June 21: “When Mystical Creatures Attack!” by Kathleen Founds

Hello, Story366! Another beautiful day, this second day of summer. By less than a minute, it will get darker sooner today, and I have to be honest with you, that saddens me just a bit. It’s tied to a lifelong investment in the school year—I’m someone who considers a calendar in terms of semesters, summer, fall, and spring, even to people not in school, who find it weird when I say the word “semester” to them. Ever since I was a kid, however, I’ve always relished summer, even though I was a good student, liked school, and basically chose to never leave. While Karen (who also chose this life) loves the start of each school year, loves to go shopping for school supplies, sees each fall semester as a new beginning, I’m more or less someone who starts to see the downslide of the summer break starting today. It’s still June, so my anxiety is unnoticeable, but I really start to feel it after the Fourth of July, as I can feel those emails coming from work about starting the semester; it doesn’t help that somehow the start of school has slipped backward from the first week of September to around August 20 (my birthday is August 22 and I never used to be anywhere near school at that point, but now always am engaged in that first week). I’m not sad or depressed or anything, and “anxiety” is a relative term. But I do have an internal clock that says I like the start of summer best, May to June, and I like that period from December 22 to June 21 when the days get longer—yeah, even in the dead of winter, there’s a slight positivity, knowing we’re headed in the right direction.

Anyway, all of this is silly as I still have two months of summer (though I’m teaching two online courses) and it’s an absolutely beautiful day here in Chicago and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by all of my favorite people at the same time, Karen and the boys plus almost my whole immediate family. There’s a sense of calmness in me when I can be near everyone who matters most to me. That more than makes up for that twenty-seven seconds less of sunlight we’ll get tonight.

For today post, I read from Kathleen Founds’ fantastic collection When Mystical Creatures Attack, winner of a John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. I hadn’t read any of Founds’ fiction (hey, that sounds like a genre, “found fiction,” doesn’t it?) before today, but I know after reading the first five stories in her collection that I’ve been missing out. When Mystical Creatures Attack!, at least five stories in, is a lot of fun, a collection of around twenty-five (yes, I’m too lazy to count) shorts that seem to tell the story of Laura Freedman, an elementary school teacher who has a breakdown in class (she throws a terrarium out a window after flushing her meds down the toilet) and is sent off to live in Bridges a New-Agey, expensive mental hospital. The stories inside are sometimes stories, but are mostly fictions, artifacts from Laura’s journey as she tries to cope with being an intelligent adult stuck in a place she doesn’t want to belong, but very will might.

The pieces in the book certainly don’t fall under any traditional formats so far, no Fretag’s Triangle-types, but instead use alternative forms to relay Laura’s plight. One story, “The Un-Game,” is an epistolary between Laura and one of her favorite students, a back-and-forth that gets cut off by hospital admins who deem Laura too “stimulated.” Another, “Warm Greetings,” is simply a document that Laura receives outlining the ward’s “wellness points” program, how she can earn points by behaving in certain ways, and then how she can cash those points in for bonuses like TV time and snacks. Today’s Story366 focus, the title and first story, “When Mystical Creatures Attack!” is an assignment that Laura gives her students, along with their corresponding responses; it might be the last assignment Laura gave before her breakdown, which may or may not imply that the students’ responses are what put Laura over the edge (on top of flushing her meds). Flipping through the rest of When Mystical Creatures Attack! It seems like most of the stories follow theses forms, as there’s more students papers, more letters, more memos from Bridges. I absolutely love it all, this adventurous undertaking, the risks Founds took, how they paid off of her.

So, the journaling assignment in “When Mystical Creatures Attack” is for the kids to A) choose their favorite mystical creature, B) identify the most pressing social problem in the world, and then C) write a one-page paper defining how that mystical creature would solve that problem. I think that sounds like a fun assignment for a bunch of kids—I never did anything like that at St. Andrew the Apostle in Calumet City—or even a group of creative writing students; in fact, because I want to assign this story to my classes, I think I might just tie an exercise, having them do this very thing.

The rest of Founds’ story, then, is just the collection of the various students’ writings on the topic. Kids pick a lot of mystical creatures—unicorns, werewolves, sphinxes—and a lot of typical social problems—hunger, AIDS, and the environment—and then combine them in unlikely pairings. Some of the responses are just cute and typical, such as a werewolf fixing hunger by eating everyone, leaving only himself, who, of course, would no longer be hungry because he just ate everyone. Cute. But as they would in a real classroom, some of the responses are more serious, more thoughtful, like the kid writing about his father fixing the lawnmower (you can guess why the dad is considered mystical), and finally, how administrators got rid of poor Laura Freeman.

A selection like this really sets the tone for Founds, as a reader is going to know exactly what they’re getting into from page one. This is not a typical story collection (though not many are), and if that read is on board with this first piece, recognizing the difference between a story and a fiction, and they like that distinction, like experimental forms, then they’re going to love this book. There’s a real humor here, a lot of creativity, but at the same time, a lot of heart—Laura Freeman’s story is tragic, rendering this all dark comedy. Really, really comic dark comedy.

I laughed and smiled at When Mystical Creatures Attack! but also admire how its author, Kathleen Founds, still manages to tell a story, a novel-in-fictions, I would call it, maybe the first one of those I’ve ever read. I am very excited about this book, excited to share it with anyone who doesn’t know it. It’s really great—go out and get one for yourself.

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