When Mystical Creatures Attack: Darkness gets a silver lining
Review: Kathleen Found’s inventive debut collection has the cohesion and clout of a novel
Kathleen Founds: The reader is drawn into dark, surreal worlds, rendered with humour and an appreciation of the absurd
When Mystical Creatures Attack
University of Iowa Press
‘Sometimes the mind whirs and pinwheels, rising and contracting on roller coaster stairs, and you need a little something to blur the flashing lights to shade forests of tree green.” The emotional roller coaster of life is at the centre of this inventive and engaging debut collection from the American author Kathleen Founds.
At first glance When Mystical Creatures Attack! reads like a hodgepodge of vignettes and ideas. The 25 stories are in a variety of forms – journal entries, homework assignments, letters, emails, recipes, therapy exercises – with multiple characters giving their views on everything from Dostoevsky to unicorns. But as the reader is drawn into the dark, surreal worlds, which are rendered with humour and an appreciation of the absurd, certain themes and voices emerge, coming together with the charge of a novel.
At the centre of the collection is a young English teacher, Laura Freedman, who has a breakdown in front of her high school students in Plano, Texas. Or as one student describes it to her in a letter: “You turned off the lights, and you sat at your desk, and you ate, like, ten cupcakes. You even ate the wrappers.”
Recovering at Bridges Psychiatric Wellness facility, Laura corresponds with some of her students. Cody Splunk is trying to win the hand of Janice Gibbs. Janice is seeing the no-good Danny Ramirez in a bid to make her father care about her. Danny has gotten Kristi Colimote pregnant. The lives of the students weave into each other and into Laura’s own dark narrative as she tries to free herself from the tentacles of the past.
Fans of Aimee Bender and Jennifer Egan will enjoy When Mystical Creatures Attack!. A Stanford graduate whose stories have been widely published, Founds won the 2014 University of Iowa Press Short Fiction Award for the collection.
The various narrative devices are plausible and work well together as a whole. Journal entries give immediacy and relay Laura’s unhappiness with brutal honesty: “Fear, basically, that something is rotten at my core, and that people will see through to my rotten, shameful center.”
Heredity and mental illness is a recurring theme. Laura’s mother, the manic depressive Olivia, killed herself when her daughter was four. Olivia’s ghost haunts her daughter at various junctures, tempting Laura to repeat history.
These dark topics are spliced with humorous episodes. Before she is incarcerated, Laura’s unorthodox teaching methods endear her to her pupils. The opening titular story is in the form of an assignment asking students to combine their favourite mythical creature and the greatest socio-political problems of the age.
The results are predictably funny, capturing teenage concerns and logic: “How the Vampire Resolved the Global Aids Crisis, How the Minotaur Changed the Legal Drinking Age to 16, How the Sphinx Solved the Problem of Loneliness, How the Succubus Got Me Laid.” The exercise also sets up the tone of the book, compassionate and dissenting, when discussing serious topics such as abortion, mental illness and suicide.
The stories jump back and forth in time, adding layers to the characters. Janice’s amusing cry for help in Nicoli, Who Was Thrown to the Wolves foreshadows the tragedy that will befall her in the beautifully crafted The Holy Innocent, its second-person voice drawing the reader into Janice’s pain.
In Frankye Laura recounts the immense loss she felt as a teenager at the death of a much loved neighbour. In Virtue of the Month she tries to hold onto happiness in a new relationship: “I don’t know where he came from. Darkness rolls off him like water, the weight of the world does not grate him down.”
Later in the same episode, a dream conversation chronicles the bureaucracy of heaven as Laura battles to get her mother, and possibly her future self, accepted at the pearly gates. A file clerk tells her that Judas was banished not for his betrayal, but because he killed himself: “Despair is the greatest sin. (Thumbs through regulations.) The failure to believe God’s redemptive powers.”
Occasionally the humour seems forced, as with the fundraising cookbook by the Methodist Women of Piggot. Recipes such as Render unto Cesar Salad and The Lord Is My Shepherd Shepherd’s Pie are amusing but not interesting in terms of plot.
The collection belongs to Laura and her struggle. Her stories are vividly depicted and loaded with pathos: “I got used to birds: small black birds flying up from behind a building like God had tossed up a handful of currants . . . I got used to wind: the hot, cruel wind of afternoon, the merciful magnolia breeze of night. I got used to it. But then I had to go.”