Paul Di Filippo reviews The Clingerman Files by Mildred Clingerman

Mildred Clingerman (1918-1997) was a writer I grew up on, and loved. Although her heyday came during the 1950s, before I began reading SF, I would run across her memorable tales reprinted in anthologies–and also in their original venues, as I began to accumulate back issues of SF magazines. Associated most tightly with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, she cropped up at steady intervals with gemlike stories that ensured her byline would stick in the reader’s mind. She had only a single book to her name during her lifetime, A Cupful of Space, with its beautiful Powers cover, whose wistful yet poetic title evokes both housewifely domesticity (“May I borrow a cupful of sugar?”) and an attempt to measure the immeasurable and capture the implacable essence of the interstellar medium. In other words, it combined the very same threads of naturalism and speculation, mundanity and fantasy, suburban security and horror that were found in her fiction.

Falling silent for personal reasons in 1975, Clingerman also faded from the SF canon and the memories of most fans. But now this unfair and unfortunate situation is remedied, thanks to the publication of her complete oeuvre, some forty stories, curated by her grandson, Mark Bradley. With this volume, Clingerman should assume her rightful place on the shelves of any dedicated SF fan.

This essay’s boundaries cannot encompass a close analysis of every single story, but by highlighting the standouts we can perhaps adduce what made her work special.

The kickoff story, “First Lesson” (not her initial sale; the stories herein are out of chronological order), details the inner thoughts and emotions of a woman married to a paratrooper. She has premonitions of his death, and pursues supernatural tactics to save him. She succeeds–but at a high cost to herself and others. The zinger? Perhaps there was no supernatural intervention at all. The reality is left deliciously multivalent, in the sophisticated style of Robert Aickman. Clingerman’s oblique presentation of events, her characterological narrative filter, and her emphasis on emotions and hard-edged consequences would continue throughout her canonical works, setting her apart from many of her 1950s peers.

Clingerman’s dark sense of humor surfaces in “Stickney and the Critic” (Lovecraftian monster devours pompous scholar) and “Letters from Laura” (time-traveling bubblehead meets the Minotaur). This gently subversive strain in her fiction allies her with such bolder, more widely read contemporaries as Robert Sheckley and William Tenn.

Clingerman was always unafraid to confront existential doubts about the horrors and tyranny of contemporary life and consensus reality. She could imagine better alternatives. “Stair Trick” finds the protagonist taking what seemed to be a pretend exit from this world, but which proved to be a welcome real way out. Likewise, “Mr. Sakrison’s Halt” (note the resonance in that name with “sacral”) shows us how the faith of an old woman opens up the door to utopia. The topical references to racial troubles in this story also illustrate Clingerman’s sensitive radar for current events, a talent which all the best SF writers must cultivate.

Clingerman delivers a compact, powerful story about the End Times that Harlan Ellison or C. M. Kornbluth might have rendered. “[T]here was a great noise, as of the ripping of an enormous cloth, big enough to shroud the world…a sound like bells and a sound like thunder…” The fact that the tale begins as the biography of a wastrel playboy is a brilliant deception.

Children were a large source of Clingerman’s inspiration. Much like Bradbury or Kuttner, she knew the cognitive dissonance of their horrible/delightful natures. “Tutti Frutti Delight” charts the fickle affections and romantic fancies of two teen girls. A child’s outing disintegrates in “The Tea Party.” In “The Little Witch of Elm Street,” we get the paired figures of Nina, a sociopathic brat, and Garnet, her twelve-year-old prodigy of a minder. This story also contains some of Clingerman’s typically wonderful writing on marriage, domesticity, and conventionality: “For two hours I had been watching Mrs. Pritchett squaring corners and quieting ruffled surfaces and in every room obliterating evidence that Mr. Pritchett or any other living thing had ever passed that way… Mr. Pritchett himself remained inert, except for the slow blinking of his eyelids.” James Thurber seems an obvious icon here.

Like Sturgeon, Clingerman could see past surfaces into the twisted hearts and souls of freakish individuals. Anyone who recalls such stories as “The Comedian’s Children” will finds resonances in Clingerman’s “You Remember Charles?” about a manipulative lying Golden Boy. The type is timeless.

But Clingerman could also produce tender love stories, such as “Watermelon Weather,” in which a wife’s proleptic dream about an alien suitor who visits via flying saucer resolves into a kind of L. Frank Baum epiphany: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

The flip side of this is the absolutely devastating “The Wild Wood.” This psychosexually deep story alone would be worth the price of the book. Set with grim irony at Christmas, the tale –no spoilers!–finds a conflicted housewife overtaken half-willingly by a horrid fate.

Mildred Clingerman stands just a few niches below Shirley Jackson in the fantasists’ Pantheon, for her wit, invention, prose stylings and ability to capture the zeitgeist and transform it into indelible imagery and happenings. Her name should be broadcast just as widely.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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