By T. Daniel Frost, Editor-in-Chief
Kathleen Founds’ debut novel, and winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, When Mystical Creatures Attack! is an impactful collection of stories with a cast of honest and relatable characters.
Laura Freedman is a high school teacher on the verge of what everyone fears: losing it. But, that’s not what this story is about. Laura snaps and is committed to the Bridges Psychiatric Wellness Solutions program pretty early on. This story is less about her time in, and her frustration with, the program, and more about how each character deals with and responds to their fight with mental health and the stress that comes with it.
The characters are what drive the themes of this book. In the past twenty-five years or so a lot of attention has been given to mental illness, especially depression. The stereotypical depressed individual is usually depicted as self-pitying and awkward. And that’s fine, and sometimes even effective, but it’s only one version of how depression can affect someone. Laura Freedman, Janice Gibbs, and Cody Splunk are three of several characters that are portrayed in the novel; each of them suffer from mental illness, but none of them are constantly suffering. Above all their sense of humor comes through in fantastic ways. Whether it’s Cody’s dramatic tale of how he and Janice busted Ms. Freedman out of Bridges or the sass that Janice gives her father’s fiancé, the characters are more than their sickness; they are still functioning human beings.
Found’s humor comes through strongest in the section “Uncommon Happiness” where she intertwines heartbreaking insight to the character. Laura Freedman starts a Dear-Abby-like blog where she hears out people’s problems and offers her advice for the situation. While many of the people who ask Laura for advice have comically exaggerated situations (e.g. Beached Whale in Trenton), the real heart-wrenching realizations come from Laura’s response to her readers. She slowly goes from fighting (and helping others fight) emptiness and loneliness, to beginning to accept her depression and potentially nihilistic points of view. By her last post (excerpted below) she has relapsed and it seems that she doesn’t even realize it fully.
Sartre was an asshole.
We all know loving one another is the whole goddam point of this human condition. So spend these last moments with your children. Let them stroke your cheek, wash your hair, kiss you goodbye. After all, maybe you’re the lucky one. Being human is rough stuff. You get to be done.
Signing off, for now and always,
The thing that makes this book brilliant in the literary sense is how Founds plays with form. Journal Entries, email chains, and establishment guidelines (to name a few) all help to get the reader needed exposition that would otherwise have been taxing if written out in traditional prose. These forms also show the attributes of the characters that we couldn’t have gotten from the normal first person point of view.
Glenda Gayle’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Party Meatballs goes beyond just the ingredients. “Directions: This dish can mark an occasion that is both sour and sweet, such as when my fiancé’s daughter came up for our wedding.” Little tricks like this, which are also very fun, help us get to know how some of the side characters think and feel toward other characters within their circle.
Whether you’re new to writing or on your sixth novel, there is a lot to learn from When Mystical Creatures Attack!, from experimentation with forms to character development. And to those who have a great love for reading, this novel will break your heart and cheer you up at the same time in the same way that It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini and Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret could. There’s a reason why this is an award-winning novel and recommended by the New York Times. It’s incredibly well-crafted.
When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds
University of Iowa Press
T. Daniel Frost is a senior Fiction Writing major at Columbia College Chicago and was the co-chair of the professional development seminar “So You Want To Be An Author.” But like most people his age, he’s just happy to be holding it together, even if only a little bit. He’s particularly proud of this magazine and the awesome team that works on it.