspective of an astronaut who has returned to USA “normality.” Again, this one has even more intense effects on readers coming out of COVID-19 self-isolation and into the “new normal” in full knowledge that the old “normal” is gone forever. The astronaut harbours traumatic memories about an experiment. There is mention of certain “stimuli.” In the story’s present, the survivors keep grasping for reasons and failing. In all timelines, we watch everyone being devoured by the secrets they keep.
Possibly my favourite story, however, is a short and bittersweet piece (just under four pages) entitled “This Is the Color of Your Eyes in the Dark.” Its lure, which disguises a sharp hook under its dazzling bait, is its strong first sentence: “Ten years later, Mindy Cosgrove’s car would get into a collision with a drunk driver and she’d be dead and someone would tell me and I’d ask to be reminded who she was, but that year, when we were 14, she was my best friend” (p. 145). In a disjointed retrospective, the protagonist tells us about the moments she remembers sharing with her long-lost friend, now gone forever. Made-up fortunes, school lunches, fictional names of real trees (not told or not remembered), makeup, smiles, brief touches, a kiss, laughed off—now nobody will ever know their meanings. Indeed, we never get a narrative in this one, only glimpses of gilded memories of somebody once very dear, then somehow left behind, lost, and forgotten: “My mind was always grabbing my heart like a hand and pulling me down foolish alleys. But when Mindy smiled, my mind slowed down” (p. 146). Every sentence in this story. Unexpected. Gold. And every emotion an echo, the feeling that this realisation of forgetting leaves behind lingering, unresolved, now unresolvable.
Another strong contender for my personal favourite, though, is “Bound,” which starts with a quote attributed to Emerson: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered” (p. 171). This is followed by a description of a summery idyll that is disturbed by a little turn of phrase: “Somewhere, behind me, I heard something call out. But maybe it was only a bird” (p. 171). It's the end of the world again. This time by pandemic, told in non-chronological order, skipping like memory. There is a strong sense of urgency and of loss.
“Anna Moritz was the first I watched die. It was the second year of the plague and things were already going to hell” (p. 172). With hooks like this, of course we need to know more. Who was Anna Moritz? Her name sets her apart from countless other, more anonymous, victims of the disease, and it is also the key to more knowledge about it. The plague has been caused by what is first assumed to be algae, but then: not algae. “It seems engineered” (p. 176). The officially circulated description mutates into "an illness, spreadable through contact with the sick" (p. 178). People are urged to keep away from other people. “The death toll was in the hundreds. A shocking number, but the word ’contained’ [used on the news] made us feel safe” (p. 175). Implicitly, this means that also the population should remain contained, self-isolating, very much not going out to investigate: "in the car as I raced to get somewhere safe even though I knew no such place existed" (p. 174). The narrator knows that she is putting herself in mortal danger on the road: “There was no cure, there was just an attempt to ease suffering, to contain the sick where their bodies could be easily rounded up after death” (p. 178).
Here, Clark uses little familiar impressions to engage the reader, then twists them. Like the moment when you think you see somebody familiar, somebody you care about or used to, in other (dangerous?) circumstances—and then it turns out that it isn't them, it's just another stranger. Little visual or auditory hallucinations and utterings that don't make sense; false hope between the lines. Loss. Being left behind in various different ways.
A dying stranger talks of a lab, “[t]o the north” (p. 182), where scientists seem to be self-isolating, hopefully finding a cure—and where the protagonist hopes that her lost lover went. “I wondered if he was hallucinating. I found I didn't care” (p. 182). She only wants to find her lover again, to feel safe in all of this unsafeness, to end the endless anxiety:
He died in so many ways in my dreams: killed by a looter along the road, of the sickness, of exhaustion. Sometimes, even, he'd die in the most normal pre-plague ways: a car accident, cancer, slipping in the shower. (p. 182)
This story leaves us hanging onto an ending that’s very strange and very open, and I like it this way. This is the exact feeling that we’re supposed to be experiencing in a world like this and after engaging with a narrator like this, and—like everything else in this book—it cannot be easily put down and away.
An equally magnetic effect is achieved through the strong sense of foreboding built up by “Lover, I’ll be waiting.” A big recommendation for fans of international folklore, this story starts like a ghost story, with big pointers at horror tropes and urban legends. The narrator, another young woman, is spending the evening reading a book of East Asian folktales for a college paper. A theme is established: “There was a young man who was loved by a young woman. This was in the province of —I set the book down” (p. 56). With something like a little metafictional wink, the narration is interrupted using a dash—and starts interacting with the Victorian convention of replacing dates and place names with dashes (which, while playful, intensifies the gothic horror mood): “This was in the province of —” (p. 56); “This was in the year—” (p. 58); “A young monk was visiting the province of — in the year of—” (p. 60). We are presented with a series of stories-inside-stories, all incomplete, leaving us once more without conclusions, just unsettling images. Then the stories seem to invade the story we are reading:
There was a noise from outside my door. […] I walked up and peered out of the peephole. I always used to have a strange sense of dread whenever I looked out of peepholes, always half expecting there to be some hideous face looking in at me. (p. 58)
Expectations of hideous faces are set up. It’s like one of my favourite horror scenes in all of film, the one that excuses even the use of a jump scare (which I usually find cheap, a device that startles rather than terrifies). I’m talking about the famous Winkie’s Diner scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), in which the dialogue sets up the audience’s expectations: we are told that the speaker had a recurring dream about this very place, and that in the dream both he and the friend he is talking to were very afraid, and that the cause of the fear is “a man … in back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it. I can see him through the wall. I can see his face. I hope that I never see that face, ever, outside of a dream.” We expect and fear that face before we see it. The closer the camera gets to the corner behind which, according to the dreams, the man is waiting, the more the tension rises. Of course what follows is the most effective scare, because we have been meticulously prepared. And in this story, Clark is preparing us for another hideous face, this time behind a closed door. We don’t need to see it in order to believe in it:
I used to get irritated by how women were always the dangerous spirits in folktales: the evil stepmother, the vengeful lover, the sirens luring men down to watery graves, the protagonist explains. (p. 66)
The narrator ignores the misogyny inherent in these stories, the reasons why the female characters turn into vengeful ghosts—while she herself is a victim of domestic violence. And when first the abusive partner is at the door, followed by the expected face, Clark serves us not a jump scare but a plot twist worthy of an Angela Carter story. As in the snippets from her book of folktales, the protagonist encounters a female vengeful ghost from a local urban legend, who saves her from the abuser—and who, contrary to all the expectations she set up for the reader and for herself, indeed after describing frightening, evil female characters and expecting “some hideous face” outside her door—she sees as beautiful, and who will inspire her to in the future carry her visible scar with pride (p. 63).
“The Width of Your Body Apart,” too, recounts a journey back to physical health, however tentative. It conveys the thought of never being “completely safe again” after a diagnosis (p. 77), after physical trauma and deterioration. The protagonist has been diagnosed with “root sickness”: “[a] web of darkness extending through my body. It’s almost pretty” (p. 77). The official word for it seems to be a misnomer: it behaves like a parasite (“I could feel them moving beneath my skin, it seemed excited” [p. 78]). Knowing that whatever she now harbours in her body is spreading, the protagonist seems to have shifted to a new worldview. She now refers to some activities as “[w]hat we used to be able to do” (p. 78). Again, there is this sense of having left the world as we know it behind: what if the “new normal” will never be remotely like the “old normal”? And again this is connected to interior processes, some physical, some psychological: the narrator describes the temptation to not fight, to want to “embrace the flow” (p. 79); she talks about a dreamlike sensation of wanting to talk to trees, to negotiate with them, because it’s called “root disease”—even though this name was chosen only because of the disease’s pattern; it doesn’t originate from trees.
Like the photographer Bertillon, the protagonist of “The Width of Your Body Apart” finds beauty (and emotional connection) in morbidity. Death, though so intensely private, connects us all. And in “The Color of Electrically Brilliant,” the protagonist Marina sees dead people—murder victims to be exact—but not like ghosts. She brings them back to life, she doesn’t know how, but the process leaves her with nosebleeds and bruises all over her body (p. 70). When thirty-one students at her campus become victims of gun violence, she runs (p. 76):
She didn’t think there was enough space on her body. If it was just one or even three, she said to herself. If it was thirteen or four. But thirty-one was impossible. Orpheus had only one Eurydice. (p. 76)
In “See Sky Sea Sky,” the (young female) protagonist walks home alone at night, stepping on something crunchy while thinking about the sea. It turns out that she has stepped on pieces of opaque jade-green eggshell (p. 112). The next day at the office there is fresh gossip about the dead body of a girl that was found in a parking lot; she had drowned, or been drowned (p. 113). With its little decontextualized found-objects whose meanings are always just out of our grasp, the beginning of this story gave me strong M. John Harrison vibes. The tone changes too in this one—“‘It’s creepy as—’ and here her voice lowered conspiratorially, ‘fuck.’” (p. 113)—and after the mock Victorianness (and maybe Victorian mockery) of “Lover, I’ll be waiting,” this is very funny and refreshing, even in a story that has unsettling effects.
The dreamlike narrative is interspersed with the protagonist’s intrusive thoughts, memories of her difficult, depressive mother, and asides about precarious relationships while also being in one. More bodies are found, always with eggshells near them (p. 117); the narrator keeps seeing a woman, like an apparition; there is a growing spot of darkness in the sky. We even get echoes of Pennywise from Stephen King’s It (1986): “They’re up there. Just left their shells behind. Like you’ve been doing for days, breaking free. Now, they’re swimming. You can be swimming” (p. 119). The recurring eggshell motif suggests that, much like in “The Width of Your Body Apart,” death is a temptation. Even though the shells, the falling, the drowning seem to be mixed metaphors, they may also be a list of options. But, unlike in the previous story, the protagonist is given a choice, and it’s not just a choice of the means. She chooses life and is given a chance at it.
Consistently, Clark’s readers are also given choices. “Like the Desert Dark” is among the more classical science-fictional stories in this collection, though it isn’t set in space. It’s about the death of the male protagonist’s (adult) daughter, or so he thinks. Over the phone, he’s only told that there has been an “incident” and to collect “the body” (p. 128). His wife (her mother) is already absent (presumed dead). The account of the man’s journey is interspersed with disjointed memories— ofthe daughter, of the wife. There is a mention of “the shadow biosphere” (p. 129). He remembers his wife as a student, conducting experiments with mirrors, “exploring perception” (p. 134). She builds shadow boxes made of mirrors, which are reinterpreted by their daughter, her child’s imagination filling in the blanks, providing her own explanations: “It’s her boxes, Daddy! Don’t touch them or the shadows will get out” (p. 134). There are hints that the wife was unstable, maybe suffering from dementia (p. 135), becoming increasingly obsessed with shadows, and with something having entered our dimension (p. 136).
In a final plot twist, however, all these allusions are destroyed by an unexpected reveal: the body they found is the wife’s (she disappeared from a hospital room many years ago; she hasn’t aged); the daughter—who had been conducting an experiment when the ”incident”happened—has disappeared. (p. 139). And in order to leave us with another lingering sense of loss-but-hope, hope that may be futile or even spring from a willful misinterpretation of facts, Clark ends this one with the father receiving a series of anonymous phone calls. He can only ever hear bits of phrases or words: a stuttered, repeated “D,” which—he thinks, he hopes, maybe he fears—might refer to “Daddy”; something that sounds like “safe” (p. 143). Here, like the child explaining the shadow boxes to herself and maybe accidentally getting it right (or not at all), we’re left with too much space to construct easy interpretations. Even “safe” could be a statement or a question, stand by itself or be connected to a “not.”
In this story and so many others in Collective Gravities, then, the reader brings their own state of mind, uses their imagination to come up with what Umberto Eco has called “ghost chapters” (The Role of the Reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts. ): unwritten but imagined pieces of story that connect unconnected sections, provide coherence where the reader feels a lack of it, and offer closure where the author withholds it. Thus, each reader creates their own version of the text in the reading process. Collective Gravities contains multiple points of view (“Sometimes the Scenery is Beautiful”), a love triangle in space ("Between the Axis and the Stars"), a pair of lovers gradually developing skin-patterns that turn out to be charts labelled with the dates and places they shared (“Thematic Cartography”), avenging angels ("Where God Suddenly"), nosebleeds and seizures accompanied by unsettling visions of dying people and tentacles (“Other Names”), and much more. There is often a strong connection to the topics of death (in one instance even as an anthropomorphic personification), of loss, and of trauma and psychological repression. It offers up different things for different readers.
The collective gravities that unite Chloe N. Clark’s characters are emotional gravities. There is always an implication, a creeping realisation, or a fear that somebody might accidentally (or not) cross some personal event horizon and be lost—or find themselves. Death, even dying, can be joyous, it is implied; but we won’t know it until we have reached the other side.
(Tl;dr: You don’t have to be a goth to like this, but it sure helps.)