If novels are the currency of the fiction publishing world, then short stories are the bits of that currency. Or rather, to bend a metaphor, short stories are the coins. If novels are like dollar bills, short stories are the shiny silvers and coppers that you hold in the palm of your hand. Ellen Klages, in her latest collection of short fiction, pours out a handful of these bright coppers and silver crescents (together with the tokens to some old arcades along summer boardwalks); they catch the mind and the eye with their brilliance.
Short stories are a difficult medium. It’s hard to hammer those coins into the right shape and sheen. Gene Wolfe, one of the masters of the field, said somewhere in one of his essays on writing that short stories were especially difficult because with a short story it is rarely enough for the writer simply to have an incredible idea and create a story to show it. In Wolfe’s analogy, this is like a lion-tamer who is satisfied just showing the audience a lion.
This is especially a problem with science fiction and fantasy short stories, because speculative literature is so often built up primarily of incredible ideas. We’re in the business of inventing lions—new kinds of lions, fantastic lions that have never been seen before—so of course we want to show them off. Thus many pieces of short fiction in science fiction and fantasy (and certainly almost all of mine) never get beyond this point.
The short stories built out of Klages’s ideas in this collection run the gamut from pure science fiction (“Goodnight Moons” and “Amicae Aeternum”) to contemporary fantasy (“Echoes of Aurora,” “Friday Night at St. Cecelia’s,” and “Caligo Lane”) to one piece of high fantasy, though tongue-in-cheek (“Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl”). There are also a few that are merely touched with the hint of fantasy, such as the darkly autobiographical “The Education of a Witch” and the wistful “Gone to the Library.” Finally though, there are pieces without any tangible speculative elements at all, such as “Hey, Presto!,” “The Scary Ham,” and the most powerful piece in the collection, “Woodsmoke.” That the three of these non-speculative works fit so seamlessly in with the rest speaks to the source that Klages draws upon for her stories. They are built on memories of childhood, or at least her understanding of childhood. It is this sense of memory that makes her stories piercing and mournful, like a dimly remembered train whistle, once heard in the distance beyond an open bedroom window.
Klages writes out of a sort of childlike wonder, peopling her stories with main characters who are innocent and strong. She builds her descriptions on the earthy richness of halcyon childhoods, the sights and sounds made larger than life in the way they are perceived through her (usually female) child characters. This is most evident in “Singing on a Star,” a haunting piece that feels like a Bradbury ghost story. The narrator is five years old and spending the night with a friend for the first time. Her friend is anxious to show her a world accessible through an elevator in the bedroom closet that only appears when a certain song is played on her record player. What the two girls find beyond the magic elevator is adulthood, or at least the promise of a certain adulthood: a city that seems normal but where you can purchase one of those candy bars you used to be able to get when you were a kid somewhere you can’t quite remember, the one that tasted like “toasted butter, malted milk, brown sugar, and flavors I have no name for” (pp. 56-57). But it’s also a world hidden in a closet, kind of seedy and dark, and when the narrator’s friend disappears at the story’s conclusion, the reader is left to recall the darker edges of some of their own childhood memories.
But ideas, even those stitched with vibrant memories, are not enough according to Wolfe. According to him, a great short story must do something with the idea. The lion-tamer has to make the lion perform. He has to put his head inside the lion’s mouth. This is the difficult part, and this is the gap that many writers are seldom able to leap: landing the trick, the twist, the thing that makes the idea dance and the reader gasp. It’s the difference between showing your reader a beautiful enchanted blade and shoving it into their gut. It’s the difference between humming a lovely melody and giving it words that will make your reader wake up in the night crying. It’s what makes a story sit up and slap you.
In “Singing on a Star” the narrator’s voice and description carry the story, but Wolfe’s analogy is useful in considering some of Klages’s other stories. Take “Goodnight Moons” and “Amica Aeternum,” for instance. Part of the problem with these is that the wonder and wistfulness of Klages’s prose doesn’t translate quite as well into science fiction. But part of the problem is also that the lion doesn’t eat anyone. “Goodnight Moons,” for instance, reads like the synopsis of a compelling novel in which an astronaut on the first Mars mission discovers en route that she is pregnant. The fact that this means her child, who has developed in the low gravity of Mars, will never be able to live on Earth is simply presented to the reader. We aren’t with the mother as she realizes the implications; the idea doesn’t come out and strike us. Likewise, “Amica Aeternum,” though more colored with the tone of childhood and wonder, also simply presents an idea: what it would be like for a young girl to say goodbye to her childhood friend—as well as everything else on Earth—before she departs with her family on a generational starship. In both of these stories the language is vivid and moving, but there’s no twist that leaves you gasping.
To be fair, not every excellent story has to have that expert, unexpected twist. There are, especially in science fiction and fantasy, some ideas and concepts that are so new and compelling that they can carry the story on their own. But often these stories seem a bit unfinished, like the sketch of something that hasn’t come fully to life. Of course landing that twist is a struggle, and my favorite part of Klages’s collection is her account of that struggle, which she explores in her afterword. It’s a rewarding touch, having spent 258 pages with a writer, to then get an honest glimpse into the agonizing process of actually writing.
The trouble is, I don’t like writing.
But I love having written. (p. 260)
Klages talks about the struggle, about first drafts that always suck, about the chore of putting words on paper, and about mess and nonlinearity and false starts. But then she describes that first hook, that first flicker of life. “Eventually, I get a keeper, a few words, a paragraph that is strong enough to anchor other prose. Another sentence crawls out of the ooze and onto dry land, grows legs, begins to explore new territory, and I follow” (p. 261). This is comfortingly (but also painfully) familiar to any writer: the longhand notebooks, the playing with ideas, the laboring to get a concept onto the page, forcing down sentence after sentence like laying unruly floorboards until something snaps, until something gives way and the words come in a torrent.
Wolfe’s lion-tamer rubric of course is not an absolute, and a story lacking a twist may still be perfectly sound. My wife, for instance, read and loved “Amica Aeternum.” Yet this rubric, I think, also helps explain why the previously unpublished “Woodsmoke” is by far the best story in this collection. The title itself alludes to the strength of description common throughout Klages’s work: she captures childhood and the joys and tragedy of summer camp more strongly than aural or visual memory alone. “Woodsmoke” is in the scent itself, which can take the reader back to similar memories as nothing else can. Here, then, Klages is in her element, bringing to reality Camp Wokanda, its environs, cabins, and counselors in a way similar to the popular comic Lumberjanes. This, however, is one of Klages’s non-speculative pieces, so, unlike Lumberjanes, the woods about Camp Wokanda are not haunted with interdimensional portals or mythical creatures.
The reader wades out into this lengthy story assuming Klages is simply doing what she does so well, telling the story of a young girl away from home for the summer, falling in love for the first time, and dealing with nascent sexual awakening at an all-girl camp. The characters work classically, and added to the appeal of the camp experience is the main character’s role as one of the only two all-summer campers, getting a glimpse into the life of the counselors and the ebb and flow of camp over the course of the summer. Klages has a way of getting into the heart of the characters, of spelling out what events like this mean to her characters as they are experiencing them (and likewise what they mean to us, the readers, in memory):
Peete had quietly moved away from the Ki-Oats and sat by herself against one of the porch supports under the Red Fox cabin, invisible for once. She hugged her knees to her chest and closed her eyes, letting the voices wash over her, through her, into the deepest, most secret part of her. . . . In the darkness, serenaded by her tribe, fearless Peete began to weep. She let the tears run down her face and did not wipe them away. The songs were lullabies, a comfort she couldn’t admit she needed, a comfort no one on the outside would offer once she left the shelter of Wokanda. (p. 229)
All of this makes for an impressive lion. But it’s the twist that comes in the final scene of the story that makes the whole thing crackle like lightning. And it’s not cheap. There is certainly a cheap way to make things twist, when an author pulls the rug out from underneath the reader without grace or warning. I don’t think that’s the kind of twist, the kind of doing something with the idea, which Wolfe had in mind. A quality twist turns the story on its ear without ruining the experience. Everything the characters felt and experienced was real, but the revelation that comes at the story’s end leads the main character and the reader to reevaluate it all in a new light, with new knowledge.
Over the course of the summer, Peete has fallen in love. She had returned to camp already in love with the place and in love with the person she became at Camp Wokanda, but over the course of the story she also begins to fall in love, or at least to fall into the first shimmerings of adolescent love, with Maggie. Maggie, like Peete, is an all-season camper. Initially a potential rival, Peete grows closer to Maggie as she realizes that the foreign upbringing that makes Maggie (the daughter of missionaries) so strange and naive also makes her an ideal camper. When, near the conclusion of the story, Maggie is struck with a sudden and severe abdominal pain, you think perhaps you’ve found your way through a lovely but heart-wrenching coming-of-age story that ends in loss, something like A Separate Peace. But that would be too straightforward; the sense of loss that Peete feels as she waits hidden outside a cabin window and listens to a doctor explain the nature of what’s happened to her friend is much more profound.
Maggie, being born to missionary parents in an undeveloped nation, was misgendered at birth, raised with the assumption she was female and now suffering the pain of late-descending male genitalia. Peete has simultaneously lost Maggie without truly losing her. Rather, Peete (as well as Maggie) has lost who she thought Maggie was. Of course, Klages is too deft to allow this to be a twist that simply “resolves” Peete’s nascent love. Rather, it is a revelatory fact, a thing that just is, a twist working itself backward throughout the entire story, making you see everything that came before with new eyes. We don’t linger with Peete to explore how she works through her new knowledge. The story concludes with Peete sneaking into her friend’s room and holding his hand, admitting that she no longer knows this new person.
The effectiveness of Klages’s ending in “Woodsmoke” is that we’re left there, in that moment, very much alone and forced, like the characters, to reevaluate the world—not because previous events are unreal but because the world has become suddenly, newly strange. “Woodsmoke,” like all the stories in this collection, is beautiful, but it’s that final, compelling twist that catches you, that leaves you broken-hearted, gasping like a fish pulled from the familiar waters of Lake Wokanda lying on the dock in a world where everything and nothing has changed.