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Scoping the Exits The Short Fiction of Kit Reed gary k. wolfe There has always been an oddly passive-aggressive relationship between American literature and the fantastic. Almost from the beginning, a familiar myth has been the notion of bringing order to wilderness, of subduing chaos, of constructing a rational society and rational institutions, of building roads and cities and eventually suburbs and high-rises and shopping malls. But the unsubdued aspects of wildness have an unsettling way of reasserting themselves; the cities and suburbs can become their own sort of wilderness; the roads can seem to lead nowhere; the rational society can become a dystopia. Fantastic literature, whether it takes the form of the Gothic, of science fiction, or of fantasy, is at its best a literature that explores implications, that aggressively excavates the assumptions behind our sunny plans and rational dreams and shows us where they might really lead. This is one reason the fantastic has been such a persistent strain in American writing, from Hawthorne and Poe and Melville through Twain and L. Frank Baum up to H. P. Lovecraft and Robert A. Heinlein. By the time we get to the last two writers on that list, however, an odd thing had begun to happen to American fantastic literature: it had begun to calve off genres, modes of writing that appealed to specific audiences and markets with particular tastes and desires. Usually, when we think of fantastic literature today, we think in terms of those genres, particularly science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But at the same time, there has been a persistent tradition of fantastic writing that doesn’t easily fit into convenient categories, but that makes use of their unique resources. This is a broader tradition than we might at first think, and has deeper roots; it’s one of the reasons we can find the occasional fantastic tale by Henry James, Edith Wharton, or Willa Cather. Even after the rise of the pulp magazines and paperbacks that helped define the pop genres, this kind of free-range fantastic continued to appear in the literary or generalinterest magazines and mainstream publishing lists, and as late as the 1940s we x g a r y k . w o l f e can find examples of it in the work of writers as diverse as John Collier, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Robert Coates, Roald Dahl, and Shirley Jackson. This, I think, is the sort of literary space that much of the work of Kit Reed occupies. She has not been averse to publishing her stories in genre magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Asimov’s (along with venues such as The Yale Review or The Village Voice Literary ­ Supplement—all are represented in this collection), but by the time her career began, toward the end of the 1950s, some of those genre-based magazines had begun to broaden their scope to include the literary fantastic, while many of the mainstream fiction markets either folded entirely (Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post) or turnedtowhatMichaelChabonhasdescribedas“thecontemporary,quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” It may be no coincidence that Shirley Jackson published her last New Yorker story in 1953 and her first in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1954—or that it was the latter magazine which published Reed’s first story, “The Wait,” in 1958. This disturbing tale of a mother and daughter trapped in a strange town with an even stranger ritual might well have appeared in The New Yorker nine years earlier, when it published Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a tale with which it clearly resonates, but by 1958 The New Yorker had largely moved away from any trace of the fantastic. Reed’s near-legendary reputation may have to do in part with the simple fact that her career began with such an accomplished story more than a half century ago, but it has more to do with how she has continued to produce such stories with astonishing regularity ever since, never quite falling into any particular genre but never quite getting trapped by mainstream literary fashions such as the quotidian moment-of-truth tradition that Chabon describes. She has never stopped being a bit of a rebel with a unique and sometimes quirky voice, and this may occasionally have landed her in the interstices between various fictional categories (the term she uses for herself, and possibly invented, is trans-genred). It was probably to her...


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