A Reading List of SF/F Books with Mentally Ill Characters
by Erica Satifka
According to the World Health Organization, one out of every four people will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Considering this, it’s important that when characters with mental illness are featured in one’s writing, the subject is treated with sensitivity and accuracy. Novels that portray such disorders well can make a huge difference.
Em Kalberg, the protagonist of my debut novel Stay Crazy, has paranoid schizophrenia. As I researched the novel, I found that there were very few positive representations of people with schizophrenia, and not just in speculative fiction, but everywhere. The vast majority of the time, characters with psychotic disorders are monsters or killers. These negative depictions have real-world consequences for people with schizophrenia, leading to fear and marginalization. In Stay Crazy, Em deals with the horror of the dimension-eating alien creature that dwells underneath her workplace, which she can’t even be sure is real due to her condition. On top of this, she has the social stigma of being “crazy”, which is enhanced by living in a small town where everyone knows each other’s business. Em can’t rebuild her life until she can be sure of her own mind, and the pressure of the aliens and stereotypes nearly destroys her. While I’m pretty sure there aren’t any aliens, Em’s struggle against the stigma of mental illness is all too real, and I did my best to reflect that respectfully throughout the text.
Here are fourteen other novels, novellas, or short story collections that prominently feature characters with mental illnesses or trauma:
Borderline by Mishell Baker
In this debut urban fantasy novel, Baker mines her personal experience to provide the story of Millie Roper, a woman with borderline personality disorder who gets drafted into a secret organization. The Arcadia Project acts as liaisons between the Faerie world and the equally glittering land of Hollywood, and each member of the group has a mental illness. Baker deftly shows the ways Millie, who in addition to BPD is a double-leg amputee from a suicide attempt, finds that her mental illness both interferes with and enhances her work with the organization.
Bullettime by Nick Mamatas
Dave Holbrook, victim of school bullying and bad parenting, is headed down a dark path. Tempted by the idea of shooting up his school, he receives divine intervention in the form of Eris, the Greek goddess of discord. She shows him the various routes his life could take, and Dave must decide for himself whether or not mass murder is the solution to his problems. Mamatas’s intriguing novel explores the ramifications of abuse and neglect, but it is no Afterschool Special.
The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Reality blends with fantasy in this story of India Morgan Phelps, a young woman with schizophrenia. Through use of a non-linear timeline and stream-of-consciousness passages, Kiernan intimately shows the struggles going on through Imp’s mind as she tries to uncover the story behind a mysterious woman she encountered late one night. Imp’s circling thought patterns and hallucinations make this both an effective horror/fantasy novel and a fascinating glimpse into psychotic disorders.
Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro
After being branded as a child-murderer, detective Andrea Cort is drafted into investigating a homicide in an artificial ecosystem called One One One. Due to her trauma, Cort is brusque and unwilling to make friends, but she must work through her issues to uncover the culprit… and maybe get to the bottom of the incident that led to her case of PTSD. Castro paints a realistic picture of the effects major trauma can have on a person, and the ways in which they can use their mission to overcome it.
Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
In an alternate 1994, Mars has been colonized, but corporations care more about the profit found in its land than the mysteries of the planet itself. Jack Bohlen is a handyman, who fled to Mars after a breakdown on Earth made living in its crowded cities intolerable. Jack meets up with a troubled little boy named Manfred, who forces him to reexamine his own demons. While many of Dick’s novels delve into the topic of mental illness, this one more than any other illustrates a neuroatypical character with stunning sensitivity and three-dimensionality. Much of the medical information in this book is outdated, but the themes still shine.
I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
John Wayne Cleaver, a teenage sociopath with a serial killer fixation, creates rules to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a real killer emerges close to home, John uses his instincts to hunt down the culprit, with his therapist a much-needed stabilizing force. Wells’ supernatural crime novel explores the seemingly contradictory idea of a sympathetic sociopath, and explores how John’s mental differences keep him from connecting with other human beings.
An Oath of Dogs by Wendy N. Wagner
In this science fiction mystery, an agoraphobic corporate worker named Kate Standish travels with her service dog Hattie to the lush, fertile world of Huginn. But a murder has been committed in the colony right before her arrival, and Standish and her colleagues must get to the bottom of things. Wagner handles her protagonist’s agoraphobia with sensitivity, vividly describing the anxiety Standish feels in the open spaces of Huginn. Her service dog is also an integral part of the plot, showing how their bond allows Standish to function even in a tightly-wound situation.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
In a dystopian America, Lauren Olamina develops a new religion called Earthseed, its goal the evolution of humanity through space travel. Lauren also lives with a condition called hyper-empathy, which causes her to literally feel the pain of others, which is instrumental in her development of Earthseed. Lauren and a motley band of refugees travel from the ruins of Los Angeles, seeking safety, and Lauren becomes a leader despite – or maybe because of – her hyper-empathy.
Planetfall by Emma Newman
The newly born colony in which Ren Ghali has spent most of her adult life is thriving, but she isn’t. Unbeknownst to her fellow colonists, Ren suffers from hoarding, a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder. When a stranger enters the colony, everyone’s life is thrown into disarray, especially hers. As she tries to keep her secret, Ren is confronted with the secrets from her past that led her to start hoarding, and the fate of the colony itself hangs in the balance. Newman treats her character’s mental illness with sensitivity, and the anxiety Ren feels in her everyday life feels all too real.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
In a typical YA fantasy novel, a group of quirky teens battle monsters and save the day. But Ness’s clever inversion of this trope instead focuses on a group of “normal” high school seniors who have to deal with the fallout of the supernatural happenings around them, while helping each other get through the last days until graduation. Narrator Mikey Mitchell is one of them, but his final weeks are interrupted by a flare-up of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Funny and touching, this novel perfectly balances a realistic depiction of anxiety with a meta-take on genre literature itself.
Shelter by Susan Palwick
A sort of near-future family drama, this novel takes place in a world where altruism is medicalized, AI are demanding human rights, and much of the population has been wiped out by a devastating virus. One of the protagonists, Roberta, spends a lot of time in therapy to overcome her extreme altruism. The other major character, Meredith, has some “issues” of her own, largely stemming from her father being the first human to be uploaded into a computer. Palwick expertly shows the way these two troubled women’s lives intersect, and how people live in a uniquely structured futuristic world.
Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts edited by Susan Forest
This Canadian short story anthology features nineteen stories about neuroatypical characters, covering a wide range of mental differences. Though many stories are set in the far future or in a secondary world, their problems still ring true, and show a wide diversity of disabilities. While some of the stories focus more tightly on the theme of mental illness, others simply show the protagonist surviving in their world. No two stories in Strangers Among Us are too much alike, and the anthology features well-known authors such as Kelley Armstrong, A.M. Dellamonica, Gemma Files, and many others.
We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
A group of troubled outcasts are brought together for group therapy – but their demons aren’t done with them yet. All five members of the group carry trauma from various brushes with the supernatural: cannibal killers, a creepy cult, and a serial killer who carves messages into his victim’s bones. Gregory explores the ways in which trauma can shape one’s present, such as drug addiction and an escape into virtual reality. The group therapy itself is also a focus of this novella, showing the ways in which these five survivors help one another to grow and change, and defeat the revived monsters of their respective pasts.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Connie Ramos, a Mexican-American woman in 1970s New York City, has been recently institutionalized and threatened with psychosurgery. But her hallucinations are actually visions of the year 2137, where racial and sexual equality have been achieved, and mankind lives in harmony with the Earth. Flipping back and forth from a utopic future and a painful present – and a third nightmare future – Connie must decide whether to take steps to make the paradise come to pass, while living with her own demons and avoiding the medical establishment that isn’t on her side.
Mental illness is a fact of life for millions of people in the United States alone, and it’s important that fiction reflects this reality. By reading books that show mentally ill characters in a sympathetic light, readers can expand their ideas of what these characters are capable of, and make the world more welcoming. Likewise, writers who wish to write about a disorder they don’t have (or even one they do) would do well to seek out both fiction and non-fiction about it, and remember that their characters aren’t just defined by their mental health. Happy reading!
Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her British Fantasy Award-nominated debut novel Stay Crazy was released in August 2016 by Apex Publications, and her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Interzone, and The Dark. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and an indeterminate number of cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.
Conspiracies imbue the innocuous with meaning. Secrets have to be maintained, their tracks covered. Conspirators obsess over the details which must be covered up; conspiracy theorists obsess over what those details reveal, because the details are where obvious explanations slip aside. It's lonely in the midst of that obsession, in the company of secrets that others can't know or won't believe exist. And in the midst of that loneliness is Caitlín R. Kiernan's new novella out from Tor, Agents of Dreamland.
The story opens in Winslow, Arizona where the Signalman, an agent from Albany, waits in a diner for Immacolata Sexton, an agent from Y. An incident—a murder, or something stranger—has taken place along the Salton Sea and the agents are meeting to exchange information between their two shadowy organizations. The year is 2015. The Signalman is tired. His Diet Dr. Pepper is flat; his shoes, purchased at JC Penney, have been worn down by his pacing through the town.
The character who opens the novella is full of knowledge: “The Signalman knows the waitress' story, just as he knows the stories of the two cooks and the dishwasher, just as he knows the names of the proprietor's three daughters. Every little thing that the Signalman doesn't know is a blind spot, a weakness he can't afford and won't abide.” If each story teaches you how to read it, the choice to start with the Signalman is important, because he is intensely interested in knowledge, down to the smallest detail. The Signalman pays close attention to the details because what he doesn't know can hurt him. He teaches the reader that there are hidden truths and that the smallest detail is important to seeing them: he teaches the reader to approach Agents of Dreamland with the mindset of a conspiracy theorist, hungry for detail.
The novella feeds that hunger with a smorgasbord of details. A picture develops with each chapter, a picture of a struggle for the fate of the earth. On one side of the struggle are the Signalman and Immacolata Sexton, and the shadowy organizations for which they work. On the other side is an invading force from the edge of the solar system, not human but acting at times through human allies. A picture forms, but somehow that feast of details is both too much and too little to see this picture in full. I don't mean this as a critique. I don't believe that stories must fully explain themselves. What I mean is to point to an effect, a sleight of hand, that pushes the reader off-balance. First, the novella tells the reader that truth is hidden in the details. Second, the novella introduces mysteries to be solved and questions to be answered—what are these shadowy organizations, Albany and Y, and what do they do? What happened along the Salton Sea? Third, the novella feeds the reader a series of details, which seem like explanations. Fourth, the reader tries to match the details to the mysteries. But the details and the mysteries don't quite match. There are extras on both sides. A tangle of loose threads.
As an example, look at the character of Drew Standish, the man behind the strange incident along the Salton Sea. The man being investigated by the Signalman. Standish is a charismatic figure, offering his followers an importance and a recognition they haven't experienced elsewhere in their lives. He preaches to them of hidden knowledge, accusing shadowy actors of the kind of conspiracy that the reader knows from the Signalman's presence is possible, whether Standish gets the details right or not. “How much have you thought about what was really in back of the digital switchover in 2013?” he asks. Or, “Just stop and fucking think. The NTIA, the OPAD, the Office of Spectrum Management, MediaFLO, fucking Microsoft, and definitely fucking Apple. You ever wondered about the Beatles and Apple?” Standish accuses through implication rather than explanation, listing the details that according to him should make you wonder, letting his audience fill in the blanks. In a different context, Standish would be no more than a cult figure, a liar manipulating the details of the world to fit a narrative of self-importance. Within Agents of Dreamland, where details reveal hidden truths and shadowy actors are real, nothing he says can be fully dismissed.
Standish's rants and lectures manipulate his followers—and the reader—into painting a picture that supports his campaign of self-aggrandizing annihilation. (Some people want to be responsible for the end of the world.) He offers detail after detail with the implication that there is an obvious connection between them, capitalizing on the ease with which the human mind can draw connections between even the most disparate dots. Agents of Dreamland, as a whole, manipulates the same patternmaking habit of the human mind. Over the course of the novella, Kiernan gives us just enough to see the overall picture—the invading force of inhuman creatures, the agents trying to act against them—but with enough gaps that we can't be sure what fits and what doesn't. The novella leaves a sliver of doubt about even the most innocuous details. Is the connection between the Beatles and Apple Computers as relevant as Standish implies? Is the Signalman's silver watch, described in detail in Chapter 4, important for more than character reasons? Maybe. Unclear.
Given this interest in patternmaking, it is unsurprising that the novella uses a number of detective tropes. For much of Agents of Dreamland, the cosmic happenings are in the background. The foreground of the story is the Signalman's investigation of Drew Standish and the incident at the Salton Sea, with the reader ricocheting between the Signalman and Standish. The dynamic is familiar from many popular television shows, wherein a detective or investigator or agent follows the trail left by a criminal or mastermind or misunderstood monster, assembling the crumbs into a pattern of explanation. The worn-out, alcoholic detective is played convincingly by the Signalman, who spends a lot of time drinking Scotch out of paper cups. Standish, of course, is the cult mastermind, manipulating the young and impressionable into destruction. In a way, this could be a miniseries on AMC.
But only in a small way. The center of this story is not the evil acts of man or the degenerate human world. No, the center of this story is Lovecraftian cosmic horror. And so we have Immacolata Sexton, who is something not quite human, sliding in and out of time to show the reader events of the past and future. Her opposite number is Chloe Stringfellow, jealous disciple of Drew Standish, who tells the reader, “I make no secret of the fact that I want to be the first to bloom,” a statement she means literally, as the reader discovers when Chloe—or Chloe's body—does finally bloom into something fungal and unearthly.
Despite the descriptions of fruiting bodies and Lovecraftian creatures, I found the novella's horror most effective within the stream of seemingly innocuous details. Kiernan is highly skilled at slotting fictional events into real timelines, creating alternative histories that reverberate from the page out into reality. In Chapter 4 (titled “A Piece of the Sky (August 17, 1968)”), for example, we learn about a black and white movie the Signalman watched when he was eight years old. The Star Maiden, directed by James Whale, was the only movie written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The making of the movie was followed by a series of unexplained deaths and odd happenings. “Make of this what you will or make of it nothing at all,” says the narrator, as if the reader hasn't been primed to make a great deal of everything in these pages. Based on what I could find, James Whale did not direct and Edgar Rice Burroughs did not write a 1934 movie called The Star Maiden. There was no cast, no curse. But the movie feels like it could be a hidden part of history, and if it is real, then why not everything else?
Or maybe I'm just particularly susceptible to secret histories, that sense of something more happening behind the everyday, even if that something more is the end of the world, even if the ending world feels so lonely, as it does here. The moments of human connection in Agents of Dreamland are small, tentative, and compromised. Drew Standish reaches out to Chloe Stringfellow in an alley in L.A., making her cry with an offer of freedom and salvation, but by the end of the novella we see that salvation as personal annihilation and an attempt at the destruction of the world. Immacolata Sexton, in her travels through time, brings canned peaches to a woman in a future L.A., but her visit also reveals a city invaded, the residents becoming less and less human every day. Peaches are cold comfort in a world already lost. Late in the novella, the Signalman and Immacolata Sexton talk on the phone, sharing a moment of camaraderie, but: “[The Signalman] only wishes it had left him feeling even the smallest bit less afraid, the smallest bit less alone.” It's a measure of Kiernan's ability that the reader closes the book feeling much the same.
Captain Kidd has gone down in history as America's most ruthless buccaneer, fabulously rich, burying dozens of treasure chests up and down the eastern seaboard. But it turns out that most everyone, even many respected scholars, have the story all wrong. Captain William Kidd was no career cut-throat; he was a tough, successful New York sea captain who was hired to chase pirates. His three-year odyssey aboard the aptly named Adventure galley pitted him against arrogant Royal Navy commanders, jealous East India Company captains, storms, starvation, angry natives, and, above all, flesh-and-blood pirates.
A really interesting book about the pirate turned pirate hunter who wasn't as ruthless or had as much treasure as people thought.
After his time as a pirate in the Caribbean he settled in New York City, married a wealthy widow & became respectable. Through a chance meeting he is commissioned by William III of England to capture pirates in the Indian Ocean. Run-ins with the English Navy, his crew not being paid because they can't find any pirates & crossing paths with his old shipmate (& mutineer against Kidd) Robert Culliford lead to his eventual downfall.
To the gods and ghouls that he cooks for, Rupert Wong is little more than a mouthy piece of meat. At best, the titular character of Cassandra Khaw's gloriously gory series hardly registers as anything more than an annoyance. At worst, he's viewed as a tool to be used up, until he can only serve as fuel and food for divinity.
Part of Abaddon Books's shared “Gods and Monsters” universe, the sequel to Khaw's 2015 novella Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth plucks main-character Rupert Wong from the familiarity of his life in Kuala Lumpur, dropping him headfirst into a conflict between some heavy hitters of the Greek pantheon and members of a mysterious organization known as Vanquis. Persona non grata in his hometown due to events in the previous book that lead members of his own pantheon to view him as a traitor, Rupert is removed from everything that is familiar and is transplanted, rather abruptly, to a dreary London neighborhood that seems downright lousy with Greek gods and figures from other European mythologies.
There are two huge things that Cassandra Khaw does in Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth that make the book—and the characters that inhabit it—too interesting to walk away from. First, there's what drew me to Khaw's writing in the first place: how she writes about flesh and food in a way that makes reading about the go-to nourishment of ghouls and gods a chilling, but captivating experience. Then there's the way that Khaw writes the remains of the Greek pantheon struggling to gain a foothold in a world that has largely written them off as obsolete—and whose new gods are far less open to sharing.
Let's start by talking about the role that food and flesh play in this book.
Cassandra Khaw is maybe one of the few authors in the world that can write a book that at one point describes, in detail, the processes necessary for efficiently butchering a human body and still manage to leave me with simultaneous, conflicting feelings of fear and hunger. I wanted a shower and a snack after reading this book for the first time, and that's part of the beauty of Khaw's writing.
We're gifted with descriptions of Rupert's technique as he prepares andouille sausages from the small intestines of massacred men, and how he prepares the torso of a deceased porn star for an audience of hungry ghouls. Even the way that Khaw describes Rupert's ghoul friend Fariz doing something as mundane as eating ramen is portrayed with language that makes it hard to stomach: “He lances the egg and it belches yolk onto his noodles, a punctured blister bleeding pus.”
And please, don't get me started on what happens when one of the new gods on the scene takes down Jack the Ripper. Khaw depicts him being consumed by a goddess, describing him being broken down to muscle and marrow as he's turned into food. Thinking back, that might well have been one of the most disturbing moments in the entire book, because of how it shakes Rupert more than anything he's seen so far.
It's also a moment that kind of makes the book.
Another thing that I found fascinating about the way food and flesh are treated in this book is that for the most part at this point in his life Rupert Wong thinks nothing of preparing a human corpse for a meal since the alternative is almost always his death. In fact, at the start of Ends of the Earth, when Rupert's opponent in a truly gruesome satire of shows like Iron Chef is dispatched after losing, Rupert's main thoughts center on relief that he's not going to be next on the menu—and disgust that he's going to have to personally prepare for his boss the body that is.
At the end of the first section of How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, & the Nature of Eating (2012), author Gary Allen describes cannibalism as “this most meaningful of relationships,” following a series of questions that try to imply that human carnivores are always lurching one step closer to cannibalism in an attempt to fully satisfy their hunger. Rupert Wong would probably be the last person to claim that the path to gastronomic self-actualization lies in cannibalism and “getting closer to one's food.” I think that if he did think in-depth about what he was doing and who he was cooking, he couldn't do his actual job. After all, there are no ethics in human consumption. As the reader, however, we come face-to-text with descriptions of bodies turned into meals in a way that doesn't allow us to distance ourselves from the fact that our mostly human narrator is cutting up and cooking other humans without appearing to have so much as a care in the world.
Rupert on the other hand, has to distance himself from what he's cooking or else he won't be able to work. In the book's ninth chapter, following a massacre at the soup kitchen which the Greek gods run in order to get easier access to their favorite food source, Rupert tells us that “It's easier when you don't think of them as people” as he and the staff prepare body after body for food. It's easier and safer for him to keep on cooking, to see the bodies before him as anonymous ingredients, than to think about who they started as. And, as we see at the start of the book, Rupert's self-preservation instincts, though slow to kick in once he's running his mouth, mean that he's not going to stop doing what keeps him from becoming obsolete.
Part of what makes Rupert Wong an amazing character is his pragmatic approach to dealing with the fact that he's always at risk of winding up on the very menu he's prepared. In a world where anyone—even gods—can wind up in someone else's belly without a moment's notice, personal distance is a must.
In addition to her approach to exocannibalism in these pantheons, Khaw's interpretation of the Greek pantheon—a struggling collection of gods and assorted immortals that don't hold even half of the power that they once did—is an innovative writing choice. Khaw's take on the pantheon and its assorted hangers-on is like almost nothing I've ever read before. Under her pen, these gods are monstrous and they see the chaos they've caused, by striving to cling on to as much power as possible, as simple collateral damage. They share same view of humans as Rupert's boss back in Malaysia: most are little more than walking, talking Happy Meals.
At one point, the goddess Ananke (who keeps elderly women as pets) actually says that she prefers to think of their soup kitchen scheme as “cultivating foie gras.” You know, because to them, the homeless people they fatten up to feed off of aren't much different from ducks. The gods and ghouls we see in Ends of the Earth appear to take the point of view that humans aren’t people. In the same way that we humans tend to view certain kinds of animals—the specific animals change depending on where the person is from—as food, not friends. Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (1999) posits that one reason that societies around the world have found cannibalism to be at odds with their beliefs is that “other people are better taken as allies, or even as necessary evils, than as nutrients”. However, food is beneath classification as allies or enemies. It is beneath notice beyond how it tastes and where it came from—because the only thing food exists for is consumption.
That attitude is one of several things that makes the assorted gods that Rupert comes into contact with in London so awful. Khaw doesn't romanticize or soften one ounce of their unpredictable and unfair natures, and her gods casually commit and condone atrocities as an everyday occurrence.
The fear of and fascination with cannibalism is present in stories around the world—from folktales to mythology to works that make up notable examples of capital-l Literature. Two notable examples of cannibalism occur in Greek mythology. First is the story of Cronus eating his divine children in order to consolidate power. Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1819-23) sensationalizes the whole ordeal of Cronus’s cannibalism, as he “swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees” in order to stop them from rebelling against him in their adulthood. No chewing necessary.
Then there’s the story of Polyphemus in the Odyssey, the cyclops who is known for his voracious appetite for human flesh—and for the way in which he is eventually outsmarted by Odysseus himself. The story doesn’t skimp on the gory descriptions as Odysseus watches in horror as two of his men are eaten in front of him:
[…] with a sudden clutch he gripped up two of my men at once and dashed them down upon the ground as though they had been puppies. Their brains were shed upon the ground, and the earth was wet with their blood. Then he tore them limb from limb and supped upon them. He gobbled them up like a lion in the wilderness, flesh, bones, marrow, and entrails, without leaving anything uneaten. (The Odyssey, Book 9)
In both of these stories, cannibalism inspires disgust because of how “primitive” the association is. In Bill Schutt’s book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History (2017), classicist Mary Knight argues, “The story may thus support cannibalism as a part of the ancient Greek view of a ‘primitive’ past vs. the ‘civilized’ present. Greeks came to see themselves as different, calling all non-Greeks ‘savages’—people who may have continued eating people.” Knight argues that the Greek cultural prohibition against cannibalism derives from Zeus’s refusal to follow in his father’s footsteps and cannibalize his own young. (Though Zeus does swallow his first wife Metis in order to keep a prophecy from coming true.)
For the Greeks, cannibalism and man-eating were signs of the Other in their world (in the same way that European explorers used claims of cannibalism to dehumanize indigenous people in the Caribbean and Pacific). So what then does it mean for Khaw to return the Greek gods to their primordial past by having them consume human flesh without a care?
Throughout the book, we see signs that war is being waged and that not all of the Greeks are necessarily on the winning side. Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth is like American Gods (2001) cranked up to eleven. Dionysus is dead in Los Angeles, the God of Being Missing literally takes no prisoners … and Demeter turns out to have been masterminding most of the events during Rupert's time in London in a bid for power, but also in an attempt to rescue her daughter. All of the other Greek gods are frustrating at best, and I found myself actively rooting for the mass demise that I was certain would happen by the end of the book. I was here for a smackdown and, thankfully, Khaw delivered big time.
In fact, Demeter and Persephone are the only two members of the Greek pantheon that I could ultimately bring myself to care about. While many recent takes on Greek mythology have redone the Persephone/Hades myth to frame the relationship as more romantic—and remove Demeter entirely from the equation—Khaw confronts the original creepiness of the myth and then updates that, addressing how things would work in a world where Persephone still spends half of her time in the Underworld, but Hades no longer has the ability to move between the worlds.
In a nutshell, Khaw manages to make the mythology even more messed up than it already was; but then fixes things by having Demeter wreck her own pantheon in order to save her daughter. She's not that much different from her fellow Greek gods in terms of how she tends to see humans as fuel or tools, but she manages to get Rupert on her side without even really trying—and in her own way, she seems to see him as a knight in chef’s whites rather than as simply talkative meat. He puts himself at risk for Demeter and her daughter, making deals that he honestly didn’t have to in order to make right a wrong that’s far older than he is. Rupert Wong may not immediately register as a hero (even he doesn't see himself as one), but by the end of Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth he's clearly the most heroic figure in the book. Cannibal cuisine n' all.
The problem was that it was 130K and I still had a good chunk left to go.
Now, I write fairly short books, as you guys know. 65K is about my perfect length. This thing was monstrous. I plan to self-pub the ebook but the idea of a print version was...well, you guys remember how I threw my back out lugging copies of Digger?
My buddy Mur, queen of podcasting, listened to my woes at coffee and said "Make it two books."
I gaped at her. "I can DO that?"
"Do we have to have the economics talk? Have you on Ditch Diggers (that's her podcast, go listen to it) so we can yell at you?"
This blew my mind.
It also solved a lot of problems for an author who prefers to keep their ebooks cheap and their books not requiring death cement to keep the bindings together.
So! Clockwork Boys, Book One of the Clocktaur War, has been sent to my editor and will be out hopefully this year. (Patrons, you get the ebook for free, of course!)
None of this is the point. The point is that, having split it into two books, suddenly I am working on Book Two (tentatively titled The Wonder Engine) and I am having to do all the stuff that you do at the beginning of a second book, where you re-describe all the characters and do very brief info dumps about how your heroine got that tattoo and why she's still pissed at the paladin after rescuing his armored ass from a bunch of murderous deer people. And re-foreshadow stuff and re-establish that your thief sneezes constantly and the assassin smokes cigarettes and the paladin takes hot baths at every opportunity and all the stuff that you do when you're writing a second book.
Which honestly, is sort of useful for the writer as well as the reader, gives me a chance to re-center myself in the story, but it adds even more words.
The second book is already longer than the first one, and there's still so much more to get through. How do epic fantasy people DO this!?
Anyway. Clockwork Boys, hopefully this year, Wonder Engine hopefully early next year. My brain hurts.
We may not get more Jude | Zero | Zude in canon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get them in our fic/art/vids! This round of Team Zude Comment!Fic & Art Fest is for virtual season four-related prompts where Jude and Zero are both still on the show.
Leave a prompt in comments to this post at team_zude. If you find a prompt that you like, go ahead and fill it!
The Fest will run for ~6 weeks, beginning today, Friday, September 15th, and running through midnight Tuesday, October 31st. See the post linked above for more information.
2. What are two things you would do to improve the country if you were in complete charge?
3. What three TV shows do you like watching?
4. What are your four favorite ethnic dishes?
5. What are five words you love to use?
Copy and paste to your own journal, then reply to this post with a link to your answers. If your journal is private or friends-only, you can post your full answers in the comments below.
If you'd like to suggest questions for a future Friday Five, then do so on DW or LJ. Old sets that were used have been deleted, so please feel free to suggest some more!
**Remember that we rely on you, our members, to help keep the community going. Also, please remember to play nice. We are all here to answer the questions and have fun each week. We repost the questions exactly as the original posters submitted them and request that all questions be checked for spelling and grammatical errors before they're submitted. Comments re: the spelling and grammatical nature of the questions are not necessary. Honestly, any hostile, rude, petty, or unnecessary comments need not be posted, either.**
I wanted to share because I found that post very inspirational; it made me think about the purposes that journals serve, about how we mix media in order to make something meaningful, how personal and yet universal the act of journaling is.
The Authors Guild and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) previously announced that they collaboratively reached an agreement with a Hungarian science fiction magazine, Galaktika, which for years had been reprinting stories of American and British science fiction writers without their permission. Under the terms of the agreement, Metropolis Media, Galaktika’s publisher, promised to seek permission for any works they use in the future and to compensate the authors and estates whose works were published without permission. Galaktika has agreed to pay each author or estate whose work it infringed fair compensation, with the fee to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. (Please refer to the end of this post for more information about how to contact Galaktika.)
Part of the settlement between the magazine Galaktika and SFWA and the Authors Guild was that Galaktika would provide a complete list of authors whose work had been published without authorization by Galaktika. The list below was created from the spreadsheet that they provided, and, as far as SFWA can discover, it is accurate. This list includes authors or their representatives who have already come to agreements with Galaktika or are still in the process of negotiation. It is being made public to aid authors who may not know their work was published without authorization. Note that some of the works affected may be out of copyright in Hungary.
Authors and estates (or agents representing authors or authors’ estates) whose works have been infringed by Galaktika may contact Dr. Katalin Mund with their claims. She can be reached at email@example.com. Authors Guild members can also contact the Authors Guild at firstname.lastname@example.org for help negotiating their settlements. Affected authors can request the details of the unauthorized publication(s), including the names of stories and publication date by emailing email@example.com. SFWA members who believe that Galaktika is not living up to this agreement by negotiating in good faith should contact John E. Johnston III at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AIKEN, JOAN (Delano)
AIKIN, JIM; [i.e., James Douglas Aikin]
ALDISS, BRIAN W.
ALLEN, ROGER MacBRIDE
AMIS, MARTIN (Louis)
ANDERSON, KEVIN J.
ANDERSON, POUL (William)
ANTHONY, PIERS; pseudonym of Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob,
ATWOOD, MARGARET (Eleanor Kilian)
BALLARD, (James) (Graham
BANKS, IAIN (Menzies)
BAXTER, STEPHEN M (Michael)
BAYLEY, BARRINGTON J (ohn)
BEAR, ELIZABETH; [i.e., Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky]
BEAR, GREG (ory Dale)
BELL, M (ichael) SHAYNE
BENFORD, GREGORY (Albert)
BERTIN, EDDY C (harly)
BETHKE, BRUCE (Raymond)
BLAYLOCK, JAMES P (aul)
BLISH, JAMES (Benjamin)
BLOCH, ROBERT (Albert)
BONE, J (esse) F (ranklin)
BOVA, BEN (jamin William)
BRACKETT, LEIGH (Douglas)
BRADBURY, RAY (mond Douglas)
BRIN, (Glen) DAVID
BRODERICK, DAMIEN (Francis)
BROWN, FREDRIC (William)
BRUNNER, JOHN (Kilian Houston)
BRUST, STEVEN (Karl Zoltan)
BUTLER, OCTAVIA E.
CADIGAN, PAT (ricia Oren Kearney)
CAMPBELL, JOHN W (ood, Jr.)
CARR, TERRY (Gene)
CERASINI, MARC A.
CHALKER, JACK L (aurence)
CHANDLER, A (rthur) BERTRAM
CHARNAS, SUZY McKEE
CHERRYH, C. J.
CHESTERTON, G (ilbert) K
CLARK, WALTER VAN TILBURG
CLARKE, ARTHUR C (harles)
CLEMENT, HAL; pseudonym of Harry Clement Stubbs,
COCHRANE, WILLIAM E (ugene)
COLLINS, NANCY A (verill)
COOPER, MERIAN C (aldwell)
CRAMER, KATHRYN (Elizabeth)
CRISPIN, A (nn) C
DALY, L. J.
DAVIDSON, AVRAM (James)
DAVIS, (Horace) CHAN
DAVIES, COLIN P.
de BODARD, ALIETTE
DELANY, SAMUEL R (ay, Jr.)
DiCHARIO, NICHOLAS A.
DICK, PHILIP K (indred)
DICKSON, GORDON R (upert)
DI FILIPPO, PAUL
DISCH, THOMAS M (ichael)
DOCTOROW, CORY (Efram)
DONALDSON, STEPHEN R (eeder)
EFFINGER, GEORGE ALEC
ELLISON, HARLAN (Jay)
ERNST, PAUL (Frederick)
FARMER, NANCY; [born Nancy Forsythe Coe]
FARMER, PHILIP JOSÉ
FINCH, SHEILA (Rosemary)
FINNEY, JACK; [i.e., Walter Braden Finney]
FLYNN, MICHAEL F (rancis)
FORWARD, ROBERT L (ull)
FOWLER, KAREN JOY
GALLUN, RAYMOND Z (inke)
GARDNER, JAMES ALAN
GARLAND, MARK ANDREW
GARRETT, (Gordon) RANDALL (Phillip David)
GAULT, WILLIAM CAMPBELL
GEIS, RICHARD E (rwin)
GENTLE, MARY R (osalyn)
GIBSON, WILLIAM (Ford)
GOLDSTEIN, LISA (Joy)
GOONAN, KATHLEEN ANN
HAINES, JOSEPH PAUL
HALDEMAN, JACK C (arroll), II
HALDEMAN, JOE W (illiam)
HALL, MELISSA MIA
HAND, ELIZABETH (Francis)
HANKS, THOMAS JEFFREY
HARRISON, HARRY; [legalized from Henry Maxwell Dempsey]
HEINLEIN, ROBERT A (nson)
HERBERT, FRANK (Patrick)
HIGH, PHILIP E (mpson)
HOCH, EDWARD D (entinger)
HODGSON, WILLIAM HOPE
HOFFMAN, NINA KIRIKI
HOGAN, JAMES P (atrick)
HOLDSTOCK, ROBERT (Paul)
HOLLIS, H. H.; pseudonym of Ben Neal Ramey,
HOOD, ROBERT (Maxwell)
HOYT, DANIEL M.
HUFF, TANYA (Sue)
HUNTER, EVAN (formerly S. A. Lombino; see pseudonym Ed McBain)
JAKES, JOHN (William)
JAMES, M (ontague) R (hodes)
JEMISIN, N. K.
JONES, DIANA WYNNE
JONES, GARETH D.
KELLER, DAVID H (enry), M.D.
KELLY, JAMES PATRICK
KEOHANE, DANIEL G.
KILWORTH, GARRY (Douglas)
KING, VINCENT; pseudonym of Rex Thomas Vinson,
KIPLING, (Joseph) RUDYARD
KNIGHT, DAMON (Francis)
KORNBLUTH, C (yril) M.
KOWAL, MARY ROBINETTE
KRESS, NANCY (Anne Konigisor)
KUSHNER, ELLEN (Ruth)
LAFFERTY, R (aphael) A (loysius)
LAKE, JAY; [i.e., Joseph Edward Lake
LANDIS, GEOFFREY A.
LANGFORD, DAVID (Rowland)
LANSDALE, JOE R (ichard Harold)
LATHAM, PHILIP; pseudonym of Robert S. Richardson,
LAUMER, (John) KEITH
LE GUIN, URSULA K (roeber)
LEIBER, FRITZ (Reuter, Jr.)
LEINSTER, MURRAY; pseudonym of Will F. Jenkins,
LEVINE, DAVID D.
LOVELACE, DELOS W.
LYNN, ELIZABETH A (nne)
McALLISTER, BRUCE (Hugh)
McCAFFREY, ANNE (Inez)
McDEVITT, JACK; [i.e., John Charles McDevitt]
McINTYRE, VONDA N (eel)
McKILLIP, PATRICIA A (nne)
MACKIN, EDWARD; pseudonym of Ralph McInerny,
MacLEOD, IAN R.
MacLEOD, KEN (neth Macrae)
MALZBERG, BARRY N (orman)
MARTIN, GEORGE R (aymond) R (ichard)
MATHESON, RICHARD (Burton)
MERRIL, JUDITH; [originally Josephine Juliet Grossman]
MIÉVILLE, CHINA (Tom)
MILLER, WALTER M (ichael, Jr.)
MILLIGAN, SPIKE; [i.e., Terence Alan Milligan]
MORRISON, WILLIAM; pseudonym of Joseph Samachson
MORROW, JAMES (Kenneth)
MORROW, WILLIAM C (hambers)
NIENDORFF, JOHN STARR
NIVEN, LARRY; [i.e., Laurence van Cott Niven]
NOURSE, ALAN E (dward)
O’DONNELL, KEVIN, Jr.
OFFUTT, ANDREW J (efferson, V)
OKORAFOR(-Mbachu), NNEDI (ma)
OLIVER, (Symmes) CHAD (wick)
OLTION, JERRY (Brian)
PAGE, GERALD W (ilburn)
PEI, MARIO A (ndrew)
POHL, FREDERIK (George, Jr.)
POLLOCK, FRANK LILLIE
POPKES, STEVEN (Earl)
POURNELLE, JERRY E (ugene)
POYER, D (avid) C (harles)
PRATCHETT, TERRY (David John)
PRATT, TIM; [i.e., Timothy Aaron Pratt]
RAYNER, MARK A.
REED, ROBERT (David)
RESNICK, MIKE; [i.e., Michael Diamond Resnick]
REYNOLDS, MACK; [i.e., Dallas McCord Reynolds]
ROBINS, MADELEINE E.
ROBINSON, FRANK M (alcolm)
ROBINSON, KIM STANLEY
ROSENBAUM, BENJAMIN (Micah)
ROTUNDO, MATTHEW S.
RUCKER, RUDY; [i.e., Rudolf von Bitter Rucker]
RUSCH, KRISTINE KATHRYN
RUSS, JOANNA (Ruth)
RUSSELL, ERIC FRANK
RUSSELL, RAY (mond Robert)
SABERHAGEN, FRED (Thomas)
SAWYER, ROBERT J (ames)
SCHOEN, LAWRENCE M.
SHEFFIELD, CHARLES (A.)
SHELDON, WALT (er James)
SHEPARD, LUCIUS (Taylor)
SHINER, LEWIS (Gordon)
SHIRLEY, JOHN (Patrick)
SIMAK, CLIFFORD D (onald)
SLADEK, JOHN (Thomas)
SLONCZEWSKI, JOAN (Lyn)
SMITH, CORDWAINER; pseudonym of Paul M. A. Linebarger
SNODGRASS, MELINDA M (arilyn)
SPINRAD, NORMAN (Richard)
STABLEFORD, BRIAN M (ichael)
STEELE, ALLEN (Mulherrin, Jr.)
STEPHENSON, ANDREW M (ichael)
STERLING, (Michael) BRUCE
STODDARD, JAMES (Coston)
STURGEON, THEODORE; [born Edward Hamilton Waldo]
SYKES, S (ondra) C (atharine)
TEM, STEVE RASNIC
TENN, WILLIAM; pseudonym of Philip Klass,
TIPTREE, JAMES, Jr.; pseudonym of Alice Sheldon
TUBB, E (dwin) C (harles)
TURTLEDOVE, HARRY (Norman)
UPDIKE, JOHN (Hoyer)
VANCE, JACK; [i.e., John Holbrook Vance]
VanderMEER, JEFF (rey Scott)
van VOGT, A (lfred) E (lton)
VARLEY, JOHN (Herbert)
VENABLE, LYN; working name of Marilyn Venable
VERBA, JOAN MARIE
VIDAL, GORE; [i.e., Eugene Luther Vidal
VINGE, VERNOR (Steffen)
VONNEGUT, KURT, Jr.
WALLACE, (Richard Horatio) EDGAR
WARD, S. E.
WEBER, DAVID M.
WEINBAUM, STANLEY G (rauman)
WENTWORTH, K. D.
WILDER, CHERRY; pseudonym of Cherry Barbara Grimm,
WILHELM, KATE; [i.e., Katie Gertrude Meredeth Wilhelm Knight]
WILLIAMS, ROBERT MOORE
WILLIAMS, WALTER JON
WILLIAMSON, JACK; [i.e., John Stewart Williamson]
WILLIS, CONNIE; [i.e., Constance Elaine Trimmer Willis]
WILSON, DANIEL H.
WILSON, ROBERT CHARLES
WRIGHT, GARY (Staples)
WYNDHAM, JOHN; pseudonym of John Beynon Harris,
YOLEN, JANE; [i.e., Jane Hyatt Yolen Stemple]
YOUNG, ROBERT F (ranklin)
YU, E. LILY
ZEBROWSKI, GEORGE (Thaddeus) [originally Jerzy Tadeuz Zebrowski]
ZELAZNY, ROGER (Joseph)
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.