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Claudia Smith

Claudia Smith's fiction has been translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, and Polish. More about Claudia and her work can be found at claudiastories.com.

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"A remarkable collection rife with strange doings, comings and goings, beings of the sort uncommonly troubled and beautiful, in equal measures."

– Frederick Barthelme

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Quarry Light

The Night it Happens the Moon is Murderously Bright

02/19/14

It's a slim collection of just six stories (two of flash length), but Claudia Smith's new book, Quarry Light, from Magic Helicopter Press, is dense and deep and brilliantly written. It is a book to read slowly, to let sink in to one's heart and mind, and to ponder long after reading.

I've been a fan of Smith’s work for many years, having workshopped with her in Kim Chinquee's Hot Pants group and having read her chapbooks, The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts (Rose Metal Press, 2007) and Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books, 2009).

The stories in Quarry Light display Smith’s lovely prose and use of specific detail as well as her gift for keenly portraying the lives of young girls and women. Particularly in her evocation of childhood, one feels as if these memories and details remain as clear and tangible and compelling to Smith as the present day. This serves the stories and the reader both.

The opening story, "Catgirl," is one that Smith notes in her acknowledgements as "taking [her] writing into a new direction.” Written for the anthology Lone Star Noir, the story is indeed deeper and darker than anything I'd previously read of hers. Yet, it opens with the sort of winsome image familiar to fans of her stories:

The girls are waiting for the ferry, dangling their legs out the side of the van, popsicle juice dripping down their chins. Four girls: Trina, Tricia, Grace, and Allie.

From there, Smith builds her story, brick by brick, detail by detail, going deeper into the lives of the girls, taking the reader along on this weekend trip to the beach with Tricia and Trina's divorced mother. The story is juxtaposed with a children's rhyme/song the girls sing throughout, Miss Mary Mack. As the story takes a darker turn, so do the stanzas of the song.

On display here and in all the stories of this collection is Smith's masterful storytelling, her ability to build tension, set a tone of foreboding, to draw the reader ever forward, to make the heart beat a little faster. Things grow increasingly off-kilter as Smith introduces a new character here, an ominous detail there, weaving past and present and even the future with subtlety and control.

The reader begins to know the girls are not safe even if they are unaware of any danger and at one point, they laugh and sing:

She cannot cry, cry, cry

That's why she begs begs begs

She begs to die, die, die.

The story takes its inevitable turn and Smith punctuates it with one perfect sentence:

The night it happens the moon is murderously bright.

The imagery of the last two paragraphs of this story is among the most haunting and devastating I’ve ever read.

Always in Smith's stories we see how deeply she understands, and uses, the past as an illumination of the present. Stories can sometimes get bogged down in this way but Smith makes both past and present so alive, so compelling, that the shifts in time feel seamless and right.

In the story, “As If Someone Had Polished the Air” an intelligent and imaginative child befriends first a rat, then small girl she discovers living in her closet. Her father is rarely around and her mother is troubled, alcoholic. Smith makes the child’s fear and loneliness palpable:

That night Agatha felt sick. Her mother had been dead drunk; she wouldn’t remember what she’d said or done. Her mother, she now know, was kind of a loon. In the dark, the flowers on her walls were scary. They looked as though they might grow right into the room and strangle the dolls, the furniture, her.

In "Lucy,” the longest story in the collection, a young woman returns from her grandmother's funeral to find a dog left in her yard, a dog she takes in and cares for. Throughout, the prose is clean, precise, and evocative, always hitting the mark, as here where the woman recalls a chance encounter on a bus trip:

New Mexico in darkness was bare mountains looming outside the bus window like a giant's bones, giving their conversation a solemnity and proportion she appreciated. She was weepy without being drunk.

“Lucy” is another story where past events, heartaches, and losses impinge on the present. In this way, Smith draws us in to her characters and makes them unforgettable.

There is a gothic feel to Quarry Light, inhabited as it is by ghosts and rats, imperiled and abused children and dysfunctional mothers. Gothic, with a strong, beating heart. Claudia Smith mines the depths of sadness and loss and human frailty with bravery and compassion. These stories will leave their mark.

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