Passing Strange, Ellen Klages (Tor.com 978-0-7653-8952-7, $14.99, 222pp, tp) January 2017. Cover by Gregory Manchess
As satisfying as Ellen Klages’s YA historicals The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace are, in terms of SF and fantasy she belongs to that select but important group of well-received short fiction writers whose readers would be thrilled at the prospect of seeing her unique vision at novel length. Passing Strange isn’t quite that, but as one of the longer entries in Tor.com’s consistently impressive novella series, it comes close, approaching the wordage of a good many SF paperbacks from the 1950s or 1960s. More important than its length, however, is how it displays Klages’s various skills as a writer – the meticulous historical research into San Francisco history, the intricate plotting and ‘‘forbidden’’ romance that we saw in ‘‘Time Gypsy’’, the judicious use of magic that we saw in ‘‘Basement Magic’’ and ‘‘Caligo Lane’’ (whose magical origami shows up again here), the strong, creative, educated women who face professional discrimination even as they manage to keep their sexual orientation hidden. One of the circle of women that form the support system at the center of the story is a Ph.D. in mathematics who can only get a job as a lecturer; another, Helen, is a lawyer who has to supplement her income dancing in a Chinese-themed tourist trap nightclub; another is a once-aspiring writer expelled from Wellesley after getting caught in bed with her girlfriend.
The central figure of this group, however, is Loretta Haskel, a successful pulp magazine cover artist modeled on Margaret Brundage of Weird Tales (here called Weird Menace), whose sensual, lurid covers were viewed as borderline pornography. Decades later, original ‘‘L. Haskel’’ paintings are rare collector’s items, though so little is known about her that collectors assume she was a male artist. As the story begins, the now hundred-year-old Helen, who was Haskel’s model as well as lawyer, ‘‘on the last Monday of her life,’’ retrieves a sealed box hidden deep in Chinatown and presents it to a rare-book dealer. The sealed box is what frames the larger narrative, which is partly a love letter to historical San Francisco, complete with an extended visit to the 1940 ‘‘Magic City’’ World’s Fair (where Haskel’s friend Diego Rivera is completing a mural), and partly a tense portrait of what it meant to survive as a gay person in the 1940s, with lesbian nightclubs that served at once as refuges and as traps for prurient tourists.
The magic of these opening chapters derives mostly from this evocative historical setting and from the stories of this circle of mutually supportive women, especially the growing romance between Haskel and Emily, the refugee from a well-to-do family who had been expelled from Wellesley. At the same time, though, we’re offered glimpses of the real magical powers that will eventually converge in an ingenious resolution after a figure from Haskel’s past threatens her life with Emily: Franny, described as a witch, can fold paper in a way that alters real-world geography; Polly, a refugee from England, worked as an assistant to her magician father; and Haskel herself owns an old family necklace anchored by a stone said to have magical properties. Together, they concoct a scheme at once wildly romantic and thoroughly satisfying, and that moves Passing Strange into the company of fantasies like Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jenny, which explore the power of art over time. Passing Strange may be the most fully developed and richly detailed of all of Klages’s stories for adults, but it never feels like it needs to be a longer novel, and despite the fascinating side-trips into the World’s Fair or those painfully exploitative nightclubs, its plot unfolds with the same clarity and focus we’ve come to expect from Klages’s stories. This may be, and probably is, her finest short work to date.