As so often happens, I was at a book fair the other week when, again as so often happens, I stumbled on a book by a writer I’d heard of at some point and about whose work I was vaguely curious. In this case, the writer was Zenna Henderson and the book was a collection of sf and fantasy short stories called The Anything Box. Which, upon reading, I found to be quite intriguing.
Henderson was born in 1917 and died in 1983. Most writing I’ve found about her online (including her homepage, her SF Encyclopedia entry, and this excellent appreciation by Bud Webster) mention some or all of the following things: that she was a Mormon, that she taught Japanese-Americans in an internment camp during World War Two, and that she was one of the few women writing sf in the 1950s under an obviously female first name. Her work has influenced Orson Scott Card, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Connie Willis.
Henderson seems to be best known for her stories about the People, refugee aliens trying to make lives for themselves on Earth. None of those pieces are in The Anything Box. These stories stand alone; most, but not all, focus on teachers, children, and domestic life. Their technique is mainly simple and direct: straight-ahead narrative prose, eschewing tricks of chronology or unreliable narrators. “Things” uses alien vocabulary extensively, and “Turn the Page” borders on a Bradbury-like expressionistic lyricism, but on the whole the book is good solid 50s commercial prose. Which does some unexpected things.
The Anything Box fits 14 stories into 180 pages, pieces written between 1951 — “Come On, Wagon,” Henderson’s first published story — and 1962. These are lean, tight tales, a few set in the future or on other planets, but most set in the present day and introducing some element of the fantastic. There’s an almost subliminally menacing sense to a lot of the stories. Partly that comes from a feel of powers lurking just out of sight. Mostly, though, I think it’s a sense of tragedy just waiting to happen not because of the fantastic element as such, but because of the inadequacy of human response to the fantastic. Having said which, I’d also say that there’s a strong sense of 50s liberal humanism to most of the stories. As a whole, the sensibility and approach vaguely reminded me of the better episodes of The Twilight Zone: well-crafted and of their time without being dated. But Henderson’s work is somewhat more distinctive.
To start with, as mentioned, there are a lot of teachers in these stories — elementary schoolteachers, mainly, and most of them are women. So the stories are meditations on teaching and on relating to children; Henderson’s stories are convincing both in their depiction of children and in arguing that science fiction is one of the natural ways for discussing the relations between adults and children. For all that every adult was a child once, children are the ultimate aliens: they think differently than we do. They grow up with different experiences, different givens, and their brains are not yet in the same configuration as an adult’s. For an adult to try to enter into a child’s world is very like trying to relate to a thing from another world, which imagines the universe in a way different from any we can easily understand.
Of course, the stories are therefore also about children, and about their imagination and what things would be like if the things they imagine were actually in part real, if their magical thinking was a grasp of reality from which adults are debarred — a partial grasp, maybe, but nevertheless a perception not available to the full-grown. Sometimes the focus remains entirely on the child, as in “Stevie and The Dark,” which follows a boy as he invents rituals to hold a horrific force at bay. But often the use of the teacher or other adult allows Henderson to mediate between the child’s perspective and her readership. These aren’t children’s stories, or even young adult stories. They’re stories that seem to demand an adult awareness of the adult world — not adult knowledge, not sexual understanding, but an awareness of passing time and what it is to have lived for a certain amount of time and what it is to have grown up and out of a child’s way of thinking.
There’s also an awareness of how much damage even well-intentioned adults can cause to children. It’s interesting, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, how easily it’s accepted by the characters in the stories that teachers have a right to hit misbehaving children. More: Henderson depicts, in a way which seems to resonate with the way we think of the 1950s, the way in which teachers find themselves having to choose between on the one hand socialising children and encouraging them to fit in with society, and on the other fostering their imagination and individuality. She comes down heavily in favour of the second option. Most of the stories are about the power of youth, what children can do, and even about what their love for the adults in their lives can lead them to — about the almost-unreal strength of affection that children can have. And then about how adults may, with the best will in the world, betray that affection and unwittingly take away the power and individuality of a child’s imagination.
Take “Come On, Wagon.” It’s a simple story: an uncle, who doesn’t like children, sees his nephew appear to display psychic talents. A disaster happens. The child can’t use his powers to save a life. Why? Here’s how the story ends:
I knew as well as anything that once Thaddeus could have helped. Why couldn’t he then, when the need was so urgent? Well, maybe he really had outgrown his strangeness. Or it might be that he actually couldn’t do anything just because Clyde and I were grownups. Maybe if it had been another kid—
Sometimes my mind gets cold trying to figure it out. Especially when I get the answer that kids and grownups live in two worlds so alien and separate that the gap can’t be bridged even to save a life. Whatever the answer is—I still don’t like kids.
The story reads oddly like an answer to Jerome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life” (which was, to fit with what I said before, famously adapted into a Twilight Zone episode), except Bixby’s story was written two years later. In Bixby’s story, a child with supernatural power is terrifying: just by being a child, and having the ability to do what he wants, he destroys the world and ruins the lives of the adults around him. Henderson’s story takes the opposite perspective. By taking away the child’s power, the adults set the stage for death. The same sort of thing happens in the last story of the book, “The Last Step,” when a malevolent teacher interferes with boys playing in a schoolyard and thereby brings about her own destruction. Children’s imagination is a kind of power that adults are responsible for fostering, not destroying; and, crucially, if adults do interfere with their children’s imagination, they cause their own downfall.
On the whole, that’s where the horrific enters in Henderson’s writing: in imagination thwarted, in the everyday overcoming the numinous. The story “Walking Aunt Daid” is an interesting example, in part because there are no children in it — the narrator in fact is involved specifically because he’s no longer a child.
There’s a family, somewhere in the country, that has a strange old semi-catatonic and presumably senile aunt; the family’s legend suggests that she’s over a hundred and fifty years old, possibly much more. Once a generation she goes for a walk with a young man of the family, specifically not a woman, and not a child. The story is simply what the narrator sees when it’s his turn to take her walking. And that is a moment in which it looks like the aunt is about to shuck off her mortal flesh and pass over to some kind of more spiritual realm. But the narrator’s been told by his father to be sure to bring her back; so as the aunt ascends, he concentrates, and draws her again into the world, and instantly regrets it.
It’s a basically gnostic horror story: the horror of a spiritual being locked away from spiritual joy by a cage of flesh. There’s an interesting gender inversion here, though. Rather than what one often finds in a gnostic parable, women being the makers of the material shell that is the prison for a male visionary spirit, here the emphasis is on a man enforcing a woman’s conformity with the ways of the world:
Fear melted my knees and they wouldn’t straighten up again. I could feel terror knocking at my brain and I knew as soon as it could break through I’d go screaming up the hollow like a crazy man, squeezing the black dress like a rattlesnake in my hands. But I heard Pa saying, “Bring her back,” and I thought, “All my grampas saw it too. All of them brought her back. It’s happened before.” And I crouched there, squinching my eyes tight shut, holding my breath, my fingers digging into my palms, clutching the dress.
The appearance of the numinous is frightening and implicitly emasculating, forcing the narrator to fall back on his patriarchal tradition, however much he regrets it afterward. Or: it reduces him to infancy, to childhood without imagination, squatting in the dark and hoping for a mother-figure to return. As with the best sf stories, “Walking Aunt Daid” touches the mythic, and can be read many ways.
There’s another story, “Subcommittee,” that seems to fuse the sensibility of a 1950s woman with Henderson’s theme of the importance of children. In this story, aliens have appeared and attacked humanity; after a brutal war, the two sides are now trying to hammer out a peace treaty. Though apparently only the males are the actual diplomats, the aliens have brought their families to the negotiations, and so the humans have sent their whole families to the negotiations as well, although again it seems to be only men doing the actual talking. But the diplomacy’s not going well. The humans can’t figure out what the aliens want. The story’s told from the perspective of the wife of one of the chief human negotiators, Serena. Her son uncovers a way into the alien quarters, where he starts playing with an alien child. Serena finds out, and follows him, and she connects with an alien female, mother to mother, while the males are getting nowhere in their own discussions. Serena realises what the aliens have come for, and the story revolves around her decision: tell her husband and the other official negotiators, risking war, or conversely risk war by allowing the negotiations to fail?
The title’s amusing; the family is the subcommittee. Some of the smaller touches seem to bring out the implicit gender themes. The female alien has pink fur; Serena uses that fact, that colour, to prove her experience to the male negotiators, and indeed points to her slip — a specifically female garment — to illustrate to the aliens what she means by ‘pink.’ When asked how she came to realise what the aliens wanted, she says (accurately) that it’s because she took eggs to a picnic. And the way through into the alien sector is by squeezing through a hole under a wall, which reads as an image of birth; so one must become as a child to make true contact with the aliens. It feels like a very 1950s image of femininity and gender roles, but it seems to me effective given its presumptions.
The story ends cleverly, for example. It’s inconclusive in the broad sense of interstellar diplomacy; we don’t know if war comes again. But that emphasises that that’s not the point of the story. It’s about Serena, and what she chooses to do; and how her child is able to bond with an alien child through universal childhood play, and then how she as a mother is therefore able to bond with an alien mother. There are certainly societal attitudes toward gender here very specific to the 1950s (or early 60s). But I can see decent cases being made for a range of readings of how Henderson plays with those attitudes. Again: the stories can be taken in a number of ways. They repay close attention, and careful consideration.
Overall, The Anything Box is a rewarding book. The stories are strong, each with some point worth thinking about, and overall a stronger sense of character than one expects from sf of the era — particularly a more realistic sense of childhood. Henderson’s use of sf imagery to tell different kinds of stories, stories of teachers and mothers, is a kind of validation of the flexibility and range of that imagery: it shows how much can be done with it, and how much was being done. It’s work well worth remembering.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.