Thursday, September 12, 2019

Review - The Clingerman Files by Mildred Clingerman


Stories Included
First Lesson
Stickney and the Critic
Stair Trick
Minister Without Portfolio
Bird's Can't Count
The Word
The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak
Winning Recipe
Letters from Laura
The Last Prophet
Mr. Sakrison's Halt
The Wild Wood
The Little Witch of Elm Street
A Day for Waving
The Gay Deceiver
Red Heart and Blue Roses
Little Girl
Tutti Frutti Delight
The Stray
The Man Who Stole Tomorrow
Grandma's Refuge
Sorrow for the Need
You Remember Charles?
Size 5½ B
Apologia
The Tea Party
The Vine
Tribal Customs
A Widow for Mr. Stevens
The Man Eater
The List
The Telling Day
Threading a Closed Loop
Top Hand
A Time to Be Bold
The Birthday Party
A Stranger and a Pilgrim
On the Nicer Side
The Father of Daughters
Watermelon Weather
A Note from Eleanor
Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Clingerman Files is a comprehensive collection of all of Mildred Clingerman's short fiction, encompassing her wide range of stories that range from the mundane doings of teenagers and old ladies to the exotic adventures of time travelers and alien space explorers. While Clingerman is mostly remembered as a science fiction author, with her stories frequently appearing in the pages of  The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this collection contains a broader array of stories, including several that have no speculative fiction element at all that were originally published in outlets such as Good Housekeeping and Colliers. No matter whether the stories are fantastical or not, most of them feature ordinary people, often women, finding themselves at a critical juncture in their lives. To a certain extent, this collection could be regarded as an homage to the extraordinary nature of ordinary people.

Like many of Clingerman's stories, First Lesson is almost not a fantasy story. Or rather, it is a fantasy story that is so subtle that it could be real. A young woman has a dream in which her paratrooper husband dies in a training accident and enlists the assistance of a voodoo practitioner to weave a spell of protection around her spouse. Despite the fact that the protagonist believes in the magic in the story, there isn't any overt indication that belief is justified. As a result, this story exists in that hazy border between reality and fantasy. Clingerman's skill at giving the story a sense of place is on full display here, and the story feels comfortable and unsettling at the same time. Stickney and the Critic shares many of the same storytelling aspects with First Lesson, with the only difference being that the subtle fantasy element is an unseen malevolent entity residing in an out of the way well on an isolated farm. Once again, Clingerman makes the reader feel the setting - one can almost feel the hot and dusty winds that sweep across the farmstead. Once again, the story could be fantasy or it could simply be mundane coincidence, and that ambiguity makes it seem almost dreamlike, although it eventually veers into nightmare territory.

Stair Trick seems like it is going to be another story that seems like it is going to cloak its fantasy in ambiguity as a bartender does a recurring trick of going "downstairs" behind the bar to get items in a bar that doesn't have a basement. For most of the story it seems like this is just a clever way to entertain the patrons with some combination of mime and trickery, but then the story takes a turn and everything you thought about what was happening is wrong. This sort of story works in large part because it is contained in a collection that features some of Clingerman's more ambiguous stories, so the small twist that pops up feels much larger than it otherwise would. The Little Witch of Elm Street shares some thematic characteristics as well, as the story seems to be a perfectly ordinary story of a fussy woman, henpecked husband, and a horrifically terrible neighbor child named Nina, but it takes a turn towards the end that seems like it could just be coincidence. Like so much of Clingerman's work, the deliciousness of the story rests in the ambiguity of whether the pivotal event is simply coincidence or evidence of something supernatural, with the Little Witch carrying the added bonus of a quirky and interesting character in the form of Nina's sister Garnet.

Another story that rests comfortably in the twilight between fantasy and reality is A Day for Waving, which could probably best be described as a comforting ghost story. Seven or eight year old Eden lives with her domineering grandmother, vacant mother, and somewhat macabre-minded uncle (who happens to be almost exactly the same age as Eden). After a brief bit of background to give the reader an idea of the nature of the various characters and a glimpse into the fertile imagination of the narrator, the action moves on to an afternoon visit to the family grave plots, where Eden finds herself having a conversation with someone whose arrival is both unexpected and entirely predictable. The interesting part of the story is not in the resolution - essentially amounting to a ghost showing up to give its blessing to an impending event - but in the fact that one can never be sure if the narrative is actually happening or if it is just the vivid imagination of a young girl given free rein. The story is at turns frightening and comfortably cozy but at all turns remains decidedly ambiguous.

The volume contains a few alien first contact stories, starting with Minister Without Portfolio, which features mostly benevolent aliens and a grandmother whose color-blindness turns out to be an advantage rather than a disability. The twist in the story is easy to predict, but the presentation is so pleasant that one doesn’t mind. Birds Can’t Count is an alien encounter story with a slightly less approachable, even downright inscrutable, alien. The protagonist in the story is portrayed as perceptive, persistent, and adventurous, but by the end it is apparent that she might not be particularly bright, or at least not able to make certain connections that are hinted at in the story. The story is creepy, but in a comfortably quaint sort of way.

Clingerman's fiction sometimes veers too deep into the "cozy" direction and becomes a bit twee. One example of this tendency is The Word, a story about some diminutive aliens who have to go foraging for food on a planet filled with huge inhabitants. The brave explorers set out to essentially panhandle food with the use of a secret code word they have discovered is used by the natives. I'm not sure if I would call the resolution of the story a "twist" since it is pretty blatantly telegraphed throughout the text, and it is both cute and silly but probably a little bit too much so. The Wild Wood, which is ostensibly a Christmas story, is a much better creepy tale involving a mother who has established family Christmas traditions that she now regrets - specifically an annual trip to Mr. Cravolini's to purchase a tree. The story starts off feeling like it is a mundane story that involves incredibly creepy sexual harassment, and slowly morphs into something much creepier, until by the end the full body horror is revealed. The Gay Deceiver is another quite disturbing story in the collection, which starts out happy and cheerful, featuring a magically wonderful performer at a parade and his somewhat drab and colorless traveling partner. In the opening pages of the story, everything is beautiful and gleeful, but as the story goes on, the darker underlying secret of the whistling Harlequin at its center becomes more and more apparent until in the final few lines the terrible truth is revealed. In this story, Clingerman demonstrates her disturbing ability to take a well-known folk-tale and import it into the modern mundane world to expose its horrific reality.

A recurring figure in Clingerman's writing is the normally timid woman who finally gets fed up with her life. In some cases, as in The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak, such a character asserts her independence from the humdrum, constrained life she has been living by throwing all caution aside to embark upon a time traveling romance. In others, such as Winning Recipe, the protagonist merely figures out a way to confound and incapacitate a hated piece of machinery. These stories appear deceptively cozy, but are actually so incredibly sharply pointed that the reader should be careful not to cut themselves when reading them. The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak does have a beautiful used bookstore featured within its pages, which is an added bonus.

The protagonist of Letters from Laura is decidedly not a timid woman, but rather a young lady who has signed up to enjoy some time travel to ancient Crete. Told as a series of letters from Laura to her mother, her best friend Prue, and finally to the travel agent Laura had booked her excursion with, the story reveals Laura's expectations for her journey, and the reality that doesn't quite match them. It is silly and fun, but at the same time biting and incisive. While Laura is a no nonsense kind of woman albeit a bit misinformed to begin with, Reggie, the central character of The Last Prophet, can best be described as a well-informed milquetoast who has a message, but isn't able to get anyone interested in hearing it. The story kind of meanders and is about as uninteresting as Reggie himself until it turns out that everything was basically just a set-up for a kind of shaggy god twist at the end.

While many of Clingerman's stories are pointed, very few are quite as sharply honed as Mr. Sakrison's Halt. The protagonist of the story is a young woman who would travel to visit her grandparents in the rural South, and the last leg of her journey would always be on the Katy Local where she would meet up with a little old lady named Miss Mattie who rode the train constantly looking for the halt where her fiancee had gotten off the train many years before. Her quest is hampered by the fact that she doesn't quite remember where her long-lost love had gotten off the train, and it turns out that there is a very specific reason why she hasn't been able to find it despite riding the Katy Local for decades. The message of the story is delivered about as subtly as a club to the back of the head, but it is a message worth delivering.

One of the oft-repeated mantras is that "strong female characters" is a desirable goal for fiction writers hoping to eschew sexist portrayals in their writing. I have seen several authors claim "I can't be sexist because I included a strong female character in my story". I think this is a flawed viewpoint insofar as a "strong" female character is as much a stereotype as any other trope attached to female characters. What makes a story really good are interesting female characters, more to the point, female characters that have the freedom to be flawed human beings, and Red Heart and Blue Roses is an example of a story that has exactly that. The story is related by one woman to another while they share a hospital room: Katie, a bundle of nerves and anxiety, relates her tale of woe to the narrator who exists in a languid almost dream-like state most of the time. As the story unfolds, Katie recounts how she has become plagued by an odd young man that her son had brought as a guest for the holidays, and how the visitor had wormed his way into her family. From there, Katie's story gets progressively more disturbing, but a twist at the end brings it back into that realm of stories that exist in that hazy area between reality and unreality.

Although Clingerman was primarily a speculative fiction author, this collection includes a handful of stories that appear to be devoid of any speculative fiction elements. Little Girl tells the story of a pair of young girls taking the train as they journey from spending the summer in Iowa with their father and his new wife back to where their mother lives in Arizona. The story is told from the perspective of eight-year old  Cissie, the older of the two sisters as she tries to navigate a train station late at night with her sister in tow all the while dealing with incredulous and annoying adults. There isn't much to this story, although there is a nice little character note for Cissie in that she reads books that at least one adult thinks are too adult for her. Another story lacking any speculative fiction element is Tutti Frutti Delight, which is basically a tale about a pair of high school girls with plans to take the world by storm and a crush on one of their teachers. The infatuation leads to about the end result that one would expect, although this doesn't really seem to slow down the protagonist's plans for the future other than to modestly redirect them.  Another story focused on the love life of a teenager, You Remember Charles? focuses on Anne Holland and her infatuation with Charles, the most popular and desirable boy in her school. The story is a study in toxic masculinity and privilege, as it would be understating things to say that Charles turns out to be a miscreant, but gets away with his actions due to who his father is and, by extension, who he is. Anne, for her part, first enables Charles, and then pulls back, and then wistfully wonders whatever happened to him, winding up with about as happy an ending as she could have given the society she lived in.

The third story lacking in speculative fiction elements is The Stray, featuring a housewife living in rural Arizona as a protagonist, which seems to be at least somewhat autobiographical. She takes in a young woman that she finds wandering a nearby empty lot used as a hangout by a group of hippies. The story kind of meanders, with the main character simultaneously showing great care for her stray and expressing disdain for all of the members of the hippie community she had been living with. The very little bit of plot eventually resolves in a fairly serendipitous manner, but the story seems mostly to be aimed at providing a view into the lives of two women and how they deal with the world. This focus on the lives of ordinary women is something of a recurring theme in this set of non-speculative fiction stories, highlighting these characters and how they relate to the world around them. Not all of the ordinary stories focus on women however. Sorrow for the Need, for example is told from a woman's viewpoint, but that's almost entirely incidental to the story, which is basically about a married couple choosing the mundane lives they have settled into over an old friend with subversive political ideas. The story reads like a reaction to the McCarthy era Red Scare, and how it destroyed relationship. The entire story is laced through with regret, but regret tempered by how a kind of easy comfortable existence can sap away one's youthful idealism.

The Man Who Stole Tomorrow is a small story about a man who learns the value of time, and how to get more of it. There isn't really much more to the story, but it does contain a moderately clever little twist at its heart. This story, like several others penned by Clingerman, sits on the very edge of speculative fiction, as there is no explicit science fictional or fantastical element, but events in the story can be read as if they are, or they could be read as mere coincidences taking place in an entirely mundane world. Another story that rests on this ambiguous line is Grandma's Refuge, which deals with fond childhood memories of grandma and a shared hideaway to seek shelter from the desert heat and the occasional storm. Once again, there is no explicit fantasy element to the story, but a child's memories sometimes attribute powers to the adults in their lives and the story simply doesn't clarify whether these are real or are just the product of youthful imagination. Size 5½ B also follows this pattern, as a woman goes to buy shoes while beset by literary concepts and thinking dark thoughts about her oblivious and seemingly uncaring husband. Once again, it is unclear whether she actually is being assaulted by clichés, tediums, and ad men, while avoiding being classified in the majority or becoming a statistic, or if the story is just an elaborate fantasy playing out in the protagonist's head, but either way it has a dark turn and a rather unsettling conclusion.

Another story with a dark turn is Apologia, although saying it has a dark turn rather underplays just how creepy this brief little tale is. In just under two pages of text, Clingerman manages to set up a slightly unsettling back story and then pushes forward to an entirely unsettling denouement. With a story this short, there isn't much room for much beyond that, but like the very best of these sorts of little stories, it leaves the reader filled with questions. Far less fantastical, but almost as unsettling The Tea Party seemingly depicts nothing more than a pair of young girls having a tea party with their dolls, but everything about the scenario seems to be just slightly off kilter, There is nothing directly horrific about the story, but the author manages to fill the text with a kind of barely suppressed foreboding without even letting the reader know why it is there. While The Man Eater is not unsettling, it does seem to be headed in that direction for much of its length. Featuring a young Native American boy named Guillermo and his love for the pretty (and decidedly not Native American) but careless girl Debbie,  the story seems destined for a terrible turn as Debbie takes advantage of her young suitor's affections to goad him into committing petty crimes. Just when the reader expects the story to take a dark turn, it instead turns into a lesson about what love means and how a fair world would treat people with differing status in different ways. The List, on the other hand, is incredibly unsettling, although it cannot fairly be said to be horrific except in the sense of anticipation. In the story, Mr. and Mrs. Adams have a polite conversation after putting their children to bed following what seems to have been a fairly ordinary family dinner. Their day's tasks however, seem to have included taking supplies to their hidden refuge where they intend to weather the possible collapse of society, and their conversation turns to how to make sure their children will reach the hidden cave in the event that neither of their parents are able to accompany them. The casual nature of this conversation about their plans for after the end of civilization is simply terrifying, and gives the story an almost surreal air.

In the realm of the mundane, The Vine is a story about a woman whose mental reservations about her impending pregnancy manifest in a myriad of ways, the most obvious of which is her decision to plant a set of vines along a new fence that her husband built mostly to keep an obnoxious neighbor at bay. The story revolves around the question of whether one should own cats or dogs, how some people simply don't observe boundaries very well, and resentments directed towards one's parents. There's nothing particularly out of the ordinary about the events in the story, but what makes it so extraordinary is how everything is contextualized from the viewpoint of a woman who doesn't seem to be particularly enthralled with the "usual" pursuits of womanhood. Her indifference to having children and her dislike of gardening frame her as being out of the accepted range for married women of her day, and yet she is clearly the most interesting and sympathetic character in the story. Similarly mundane, Tribal Customs is a study in prejudice and expectations. Darcy is a young woman who is about to marry her boyfriend Joe with the story revolving around her first visit to meet his parents. Joe is part Native American, and the trouble begins when his family and family home don't match up to her expectations. All of the conflict in this story is rooted in the somewhat racist assumptions made by Darcy, and the resolution of the story revolves around her more or less accepting that. This story is a remarkably insightful study in how seemingly benign prejudice is still pernicious.

Many of Clingerman's stories focus on enjoying the little pleasures of life. In this vein, A Widow for Mr. Stevens presents the reader with two men, both sharing a hospital room. The protagonist Arthur has spent his life devoted to business and never gave much consideration to enjoying himself. His unseen roommate Jack, hidden behind a curtain that separates the room in two, has something Arthur does not: A window. Through the story Jack regales Arthur with stories of what he can see through the window in the park below. Because this is a Clingerman story, not everything is entirely as it seems, and in the end when Arthur moves from his side of the room to Jack's vacated bed, it turns out that Jack's view wasn't quite what he let on, and Arthur finally understands what he had been missing his entire life. The fact that people seem to fall into a rut of listlessly living their lives trying just to make ends meet is a recurring theme in Clingerman's work, and The Telling Day confronts this issue head on as Carl and Linda talk about how dissatisfied they have become with their lives of shepherding their kids to and from school while doing nothing of consequence but working and simply existing - and wondering if that is all there is to life. It isn't, and the story turns when they start remembering what it is they used to love about their lives and decide to try to rekindle that fire. Once again, it turns out that the resolution of the story is the realization that loving the little things in the world is what gives life meaning.

In Clingerman's fiction, loving little things doesn't just soothe your own soul and give your life meaning, it can also serve as the glue that binds people to the world they live in. In Threading a Closed Loop, Lenore and Doug have recently moved to Arizona for their child Jaime's health, and they simply aren't fitting in. Doug's business is faring poorly, and Lenore doesn't know anyone in town. Lenore finds her way to a local junk sale and flea market and finds a book about making string figures, and also finds Meg Rawlinson, and their shared love of little kindnesses turns Lenore's fortunes around, and Doug's love of string figures gives a shy man a way to socialize in a new community. Clingerman's fiction seems to be at its best when she is describing everyday women at a critical moment in their lives. In A Time to Be Bold, Cynthia Bishop is a woman who has sacrificed her chance at marriage and pretty much her entire social life to dedicate herself to the care f her younger brother. The story revolves around Cynthia's PTA activities and consequent interactions with the high school teachers at her brother's school. Or rather, the story focuses on her interactions with Mr. Davis and Ms. Betts - the object of her affections and her rival for said affections respectively. Eventually Cynthia makes the fateful decision to pursue Mr. Davis to San Francisco in order to head off a ploy by Ms. Betts, and then the story comes to a relatively satisfying close although the tale ends as soon as the critical turning point has resolved, essentially stopping the story more or less in media res, which is unusual but in this case, effective.

One of the few supernaturally themed stories in the later portion of the book, Top Hand has the feel of an Old West tall tale like the stories about Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. The story features a preternaturally skilled cowboy named "the Kid" and his foil "Red", both of whom are described as having drifted into the area and gotten work at the same ranch as the narrator. The story wends through the narrator marveling at the Kid's skill as a ranch hand until everyone finds themselves at a small town dance where a disagreement over a woman leads Red to a deadly encounter and causes the Kid to drift onward. It is only after the pair have left that the ranch hands figure out who they were, and it is this revelation that gives the entire story a supernatural flair and elevates the entire story above the ordinary. Another story with a supernatural tinge, A Stranger and a Pilgrim recounts an encounter between a patient old woman waiting for a visitor from a far away place and the long-expected traveler. The meeting doesn't go quite the way the protagonist expects, and the story has some fairly heavy religious imagery thrown in, which was somewhat unexpected. I am not certain if Watermelon Weather contains speculative elements or if it is just so infused with the dreamlike nature of its protagonist's daily life that it seems to contain speculative fiction elements. This doesn't detract from the story, which features a woman who has what can only be called extremely lucid and odd dreams involving spaceships, violet grass and pink watermelons. Her family seems to accept these mental excursions with equanimity, and the story toddles along until everything wraps up with a very sweet little love story.

Another strength of Clingerman's fiction is her portrayal of wise but unexpectedly colorful older women, a strength that is clearly in evidence in The Birthday Party. in which Marguerite attends her grandmother's birthday party. At first Marguerite regards the party, forgotten until a reminder from her mother the morning of the event, as little more than an annoyance, barely outranking the dental appointment that she has earlier in the day (and which is rather humorously described in the story), but when her various aunts assemble for the celebration and begin to open up about their younger days, she gets a revelation that she never saw coming. The story glories in the bullheaded determination of youth and the lust for adventure, revealing layers within the collection of older women that one would never have expected given the staid and domestic setting the story is rooted within. On the other hand, not all older women in Clingerman's fiction are wise and colorful. In On the Nicer Side, Liz Temple is the amazingly conventional mother of an unwed pregnant daughter who spends much of the story worrying about what the neighbors might think if they found out about her child's condition and trying to push her daughter into giving up the impending newborn up for adoption. The story starts off with tragedy, which makes Mrs. Temple's actions seem fairly callous, and ends with more tragedy, which allows Mrs. Temple to redeem herself via the somewhat unanticipated kindness she displays. At the other end of the spectrum, The Father of Daughters focuses on Robin, a teenage girl whose only real problem is that she does not yet have the right date for the prom, a situation that exasperates her father. There isn't anything deep or meaningful to the story other than the fact that it focuses on a teenage girl and takes her concerns seriously.

The last story in the book, and serving as something of a fitting coda to the collection as a whole, is A Note from Eleanor, a melancholy tale of the relationship between two women, one young and lacking in any kind of social position, and one older and firmly ensconced in the upper echelons of the town she lives in. Their unlikely friendship is unusual and sweet, and benefits both of them, but like all friendships, life gets in the way and the two drift apart and return to one another a couple of times. That is, they drift apart and return to one another until they don't. It is a somewhat fitting end for the volume, as it contemplates how people might choose to meet their end, and how those who are close to them might miss their last chance to see their loved ones due to the everyday distractions of life. This is, ultimately, the fundamental truth that underlies most of Clingerman's fiction: Life happens when you aren't paying attention to it, and the best you can do is muddle through it.

Although the details of the stories in this collection are eclectic, the constant is the importance of the everyday, and the fact that ordinary people are fitting subjects for a story. More importantly, the dominant theme that runs through the entire volume is that women have stories that are worth telling. As I noted before, in some circles there is a refrain of wanting stories about "strong women", and there are some of those in these pages, but what is more notable is that there are women described in these stories that are allowed to be fully realized characters with flaws, foibles, and petty faults. The characters that appear in these stories could best be described as both everyday and interesting at the same time, as Clingerman manages to capture the exotic concealed within the familiar, and highlight the fact that even the most mundane-seeming individual contains hidden depths.

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