Review of Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

by Helen Patterson

Every once in a while, I’m drawn to a book by someone I’ve never heard of because of the tittle. This was the case with Ellen Klages’s short story collection Wicked Wonders (2017). Klages is an award-winning author, primarily of science fiction, historical fiction, and science writing, whose earlier publications include The Green Glass Sea, White Sands, Red Menace, and Portable Childhoods.

Klages’s style is unlike anything I’ve seen recently and is hard to describe. Each story has a different feel to it, likely because, by her own confession, Klages is a little obsessive about researching content, style, and voice for all her pieces. Sometimes her writing is like Ray Bradbury’s; sometimes she’s evocative of Shirley Jackson or more contemporary authors such as Kelly Link. Science and the wonder of the mathematical and physical properties that make up the universe inform her stories, as does a careful attention to details. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” drolly displays the absurdity of applying mathematical paradoxes to real-world dessert division, and “Gone to the Library” explores a budding mathematical prodigy’s conflation of math and magic as she encounters imaginary numbers and magic squares.

Klages is at her best when drawing from her own experiences, particularly those from her childhood. In her story notes, she says that “The Education of a Witch,” “Woodsmoke,” and “The Scary Ham,” three of the strongest pieces in the collection, all draw heavily from her experience and memories of childhood. Told from a preschool girl’s perspective, “The Education of a Witch” balances the intensity of feeling and sensory input that children experience with the limited means children have to conceptualize and act out these sometimes violent responses to real-world events and changes. “Woodsmoke” is the longest piece in the collection, almost a novel, about the liberating experience of camp for a suburban girl stifled by gender norms and expectations. “The Scary Ham” is a brief and hilarious autobiographical piece about the ham that hung in her family’s basement for decades, terrifying everyone who saw it. It seems likely that Klages intentionally bookended her collection: her fictionalized childhood self in “The Education of a Witch” opens the book, and her middle-aged self ends it with the humorous and unforgettable line: “It was a very scary Ham” (256).

The disquieting “Singing on a Star” also draws from a childhood memory, which, later in life, Klages realized was partially fabricated. We all have moments from our childhood that are vaguely magical and ominous when remembered, as if the world suddenly grew soft around the edges, and we peered through at something we were not supposed to see, and Klages captures that feeling perfectly in this piece.

There aren’t any bad pieces in her collection, but for me the least successful were “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” and “Caligo Lane.” The former has a distinctive high-fantasy vibe, which clashes a little with the tone of the rest of the collection, but what really weakens it is that the main characters are not as multifaceted and well-defined as her other characters. I’m not quite sure what about “Caligo Lane” fails to hit home. It may be that it is brief, and it feels like it needs more room to breathe and develop. Additionally, the main character is almost completely isolated. The reader does not see much of her inner state, as she is thoroughly absorbed in her work, or of her humanity, as she scarcely speaks to another person. This creates distance between the character and the reader, and this gap isn’t easy to bridge.

Two of the strongest pieces in the collection (and, not coincidentally, my personal favorites) are “Amicae Aeternum” and “Goodnight Moons.” Both pieces are sci-fi but barely, set in futures that are very recognizable and, possibly, quite close to our own. Klages does an excellent job of mixing her exhaustive research and knowledge into a world recognizable in its details and its people, allowing us easily to enter her near-future worlds. There are neither dystopias or utopias, but are rather both tragic and triumphant, as the best and most human stories often are.

It isn’t often that I read more than one book by the same writer. There are so many, many books in the world, and more being written all the time. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who often feels like she is awash in a vast tide of words. However, in Klages I’ve found an author who not only is gifted but who also speaks to me in a personal way that is hard to describe and rare to experience. Several of her stories struck a chord in my heart, twisting it in unexpected directions and upending my world in sympathy with her characters. I’m looking forward to finding and reading Ellen Klages’s other work, both past and future, and I recommend that you do the same.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

On Place, Memory, and Meaning


by John Coward

Some of my favorite writers are tied to places, small places that are usually overlooked in the larger literary landscape. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I seem drawn to writers whose literary imaginations are rooted in out-of-the-way locations, places that are real but that are also more deeply felt and imagined in literature than in real life.

One of those writers is the twentieth-century novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose sprawling novels and stories were largely autobiographical, tied to his own experiences growing up in Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe’s novels are out of style these days—unfortunately, in my view—but Wolfe’s rambling prose captures something essential and powerful about his days as a boy in Asheville. Even a cursory dip into the pages of Look Homeward, Angel reveals a time and place rich with smells and sounds and a vivid sense of a world that once was and is now lost.

Look Homeward Angel

I grew up in East Tennessee, just over the mountain from Asheville, which helps explain my interest in Wolfe and his novels. To me, there is something special about reading the words of someone from your town or region. It’s a romantic notion, I admit, but those writers breathed the same air I did, drank the same water, walked the same streets. They were here, in this place, like me. When I traveled to Asheville as a college student, I walked through Wolfe’s neighborhood, fully aware that the great writer himself once walked those very streets.

My English teachers—bless them!—introduced me to Wolfe and other local writers, including people from my hometown who had published books in New York. I was thrilled. In my innocence, I did not think it was possible for a small-town writer to ascend to such literary heights. But once I grasped this idea, I came to see that Johnson City, Tennessee, my hometown—this obscure corner of the world—could be the foundation for a fully-realized life, in literature and in fact. This place and thousands of other places in America and across the world could be imagined in ways that emphasized their unique qualities. The very act of writing about such places was ennobling in a way—almost sacred. Telling the stories of the people in such places was a creative act that gave meaning to the ordinariness of life. Asheville came alive in Wolfe’s stories, and even my own modest town became something greater when it was imagined for the printed page.

I was reminded of these ideas this fall as I re-read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, a book that got its start as a short story by the same name in Nimrod. Kidd sets her book in rural South Carolina, mostly in a town called Tiburon. This is a fictional town—I checked—but Kidd makes it seem real. The novel is set in 1964. When Lily, the main character, walks down Main Street in Tiburon, she passes the drugstore with its “soda fountain with chrome trim, where they sold cherry Cokes and banana splits. . . .” She walks past the insurance agency and the county rural electrical office and the dime store with “Hula Hoops, swim goggles, and boxes of sparklers in the window with SUMMER FUN spray-painted across the glass.”

For readers of my generation, these details gave Tiburon a kind of authenticity. It was a place I recognized and wanted to visit. I wanted to see the pink house, home to Kidd’s fictional sisters, May, June, and August, and the honey house out back where Lily and Rosaleen found refuge. As I read Kidd’s words I found myself more than once wanting to get in the car and drive to South Carolina to see Tiburon and the other places that inspired her. The places she imagined, like Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville or my own Johnson City, are small but vital places where ordinary yet amazing people carry on and endure, come what may.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).




Long Story Short 

by Jeff Martin

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve probably seen The Shawshank Redemption 100 times. Maybe more. Often in bits and pieces. I didn’t have a chance to see the film in the theater; honestly, I don’t know many people who did. While it was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, it wasn’t a huge hit right out of the gates. My first experience with Shawshank came on a rainy day when I was home sick from school. A rented VHS copy sat atop the entertainment center. Not having much else to do, I cracked open the clamshell Blockbuster case, popped in the video, and took the ride. I was 14 years old.

As you probably know, in the more than two decades since, the film has become a true classic, eternally re-watchable. It’s probably playing on at least one channel right now, if not more. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I took the time to rewatch it from beginning to end. By the time the credits began to roll over the crystal-clear waters of Zihuatenejo, Mexico, I was in a state of awe and utter confusion.

You know the ending: Tim Robbins’s character Andy crawls through sewage to freedom. Red, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is left behind until he’s paroled and reintroduced to the world. He doesn’t think he can take it. But he has made a promise. The film ends with Red violating his parole, buying a bus ticket, looking wistfully out the window as the bus moves down the road, and then, finally, Red and Andy reunite on the beach. Roll credits.

It’s all wrapped up tightly, perfectly. But what if that final scene on the beach was only in Red’s mind, was his dream of what might happen? After all, the “redemption” of the title isn’t about Andy Dufresne; he was innocent. No redemption needed. Red, on the other hand, was a murderer.

I went back to the source, the novella called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” from Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons. I was certain I’d read it before. In fact, I distinctly remember buying a copy as a kid, more eager than ready to read adult fiction, probably inspired by my love for Stand By Me, the film inspired by King’s story “The Body.”


The novella ends with the same text used for Red’s final voiceover:

“I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

Some strategic Googling soon revealed that the film’s director, Frank Darabont, initially refused to shoot the beach scene, wanting to keep the story as King intended. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if Red and Andy reunite. It only matters that Red believes they will, that he hopes.

It’s a thrilling feeling, that moment when something you think you know becomes new again, becomes alive. Films, stories, poems—these things don’t change over time. We do.

Jeff Martin, Nimrod Advisor, is the founder of the Tulsa Literary Coalition’s BookSmart Tulsa, an organization that brings numerous acclaimed authors to Tulsa every year.