Back in March, Wesleyan University Press published The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories, a collection of Kit Reed’s best short fiction, ranging chronologically from 1958 to 2013. These stories serve as a fitting testament to Reed’s abilities over the course of her career. Her work isn’t difficult to classify, but that’s primarily because she has already provided her own classification: “transgenre.” Some of the stories in this particular collection are straightforwardly fantastical or science fictional, but more often they simply feel fantastical or weird without exhibiting explicit genre characteristics many may be familiar with (aside from the occasional zombie or Bigfoot sighting).
Some of the best stories in The Story Until Now showcase Reed’s talent for taking familiar (and sometimes cliché) topoi and situations and twisting or interrogating them, either exposing the assumptions lying at their foundations or renovating them outright. A particular highlight is “High Rise High,” a tale of a high school overthrown by its disgruntled students in the near future; politicians plot secret bombings, government agents infiltrate the school in disguise, and everyone, kid and adult alike, still worries about the prom at the end, where they think all their dreams will either come true or fail miserably. The story is on one level dystopian SF, of course, but it’s also a parody of stories of high school angst and rebellion, while at the same time asking readers why they enjoy these kinds of stories and the often less-than-realistic climaxes and endings they offer. (Which brings up another key trait of Reed’s stories: like it or not, the reader will often get dragged into the fray with the characters.)
The unique brand of weirdness in Reed’s writing, which I previously mentioned, is a type of weirdness not tied to a particular genre. Rather, it’s a weirdness of perspective, a knack for finding the strangest, most faithful way of inhabiting a character’s head and plumbing the depths for the things that are both surprising and compelling, things we wouldn’t think to look for without Reed pointing them out. In “Special,” which we’ve reprinted this week for our fiction feature, Reed has, on the most rudimentary surface reading, a story of a celebrity coming to a small town, its inhabitants gone starry-eyed with the possibility of becoming her newest best friends. Such a premise could easily serve as fodder for sitcoms and romantic comedies. In Reed’s hands, however, this story is sharply satirical, dissecting in equal measure the mysterious and seemingly vapid Ashley Famous (part religious prophet, part tabloid star) and the fawning, obsessive townspeople, exposing the core strangeness of all participants. The town dynamics become subtly, increasingly creepy, building up to a surprisingly dark finale that’s truer to our conception of celebrity and fandom than we may realize.
In Reed’s hands, more often than not, people are the weirdest things of all, and the things they do, say, and think. She excels at depicting the conflicts and bizarre turns of relationships between parents and children and between husbands and wives. Reed is also superb at dissecting gender and how gender politics restrict and affect both men and women (her feminist SF story “Songs of War,” where the wives and daughters of a small town form a militia to fight for their independence, is definitely the prime representative of this theme in the collection). She also has a knack for honestly depicting the experienced strangeness of adolescence and sexual awakening and awareness. All of this is filtered through what I would consider a Reed-esque viewpoint, that of a true skeptic: incisive and satirical, with an eye for the absurd, but also surprisingly honest and fair, with a willingness to try different perspectives and invest them with a sense of authenticity and personal belief.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Story Until Now and reading it cover to cover. Reed is a masterful writer with a unique voice who can, and will, adapt to whatever story she tells. Give yourself plenty of time to read this collection, though. These stories create and inhabit their own worlds and characters in and of themselves, generating not one overarching shared milieu but many individual ones, and so every story deserves to be read on its own terms.