Library of America Story of the Week

During the last couple of decades the name Mildred Clingerman has popped up in prominent spots around the science fiction universe. Her works have been included in several significant anthologies and even in textbooks; indeed, her story “Wild Wood” is one of the more memorable entries in the late David G. Hartwell’s landmark collection of Christmas fantasy tales. In 2014 she received a posthumous Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, joining such previous honorees as R. A. Lafferty, Leigh Brackett, and the collaborative team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. And two years ago her family assembled The Clingerman Files, a book collecting most of the science fiction stories that appeared during her lifetime, along with two dozen unpublished tales found in her papers.

Largely forgotten when she died of heart failure at seventy-eight, Clingerman published just seventeen science fiction stories between 1952 and 1962—most in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, with three in the slick magazines Collier’s and Ladies Home Companion. They were collected in her only book publication, A Cupful of Space, and after a gap of thirteen years two more stories appeared in F&SF in 1975.

Yet her influence on the genre was far greater than the amount of her output. As Hartwell observed the year she died, Clingerman “was one of a notable group of women writers, including Judith Merril, Margaret St. Clair, and Shirley Jackson, who helped give fantasy and science fiction a special aspect in that decade and beyond. I would describe that flavor, with the benefit of four decades of hindsight, as a Twilight Zone flavor.” Her stories, he added, focus on ordinary women experiencing something extraordinary—all written within a literary genre that had, during the 1950s, become devoted primarily to extraordinary men. Literary scholar Lisa Yaszek points out another notable aspect of these works: “Clingerman uses SF’s ‘encounter with the alien other’ story to show how the most alien of all encounters are those that occur between humans.”

Born in Allen, Oklahoma, Clingerman was raised in Iowa, California, Texas, and New Mexico, before she and her mother settled in Tucson, Arizona, when she was eleven years old. She married in 1937, and later said, “My only work outside home was during World War II, when I kept flight-time records at a Ryan flight-training school, while Stuart was a paratrooper in the army.” When she wasn’t writing fantasy or science fiction, she contributed occasional nongenre fiction to publications ranging from The Philadelphia Inquirer to Good Housekeeping, but she regarded all her writing as “secondary to other joys. An avocation, really.” After submitting her last two SF stories in 1975, she more or less retired from her career as a writer.

Published in 1956, “Mr. Sakrison’s Halt” was selected by Yaszek for inclusion in The Future Is Female, the anthology of science fiction stories she recently edited for Library of America. The protagonist, Miss Mattie Compton, is a Southern belle who has spent forty years regretting a brief moment of racist anger that alienated her from her fiancé. Told from the point of view of a young girl whose many encounters with the eccentric woman occur mostly on a train, the story conjures what Yaszek describes as “a magical, alternative America that the narrator glimpses but can never find for herself again.”

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