A Cupful of Space, Mildred Clingerman (1961)
Review by admiral ironbombs
In the 1950s and 1960s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction featured a good number of women writers like Zenna Henderson, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Miriam Allen deFord, and Mildred Clingerman. Back then they were strongly associated with the magazine; now they are much less well-known, overlooked by many SF readers. As I read through those old issues, I find myself drawn to these unknown authors by the quality of their writing; Clingerman’s story ‘The Wild Wood’ impressed me enough that I tracked down a collection of her work. Stellar cover art by Richard Powers didn’t hurt.
Clingerman’s 1961 collection A Cupful of Space includes 16 stories, most of them from F&SF; it forms an almost complete collection of Clingerman’s work as she only wrote three more, one the next year and two more in 1975. It’s assumed her career ended due to the same unfortunate circumstance that caused other such talented women to stop writing SFF: her husband asked her to stop.
‘First Lesson’ (Collier’s, June 1956). Our unnamed protagonist’s husband Hugh is a paratrooper training in the South, soon to be shipped out to the European Theater. But for the past few months as Hugh makes his first night jump, she’s been having a growing nightmare: Hugh making a jump, drifting down and impaled on a jagged fence-post. When her maid Iris finds her moping and hears of her nightmare, Iris offers up a solution that may get Hugh through alive. A well-written story, commentary on the power of faith and superstition with its surprise revelation.
‘Stickeney and the Critic’ (F&SF, Feb 1953). When the Bottle family settled in Oklahoma, their farm was built next to the strange stone well and stone barn home to what the natives called Stickeney – some kind of ancient monster living in the well’s oily waters. The Bottle children fed it chickens when their parents weren’t watching, and have thrown it a chicken once a year ever since. Enter a critic – scholar of the one Bottle son who fled to England and became a poet, hoping to see the old homestead. Equal parts horror and tongue-in-cheek send-up of horror stories, it’s a well-crafted piece.
‘Stair Trick’ (F&SF, Aug 1952). You’ve seen the stair trick without knowing what it is – the gag where someone pantomimes walking down stairs, crouching while the lower half of their body is obscured by something. Dick the bartender does that gag every night to thrill the regulars and confuse the newcomers – but for him the trick is real to him, as he walks into another dimension. A surreal idea wrapped up in a short, insubstantial story.
‘Minister Without Portfolio’ (F&SF, Feb 1952). Mrs Chriswell is a decent old soul, but now that her husband has passed and she’s living with her son’s family, she feels like an outsider with nothing to do. Sent out by her hostile daughter-in-law to do some birdwatching, she bumps into a group of strange men and their “low, silvery aircraft of some unusual design”. They are, of course, aliens, though Mrs Chriswell doesn’t realize this; all they want is to ask some questions about Earth, and desperate for pleasant conversation, Mrs Chriswell is willing to oblige. A cute moral fable where a colorblind old woman shows that yes, there may be something on Earth worth saving after all.
‘Birds Can’t Count’ (F&SF, Feb 1955). Recovering from a hangover, Maggie tries reading herself to sleep by picking up an old book on birdwatching. But she can’t quite get over the shadow she sees moving in the corner of her eye, which perturbs her cat as well. The theme of birdwatching comes full circle – intergalactic bird watchers? – only the alien observer is more interested in the cat than Maggie. An amusing trifle.
‘The Word’ (F&SF, Feb 1953). A trio of space explorers break the cardinal rule and leave their ship, venturing among the lifeforms they study. They blend in well with the children, poor figures with the faces of crones and skeletons and dressed in rags; they struggle to learn “the word,” which turns out to be “triggertree” – trick or treat, geddit? You should catch on pretty quick. Like several other stories in the collection, it’s a decent short told in a giddy, whimsical tone.
‘The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak’ (F&SF, July 1958). Timid and mousy Mavis feels trapped, settling for a bore of a fiancé named Hubert who set to work “fibering her up” and she “had shudderingly tried pot-gardening, dog-patting, and automobile-driving”. Her bold venture is to use her savings to buy a luxurious green velvet cloak, and head to the Book Nook in search of her favorite reading material, Victorian travel journals. It turns out the owner of the Book Nook was looking for this journal too; he was one of the people on that trip, and wants to read through the entries until he finds the point where he was thrown forward in time. A kind of fairy-tale where time-travel gives Mavis more moral fiber and character than Hubert ever could;
‘Winning Recipe’ (Collier’s, June 1952). Miss Clare shares a house with her oppressive brother, John. He’s always bringing home more and more machines and devices, arguing that this progress will make Clare’s life easier and telling her to “stop sniveling” as she finds herself replaced by automation. With this last one, she’s taking a stand: she will not surrender cooking, her last beloved duty, to the Kitchen Autocrat. If only she could find a recipe it can’t handle… As a story, it’s a thin satire, but it voices a viable concern women might have felt about technology at the time.
‘Letters from Laura’ (F&SF, Oct 1954). Told in epistolary form as a series of letters home to her best friend and mother, Laura takes a Grab Bag Tours trip to the past in hopes of a thrill. Sad to say, she doesn’t get the thrill she was after, and it turns out ancient Crete and the labyrinth of the Minotaur are not as interesting as history and myth make them out to be. Not Clingerman’s strongest piece – I found Laura kind of a snob, and think epistolary stories are interesting but awkward in short works – but it’s interesting how the author touches on themes of female sexuality and time-travel tourism. The twist is a subtle one: the salesman who pitches her this trip also makes sure to up-sell “insurance,” having cut a deal with the Minotaur, but if you recall your mythology the Minotaur only eats virgins…
‘The Last Prophet’ (F&SF, Aug 1955). Reggie is well-known as the local party boor, and any time he shows up at a party he’s doomed to kill all interest and drive everyone away. The problem is that, without fail, he’ll somehow launch into his mantra about the great discovery he’s made, someone that always occurs twenty minutes after the hour. While his discovery is of vital importance, nobody is willing to listen to him long enough to hear it – and even then, Reggie may run out of time before he can reveal what he’s learned, making him the last (if unfulfilled) prophet. Another whimsical tale that turns oddly metaphysical near its end; not my favorite, but not entirely without merit.
‘Mr. Sakrison’s Halt’ (F&SF, Jan 1956). Our narrator and Miss Mattie ride the train round-trip at least twice a week, Miss Mattie looking for the stop that her beau, Mr Sakrison, stopped off at many years ago. She retells the tale every time: he was a traveling Yankee, she a young Southern gal, and together they fell in love. One train ride into the big city, the train stopped unexpected, and Mr Sakrison wandered off into a strange place – a place where there were no drinking fountains labelled white or colored, a place where black and white folk mingled, a place beyond segregation – a place he never left, as the train chugged along. Miss Mattie hopes the train will once again make that stop, and will ride until it does… A heady piece for the Jim Crow era, a love story through space and time and a “future” of racial equality. The bitter undertone at the end condemns racism, alluding to burning crosses and hounds baying in the woods.
‘The Wild Wood’ (F&SF, Jan 1957). Margret and her family shop at the same store for a Christmas tree every year, a simple family ritual but one that Margret loathes. She’s unnerved by the store owner, a lecherous creep; in the past he felt Margret up, giving her horrible dream-state visions. But Margret is compelled to return year after year, unable to escape. As mentioned, I was impressed when I previously reviewed this story; it chilled me this time as well. A well-written and unsettling horror tale dealing with violation of self and control, disturbing due to its surprisingly sexual nature and creepy, intrusive shop-owner. I’d say it’s the best in the collection, and the best Clingerman wrote.
‘The Little Witch of Elm Street’ (Woman’s Home Companion, 1956). When the Bayard family moves to Elm Street, eldest daughter Garnet goes from home to home, warning all the inhabitants of their rambunctious toddler Nina. And Nina proves to be hell on wheels, biting the mailman, running down groups of ten-year-old boys on her tricycle. Garnet and our unnamed housewife protagonist are determined to do something to fix this; Garnet has occult rituals in mind, an exorcism of sorts. But when the bad spirits are driven out of this toddler, who will they inhabit next? A nice piece of fantasy from a mainstream publication, and it fits the pattern of domestic setting and married female protagonist.
‘A Day for Waving’ (F&SF, Aug 1957). Young Eden is jealous of her mother’s affection and plans to remarry a bucktoothed dentist, worrying about the jealousy of a dead father she can barely remember. Today, she, her mother, her grandmother, and her brother Lyle are heading into the graveyard to see the graves of their relatives, father included. Told from a child’s perspective, the story is unique in its fantastic obfuscations, which helps obscure its ghost story elements in among truth and hyperbole.
‘The Gay Deceiver’. Verna has been travelling the world with Papa Frolic for a while now, going from town to town to delight all the children with a magical parade full of whistles and balloons. And for every balloon Papa Frolic sells, he’ll give away ten times as many to children in the poor side of town. But why is Verna worried about the evils of the world, and the mysterious deaths that occur in towns they’ve just passed through? Original to this collection, it’s a capable horror tale, homage and retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
‘A Red Heart and Blue Roses’. Our protagonist and another woman discuss family and talk about the holidays; as their dialogue progresses, we realize they are in a mental institution, and may be one and the same person. Our unreliable narrator(s) retell a tale of their son bringing home a strange friend for Christmas who refused to leave, a strange being that, much like a cuckoo, attempts to take over the empty nest vacated by the real son when he left to join the Navy. Also original to this collection, it’s another horror tale of male intrusion, violating the normalcy of the family homestead; the plotting is murky and complex thanks to our crazed narrator(s) which makes it hard to follow, but the horror is palpable.
‘The Bottom Line’. To my surprise, while she’s categorized as a science fiction author, much of what Mildred Clingerman wrote would be called something like “slipstream” or “magical realism” today – a melange of the fantastic and the horrific underlying our mundane reality, a journey to where Matheson and Bradbury intersect by way of The Twilight Zone. She wrote stories of whimsy and dread in a literate tone; her vivid protagonists are often married women or housewives, slices of domestic life threatened by intrusive monsters, time-travelers, or aliens. Most of her stories are very short, a few thousand words and often less; as such, several are just a lead-up to a cutesy surprise ending. They would have made ideal Twilight Zone episodes, showing the same blend of humor, horror, and social consciousness that Rod Serling employed.
The overall quality of her stories is good, and Clingerman was impressive at her best. ‘The Wild Wood’ I’d argue is the high point, a potent horror tale of male intrusiveness and the loss of self. ‘Mr. Sakrison’s Halt”’is a brilliant time-travel love-story and critique of racial inequality in America, inspired perhaps by the failed Civil Rights Act of 1956 (HR 627, as opposed to the successful act the next year). ‘Minister Without Portfolio’ and ‘Green Velvet Cloak’ are warm, light-hearted stories; the first espouses that humanity is not without redemption, the second that even the most faint-hearted can gain some courage. ‘A Day for Waving’ is a memorable ghost story; ‘Letters from Laura’ is a neat twist on myth. Most of the rest are amusing trifles: charming, well-written, and lighthearted, but neither ambitious or substantial. If you’re looking for pure SF, Clingerman won’t deliver, but she knocks the fantastic and the wondrous out of the park. With a distinct woman’s voice, too. A collection for us collectors to keep an eye out for, with several underrated gems inside.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.