I can safely say that I’ve never met a Kelly Link story that I didn’t like, and, after re-reading her alchemical debut collection “Stranger Things Happen”, I’m just about ready to tell you why. First, a little recap…“Stranger Things…” burst onto the shorter fiction scene in 2001, published by Small Beer Press (who also put out my favourite ‘zine – “Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet” – and which Link co-founded). It was immediately seized upon by some big names, both in-genre and out of it. Andrew O’Hehir of The New York Times Book Review wrote that: “She embraces fantasy in its fullest sense and in doing so transcends all considerations of genre”, and Neil Gaiman called her “the best short story writer currently out there…” Ellen Datlow, John Clute and Sean Stewart all added their own respected voices in praise.
And what you get for your $16 (£8) is this: not only an enigmatic splash of cover-art reminiscent (for me at least) of Scooby-Do cartoons (!) but also 11 pieces of delicious and wickedly subterranean short fiction. These stories are, by turns, funny and dark, horrifying and charming…and, more often than not, all of the above together. They come in the guise of the contemporary Gothic – not urban or weird or New as such – but packed with the unforeseen and unexpected of everyday. They play on our modern fears…the horrors of the modern environment, of contemporary Western culture.
“Ruthless” is a good word for Link’s authorial approach – in many of her stories she represents the family, the domestic environment, love, sex and the parental bond with a glassy, sardonic grin. She re-brands the happy family, distorting, revealing and galvinising the buried truths of our modern, often pre-packaged lives.
For example, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, which opens the collection is, in many ways, a muted, but haunting taste of what is to come. It is the story of a mind in posthumous disintegration, of a dead man striving to write “home” to his wife (whose name he can no longer remember) from the deserted beach and hotel where he finds himself stranded. As the world fractures around him, a dozen signs revealing the insecurities of his living years, he is increasingly troubled by silent, spectrous “Loolies”. The “Loolies” were, for me, the most daunting of all Link’s creations. They were reminiscent of an abused, voyeuristic image of our televisual times: the bloated and bald child, pumped with chemo and pale with leukaemia seen on a whole glut of reality TV hospital shows. Thereby we are confronted with the ultimate taboo – the stigma of child death – within a psychological study of adult death. It was definitely enough to make me feel discomforted and emotionally tested (dare I say: excited?).
The pieces that follow range from the delicious horror of “The Specialist’s Hat” and the black magical realism of “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” to alternative fairy stories like my favourite “Travels with the Snow Queen”. I was particularly fascinated by the contemporary mythologizing of “Flying Lessons”, which transposed Gods into my very own habitat of St. Andrews in Scotland (a dazzling, disconcerting coincidence). Not to forget the humour is there too: blond aliens invade New York in “Most of My Friends are Two Thirds Water” and a girl detective takes a trip to the Underworld to solve a case involving tap-dancing bank-robbers in “The Girl Detective.”
Still, utterly compelling as her writing is, I find I have to ask myself: Is Link’s work really fantasy? Well, yes and no and yes. She identifies herself as a fantasist, and her stories plumb the depths of the possibilities of the genre. But, as is probably clear, she also dips her hand into horror and crime fiction, literary fiction and science fiction. Her storytelling crosses and re-crosses boundaries, making for an exhilarating kind of disorientation and creating the fertile liminality in which the best fantasists of recent years – Vandermeer, Mieville, Gaiman and Ford – are currently thriving. Link’s work won’t be to everyone’s taste: there are no “traditional” stories here, no classic high fantasy scenarios and escapist comfort is decidedly thin on the ground (let me be honest: some of this stuff is just downright creepy). You’ll have to willing to take a series of very odd outings.
But, if you’re willing to take the plunge with it, Link’s work promises to eat at you indefinitely (and this is what marks it as outstanding rather than just momentarily compelling). You’ll finish one story only to find that you’re not ready to move onto the next; that last one just won’t let your mind rest. Like all the best shorter fiction writers Link opens doors in our psyches, but steps back quietly as you go through them. She allows *you* the fullest rein, the greatest creative potential, in her skewed worlds. I think it is here, more than anywhere in contemporary fantasy, that we become co-creators, co-authors.
So…read the stories, but read them slow…give yourself time to chew on them …deliberate…let them become their own strange things, happening.
-originally published 9/4/2005