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.