When Mystical Creatures Attack! won this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa, and it’s damn easy to see why. The writing is a splendid and arresting combination of irreverence, counterculture rebellion, and gallows humor. It portrays a Catholic upbringing – complete with nuns – in the heart of Texas, which as I always suspected, is another country altogether. It also deals with juvenile delinquency, unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide. In case you were thinking its humor makes it light reading.
These short pieces are linked very closely together, moreso than usual in a short fiction collection, although they can certainly be read independently. The experience would be very different in that case, although not as deep or affecting. I have to honor and thank the Simmons award committee for singling out this multifarious work, because it clearly, clearly deserves the recognition. Besides all the adjectives above, in main it’s a moving, disturbing, topical collection.
The narrative threads follow Laura, an inexperienced high school English teacher in her early 20s, and her student Janice, whom Laura calls “a feral raccoon devoid of impulse control,” in honor of her excessive eye shadow. The two are not enemies, however, or even adversaries, for very long. They unfortunately share too many toxic and alienating influences in their lives: distant and/or suicidal mothers, deep and dangerous problems with men, drug use – in Laura’s case, coerced, in Janice’s, not so much. These two vivid creations come packaged up in a raucous, rebellious, frightening, hysterically funny set of stories.
And the stories are worth every bit of their award. Consider the fanciful: a giant squid that hugs you until your unwanted pregnancy goes away, a wood nymph who could save the environment, a wax figure battle at a museum that pits George Washington against Moses. Or the plain bizarre: Laura is confined to a psychiatric treatment program in which she must try to earn negotiable “Wellness Points™” which purport to measure her progress, but are really punitive and counterproductive. Consider the all-too-real: young women trying to navigate through a universe that might be indifferent if it weren’t so treacherous. Through all the wisecracks and comic effects, Mystical Creatures has a serious, compassionate soul, and I am quite impressed. Do take it up, you won’t regret it for a minute.