Something About Shadows and Parallel Universes: A Review of Collected Gravities. Chloe Clark’s books include The Science of Unvanishing Objects, Your Strange Fortune and Under My Tongue. Her work has also appeared in Apex, Hobart, Uncanny and Drunken Boat. Clark’s debut fiction collection, Collective Gravities, comes out this July by Word West Press.
Many stories involve ailments and unexplained sicknesses, some magical or alien, happening in small towns or on space stations. I like to call this genre sci-fi gothic. Clark’s stories are inspired by classic monster sci-fi media such as Alien, The Thing, and Until the End of the World. The gothic influences of dark woods and ominous natural phenomena show spirits that move as freely as the living. There is much that is just out of view and around the corner in her stories. Sometimes this is unsettling, but it is always beautiful. Clark told me that, “the stories are about the strangeness in life … they are stories about people who are facing human things inside a world that no longer makes sense to them.” Love and hope are here, too, beauty and magical realism are subtly and expertly rendered.
This is a collection with perfect pacing where longer stories that build plot, characters and images immerse you into a world only to release you back up to the small, rich flash pieces that give you a glimmer of a whole new reality.
Directly at the center of the collection is “Like the Desert Dark”. This futuristic story takes place on an Earth much like our own. A father is called to identify the body of his daughter who worked for a space research facility. However, the story begins with the daughter as a child falling off a swing and struggling to breathe. As the father, Andre, travels, he reflects on his wife Claire, who was also a scientist. Her work on mysterious boxes to ward off the shadows eventually drove her to what Andre saw as madness. His daughter Evie studied the stars and continued her mother’s work. It is this connection that Andre is reconciling. The sorrow of the many losses within this story are rooted in the reality and heartache of learning the mysteries of a loved one. Clark takes us through the day of the father as he travels to identify his daughter’s body only to be given glimpses, paragraph by paragraph, that help us figure out the truth as he does.
Clark shows us humanity in this story as well as builds a foundation for the themes of this entire book. “Something about shadows and parallel universes”, Evie tells her father. It is these shadows her mother chased and protected them from. Clark’s slow reveal of the plot in this story allows readers, as well as Andre, to feel the entire spectrum of human experience.
The magical realism aspect of Clark’s fiction is best seen in “Where God Suddenly.” This story has elements of horror, a genre in which Clark is very familiar and prolific. So much is at stake for the characters in this story. “Thematic Cartography” follows the mysterious illness of a young man while his lover watches his body turn into a chart. The growing x and y axis on his body spread like a rash, but instead outline his life in beautiful meandering paths. His lover finds these trails on her body as well and recalls their memories together and their love in these remnants.
Flash pieces that are just as deep and realized as the longer form stories include, “A Reunion of Waves” “These Arms of Yours” and “So This?” In “A Reunion of Waves”, the plot is short: a group of kids jump into the water, their conversation brief—why were you in jail? The answer contained in, “I never wanted him to hurt, just that he would stop hurting her” cuts you to the core. Clark’s stories this time and again throughout this collection. “These Arms of Yours” is thick with regional Wisconsin references and spooky natural disasters, ultimately leading to odd mannequins in a “house made of arms.” You don’t have to be from the cheese state to understand the story, but it’s impressive that Clark can create such a clear picture of a specific place with just a few short lines in this brief, two and half page story. This is masterful work with the tilt of her gothic horror eye. “So This?” is the final of my favorite flash pieces to cover; it is also near the end of her collection. What sounds like a simple, charming story of a couple adopting a dog is really the journey of grief and moving forward. The line, “there was a baby once and then there wasn’t” quietly written in the first paragraph reveals the heart of the story, “and sometimes we accidently remember and it feels like someone…has sucker punched us in the shoulder blades.” The narrator slips into the dreams of her new dog, Catnip and they journey together through her sadness and listen to each other breathe, with the line “and that is enough” closing this heartbreaking story.
Clark’s genius is story. Many of the characters in this collection do not even have names, but their experiences, their memories or their losses are fully realized and alive. This sci-fi gothic book is a collection of moments of gravity that break your heart by showing you worlds where life is off kilter. These stories explore the stars just as easily as they do familiar creek beds and show lives of magical realness.