In Wicked Wonders (2017), Ellen Klages has assembled an impressive collection of her short stories. Although almost all of these stories have been previously published (the sole exception is “Woodsmoke”), most of them appeared in anthologies and are unlikely to be familiar to most readers. These fourteen stories run the gamut from non-fiction (“The Scary Ham”) to straight fiction (“Hey, Presto,” “Household Management” and “Woodsmoke”) to science fiction and fantasy. They’re often bittersweet or wistful and frequently surreal; tales of ordinary lives in which the fantastical or unexpected element sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder, and when you turn around the world has shifted.
Several tales in Wicked Wonders are reminiscent of certain of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, in which conventional American suburban life takes a sharp turn toward the fanciful. Even the non-speculative stories have a chimerical feel to them. Many of the stories look at the world through the eyes of a child or teenage girl, in a sympathetic but clear-eyed manner. Klages’ young characters are girls trying to find their place in life, often misfits, and bravely dealing with burdens that life has passed out to them.
In “The Education of a Witch” (4 stars), we experience life from the point of view of Lizzy, a preschool-aged, intelligent girl with a spark of mischief. Lizzy lives in the suburbs, an only child who lives a relatively ordinary life, until two things happen: She sees the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty, and the character who captures her interest and loyalty is the evil witch Maleficent. And a new baby joins Lizzy’s family, an interloper who steals the time and attention of her parents. It’s a story that can be interpreted in different ways; Lizzy is both sympathetic and alarming, and certain things may be just her imagination … but perhaps not. In her story notes at the end, Klages comments that this story is almost entirely autobiographical.
“Amicae Aeternum” (3.5 stars): Eleven year old Corrine is spending her last day in her town, trying to imprint every precious detail on her memory ― the texture of asphalt, the smell of fresh-mowed grass, the sight of a cat ― before her family leaves forever. Hardest to leave is her best friend Anna. The science fiction element, when it finally hits, is thought-provoking, especially Corry’s list of twenty reasons why where she is going sucks.
“Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” (4 stars): A humorous short story, in which Annabel and Midge meet at a café to share a brownie, which they carefully cut in half, and again, and yet again. It’s eyebrow-raising, how many times they can divide the brownie … but one might have expected something of this sort from Stephen Hawking’s bastard daughter. The story, like their dessert, is a slight confection, but the ending made me laugh out loud. In her story notes, Klages discloses that she borrowed the characters and the dry, witty tone from a 1941 short story by Dorothy Parker, “The Standard of Living.”
“Singing on a Star” (4.5 stars): Another tale from the point of view of a young girl, five year old Becka, who goes spend the night with her friend Jamie on her first sleepover. When they’re alone in Jamie’s bedroom, Jamie puts a lemon-yellow record on her portable record player, and the song creates magic, literally: Jamie’s closet door opens to an elevator that takes the girls down to a strange, jazzy city, where a never-before-seen brand of candy bar tastes amazing, but there’s something odd going on. It’s an eerie and disturbing tale, another one open to various interpretations.
“Hey, Presto” (3.5 stars): Polly, a high school age student-athlete, resents her father, a stage magician who’s hardly part of her life since her mother died several years ago and Polly was sent to a boarding school. When they’re together during the holidays, her father tends to be busy with theater performances and working in his workshop on new tricks. Now her father wants Polly to spend the summer with him in London. When one of his assistants quits, Polly agrees to step in. She finds not only that magic has a science, but that she and her father have more in common than she expected. It’s a feel-good tale that opens a window on an interesting and unusual lifestyle.
“Echoes of Aurora” (3 stars): Jo Norwood, a newly retired woman, returns to her family home in a dying summer tourist town after the death of her father ― a home that was once a penny arcade, with a dying oak tree in the yard. And Aurora, a mysterious, copper-haired woman dancing to the music of the nickelodeon who moves into Jo’s life and heart. It’s a haunting melding of vivid details from an old-fashioned, small-town carnival and a relationship that somehow feels like it cannot last.
“Friday Night and St. Cecilia’s” (4 stars): Rachel is grounded at her boarding school for the weekend, but mostly she feels badly that she’s been abandoned by her friend Addie. The new housekeeper, an aging dumpling of a woman, offers to play backgammon with Rachel. Mrs. Llewelyn pulls out an odd set of iridescent blue-green dice, Rachel loses … and she finds herself in a strange room, with a certain Professor Plum in the Conservatory. That’s not so bad, but a real-life Chutes and Ladders is nightmarish, and Rachel finds that the danger and the stakes are higher than she could have imagined when she first rolled Mrs. Llewelyn’s dice. But “rules are rules.” It’s an amusing but tense riff on classic board games.
“Caligo Lane” (4.5 stars): In this wonderful story, which was published on Tor.com and which I reviewed at more length in our January 9, 2017 SHORTS column, Franny combines mapmaking and origami and the San Francisco fog to create a magical work of art that both consumes life and rescues it. The detailed description of Franny’s creation of her origami-like map is enchanting, but there is an ominous backdrop of World War II and a heavy price that must be paid. It’s a haunting and heartfelt tale of love and loss as well as creation. It’s my favorite story in this collection.
“Goodnight Moons” (4 stars): In one of the pure science fictional tales in this collection, Zoë, a woman astronaut, is one of six people chosen for a seventeen-month long exploratory space mission to Mars. On day 37 of the mission, while still in their spaceship, Zoë gets a very mixed surprise. She reluctantly makes a choice … then finds that choice has been taken from her by others. Klages explores the fall-out in this poignant, subtly feminist tale.
“Gone to the Library” (4.5 stars): Yet another young girl in a suburban life that shifts into the fantastical. In the post-WWII era, 8 year old Isabel Flanagan lives with her widowed mother in a home she turned into a boarding house after Izzy’s father died in the war. Izzy explores outside of her yard, though a rusty gate, and down a path that leads to a home where a young, partially disabled boy lives. Izzy gradually realizes that not only does this boy need her, but that their fathers shared a connection. Her gift for mathematical games may have the power to effect a rescue. The magical element of math was a delight, but there’s an ominous undertone here for me as well, though I’m not sure it was intended by Klages.
“Household Management” (3 stars): A brief but amusing riff on a familiar character in Victorian England, from an unexpectedly twisted point of view.
“Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” (3 stars): In Napoleonic France, Natto the thief hears a story about a French Pearl hidden in a wizard’s lair ― a pearl worth a thousand royals to the emperor! Clearly this pearl needs to be liberated from the wizard so it can benefit Natto. But the pearl, though valuable, isn’t what Natto envisions, and Natto’s taking on some adversaries who may get the best of him. This is another humorous tale, based around a fictionalized version of a historic culinary discovery.
“Woodsmoke” (3.5 stars) is the non-speculative story of a unique friendship at a summer girl’s camp in 1963. Twelve year old Patty has been coming to Wokanda for several years, but this year is special: her parents are going on an extended business trip, so she will be staying for the entire summer ― and she’s delighted about it. She’s not so delighted when she finds out that a new girl, Margaret, will also be staying for the summer, but gradually the two become close. The story meanders along, like a dreamy summer, until it unexpectedly turns around and bites you at the end. “Woodsmoke” evokes the songs, activities and friendships of summer camp, which will resonate especially with readers who’ve experienced such camps and have nostalgic feelings about them.
“The Scary Ham” (4 stars) is a non-fictional vignette from Klages’ life. It’s a hilarious story about a smoked ham that hung in the basement of her father’s home for 20 years, getting moldier and grosser every year. After their father’s death, Klages and her sister realize that something needs to be done with the ham. Personally, I really liked her sister’s Viking funeral proposal.
Wicked Wonders includes a forward by Karen Joy Fowler and also an insightful afterword by Klages, “Why I Write Short Fiction,” which includes this delightful insight into her creative process:
I cannot create on a keyboard. I scribble images, crumple pages, toss them across the room. I make some pictograms, cross them out, draw big loopy lines that tether sentences to marginal notes as if they were zeppelins. 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.
There are also several pages of story notes, in which she explains some of the inspirations and ideas behind each of the stories in this collection. The insights here are fascinating and illuminating, as are Klages’ tales themselves. They’re well worth reading.
I enjoyed this collection far less than Tadiana, though I’ll admit right at the top that I’m a tough get in terms of an audience for short stories. Generally I prefer the immersive quality and depth of characterization of a novel, and it’s rare that a short story collection provides me anywhere near the same level of enjoyment and engagement. Knowing that going in, however, I’m thrilled when three-quarters of a collection works, happy when half does, and can live with an overall weak collection with some gems in it. Unfortunately, Wicked Wonders didn’t hit any of those bars for me. While none of the stories were bad (I think Tadiana and I might agree there), none of them sparkled for me either, leaving me underwhelmed time and time again.
In general terms, most of the stories felt quite flat to me in terms of style and tone, few evoked an emotional response, and several I felt were either telling me too much or were a little derivative. I’ll note a few more detailed thoughts on selected stories in order of preference, but overall it’s a book I wouldn’t recommend.
“Singing on a Star:” 3.5 stars. This was my favorite piece in terms of tone and atmosphere. It follows a five-year-old girl whose first sleepover experience at a friend’s house ends up with a portal-story visit to a city and a meeting with an odd gatekeeper figure. It’s a nicely creepy and disturbing tale, and the POV and elliptical descriptions and dialogue are mostly effective.
“Caligo Lane:” 3.5 stars. This was a tough rating, because I loved the core premise of this story, which involved a kind of map-making-slash-origami-portal magic concept, but the story felt either too long (for its payoff) or too short (for its ambition).
“Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox:” 3.0 stars. A cute little story with a fun premise. Comes in at just about the right length for a slight tale.
“Woodsmoke:” 3.0 stars. This straight fiction story about a summer camp relationship had its moments, and a somewhat strong close, but felt way too long and too flat too often.
“Hey Presto:” 3.0 stars. This story, about a young girl reconnecting with her mostly-absent magician father was fun but again felt a bit flat and was too neatly wrapped up.
The rest of the stories would rate mostly a 2.5. As I note above, it wasn’t that they were particularly bad or poorly written, just that they didn’t anything for me in terms of language, style, character, ideas, or premise. Some felt like they had more potential than others, but in each I ended feeling like I needed more in at least one of those areas, either a more startlingly original concept, or more vibrant and stimulating language use or more of an emotional kick.
The stories within Wicked Wonders are remarkable; Ellen Klages proves herself equally capable of convincingly writing from a child’s perspective as an adult’s, and nearly every story is suffused with a sense of melancholy for one reason or another. With shades of Bradbury, Heinlein, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Klages’ stories and characters evoke a particular time and place — often grounded firmly in reality, with a sprinkling of magic or otherworldliness here and there.
It would be impossible to pick which piece I liked most, as they all have their selling points, and each one had a turn of phrase or singular moment which stuck deep in my heart. Tadiana did a wonderful job of examining each story in her review, so I’ll just mention a few in particular, with the hope that interested readers will seek out individual stories or the collection as a whole.
Of the entire collection, “Goodnight Moons” was the saddest, and I wept openly as Dr. Zoë Morrison’s dream of going to Mars was subverted against her will by her husband, NASA, and the entire planet. Their intentions might feasibly be noble, but I think we all know where that paved road leads. The absolute uncertainty of what will happen after the story ends was profound, and the forced brightness of Zoë’s story-telling tone rings hollow when I consider how many similar stories of American prairie pioneers ended badly.
“Woodsmoke,” one of the longest stories, was truly impressive. Klages takes her time with this one, allowing Patricia/Peete’s story and identity to unfold over the course of vignettes during her long stay at Camp Wokanda. Peete’s voice sounds lived-in and honest, revealing her immaturity and sheltered nature in natural ways without constant intrusions from the adult author, allowing readers to lose themselves in the rhythms of the prose. The ending was a genuine surprise, and I was very pleased to see a note from Klages stating that “Woodsmoke” is eventually intended to be a part of a larger work.
“The Scary Ham” was a delight, and begs to be read aloud. (If anyone knows where I can find footage of Klages herself telling the story, I would be extremely grateful.) Ostensibly, the concept of cleaning out a deceased parent’s home is a difficult one, and Klages acknowledges that while reveling in the idiosyncrasies of her family, including her own self.
Reading Wicked Wonders is like looking through a box filled with heirloom jewelry and listening to their histories: each piece is special or significant in some way, and at least one story is likely to stay with you for one reason or another. I’ll be adding a copy of Wicked Wonders to my own library, with the intent of reading it many times in the future. Highly recommended.
Wicked Wonders is an absolutely lovely collection, with some stories that I continue to recommend well after having read them here. The author’s notes on each story were insightful and interesting, and often funny as well. It’s a great collection of tales — here were my favourites:
“Amicae Aeternum:” A young girl spends a last day in her hometown with her best friend. I loved the things she chose to focus on, and the slow kind of reveal of why, precisely, it is her final day there.
“Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox:” This story delighted me. It really is cheeky and almost whimsical — which feels like such an odd thing to say about a story that centres on theoretical physics. I’ve recommended this story quite a bit as it is so fresh and playful while still being interesting and engaging.
“Singing on a Star:” This one is weird in every sense of the word. It has a strangeness that stuck with me, and an ambiguity that forced me to think about the ending well after I had finished reading. It’s a kind of take on portal fantasy that plays on the more sinister side of the theme.
“Friday Night and St. Cecilia’s:” I am really into the playing a game for your soul type plot or motif — it’s the kind of tension that works for me, and this story executed it well.
“Caligo Lane:” This story is my favourite of the collection. It’s unapologetically queer, and the magic within is so fresh and exciting. I am so glad Klages went on to include these characters in her novella Passing Strange — a piece of fiction that has a place in my all-time favourites.
“Woodsmoke:” The main character is so heartachingly familiar, this child striving for a specific kind of special. Summer camp can be such magic on its own that it didn’t feel odd at all that this story was surrounded by others with speculative aspects while this one had no such element.
Wicked Wonders is a fantastic collection to have. Beyond the enjoyment I got out of it as a reader, the author’s notes on each story were delightful and fascinating insights that have helped me better recognize and appreciate aspects of writing as well. I am glad to have it on my shelf to put in the hands of others who need these stories.