It is now fifteen years since Kelly Link's first collection, Stranger Things Happen, irrupted into the continuum of fantastic literature, and fully a decade since the collection—Magic for Beginners—that established Link's international reputation. A third collection, Pretty Monsters, published in 2008 on the back of a Hugo/Nebula double whammy, brought together stories from both of her previous collections and saw Link's work available for the first time in a mainstream imprint.
The landscape of speculative fiction has altered considerably in the years since Link's debut, an alteration that has been brought about at least partly by Link herself. Take a look inside the inside flap of her collections and you'll notice that Link is lauded not only by genre stalwarts such as Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman, but also by high-profile writers of the literary mainstream such as Sarah Waters, Jonathan Lethem, and Yiyun Li.
But with any rise in popularity—especially such a meteoric one as Link's—comes the concurrent risk of stagnation. Approaches and sets of imagery that once seemed strikingly original can come to seem, in their turn, like the status quo, the kindling for an antithetical revolution. Reading Kelly Link's newest collection, Get in Trouble, I frequently had the sense that this book is perhaps a little less exuberant, a little more distracted than we are currently programmed to expect from Kelly Link. If the stories assembled here form a coherent statement—which they do—then it is one of restlessness, the state of being unsettled, and not always in a good way. I frequently found myself wondering if what Get in Trouble showcases, most of all, is frustration with the precarious balance of its own existence.
The first story in the collection, "The Summer People" (2011), is not the earliest, yet in its closeness to what we think of as ur-Link, it feels as if it should be. Fran's father is a caretaker of country homes for summer visitors. When he announces that he's off to Miami to "get right with God," he leaves Fran alone with strict instructions to take care of the summer people. Ophelia Merck used to be a summer person but her family now live in the area all the year round. Ophelia has a car of her own and thinks she's living in paradise. The girls used to play together as children but the social divide between them has meant they've drifted apart. With her father gone AWOL, Fran decides it's time to rekindle the friendship. She has terrible flu, she has no transport, and she's kind of lonely. Ophelia's kindness and eagerness to help—with her mother AWOL also, Fran is used to neither—comes as an unexpected surprise. Also, there are the summer people. While Ophelia rejoices in the enchantments that lie in store for her behind the door of their house, Fran—like the fairy godmother in any traditional folktale—warns her she should not let the miracles she encounters cause her to drop her guard:
She said, "Did you mean it when you said you wanted to help?"
"Look after the house?" Ophelia said. "Yeah, absolutely. You really ought to go out to San Francisco someday. You shouldn't have to stay here your whole life without ever having a vacation or anything. I mean, you're not a slave, right?"
"I don't know what I am," Fran said. "I guess one day I'll have to figure that out." (p. 35)
Whether Fran is in fact free to leave—and what she must do to make herself free—are the questions that lie at the heart of this story, which is on the one hand a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel, a fairy tale about a magic house in the heart of the woods which may be easier to enter than it is to escape from. It is also a story about class divisions. As a middle class incomer, Ophelia sees only the picturesque aspects of the landscape she inhabits. For Fran and her family the place has only ever meant one thing: work, and the seeming impossibility of that ever changing. They're "not the sort of people who go to college," Fran remarks to Ophelia, whose blindness to the demands of servitude—whatever blandishments such servitude might seem to offer—may yet be her undoing.
Whichever way you choose to read it, "The Summer People" is a story about power: who has it, who takes it, who abuses it. It is a theme that persists, stubbornly and bindingly, throughout the collection, though it does not always deliver the outcomes we first imagine. In "Secret Identity" (2009), fifteen-year-old Billie Faggart undertakes a clandestine journey to New York to meet with the significantly older Paul Zell, who has befriended her online. To be fair to Zell, he doesn't realise that Billie is fifteen, or even that her name is Billie—he believes he's been messaging with Billie's older and more glamorous sister, Melinda Bowles.
It is in the midst of such subterfuges that Billie checks into Paul Zell's hotel, which is currently hosting unconnected but inevitably intermingling conferences of dentists and superheroes. That these superheroes are actual superheroes, not cosplayers, hardly comes as a surprise in a Link story, and perhaps that is the problem. This is a long story—at fifty pages it is the longest in the volume—and yet it does not seem to add up to anything beyond a series of faintly amusing encounters: with an off-duty superhero who's keen to engage Billie as her sidekick, with a rich kid who has the run of the hotel and is keen to let everyone know it, with a chef who is a virtuoso in the art of butter carving. Although Billie's illicit weekend in New York offers plenty of opportunity for her to land in all sorts of trouble, she never really does. Paul Zell does not materialise, she never even gets caught for the butter damage fiasco. In the end she climbs back on the bus and heads home. The story is certainly engaging enough on a page-by-page basis—Billie is a lovely character and Link spares no effort in bringing her sardonically to life. As a whole, though, it felt unmoored from its own themes, lacking the emotional punch of earlier stories such as "Magic for Beginners," and I kept wondering if Link ever had a firm idea of where she was going with it.
Superheroes fly in again for "Origin Story" (2006). Ostensibly set in a life-size Land of Oz theme park which is slowly decaying, this story introduces us to Bunnatine, a waitress with a young daughter and an absent alien father. Her best friend Biscuit is a superhero. Bunnatine wishes her talent for flying were more developed. Biscuit is keen to get back with Bunnatine, who was his girlfriend in high school, but still finds plenty of time to pick an argument with her over the practicalities or otherwise of his superhero costume:
She said, "Okay. So I've been wondering about this whole costume thing. Your new outfit. I wasn't going to say anything, but it's driving me nuts. What's with all these crazy stripes and the embroidery?"
"You don't like it?"
"I like the lightning bolt. And the tower. And the frogs. It's psychedelic, Biscuit. Can you please explain why y'all wear such stupid outfits? Promise I won't tell anyone."
"They aren't stupid."
"Yes they are. Tights are stupid. It's like you're showing off. Look how big my dick is."
"Tights are comfortable. They allow freedom of movement. They're machine washable." He began to say something else, then stopped. Grinned. Said, almost reluctantly, "Sometimes you hear stories about some asshole stuffing his tights." (p. 169)
Is it the fault of TV franchises such as Supernatural and the Marvel films, saturating the media hinterland with these kinds of über-knowing riffs on what passes for nerd culture, that leaves me finding this kind of banter cute and inconsequential rather than funny, or am I just old and jaded? The story is deftly amusing but its substance is thin. Its one moment of true emotional resonance has nothing to do with the trappings of superheroism but comes securely rooted in the everyday, right at the end, when an exhausted Bunnatine comforts her daughter, who has just had a nightmare:
Bunnatine picks her up. Such a heavy little kid. Her nose is running and she still smells like fudge. No wonder she had a bad dream. Bunnatine says, "Shhh. It's okay, baby. It was just a bad dream. Just a dream. Tell me about the dream." (p. 185)
A movie idol—an alternative stripe of superhero—is the protagonist of "I Can See Right Through You" (2014). The demon lover, as he is known throughout, was once famous as a movie vampire. His on-screen love interest, Meggie, now hosts a popular reality TV series which investigates paranormal events. When the demon lover turns up at Meggie's current shoot—a haunted nudist colony—he is forced to confront memories of the events that finally drove him and Meggie apart during their glory days. He also discovers that ghosts are not always so easily dismissible as he likes to believe.
As a ghost story, "I Can See Right Through You" delivers a satisfying sting in the tail that forces you to see the narrative very differently in retrospect. As an examination of human relationships and of the many forms love takes, this is a quietly effective piece, with the quotidian ordinariness of its background setting working strongly in its favour. By contrast the space mission that forms the background to "Two Houses" (2012), detracts from potentially the most interesting story in the collection by seeming contrived in a way that stands directly at odds with the eerie and genuinely intriguing premise at its heart. A rich English family commission an American conceptual artist to create an installation on their estate. The artist organises the purchase of a seemingly ordinary suburban ranch house, which he then has dismantled and shipped to England, where it is recreated in perfect detail and provided with an identical twin. Years later, a young man who is forced to live in one of the houses discovers the sinister truth behind the project:
He knows the name of the artist who designed the installation, so that's enough to go online and find out what's going on, which is that, sure enough, the original house, the one the artist bought and brought over, is a murder house. Some high-school kid got up in the middle of the night and killed his whole family with a hammer. And this artist, his idea was based on something the robber barons did at the turn of the previous century, which was buy up castles abroad and have them brought over stone by stone to be rebuilt in Texas, or upstate Pennsylvania, or wherever. A lot of those castles were supposed to be haunted. Buying a castle with a ghost in it and moving it across the ocean? Why not? So that was idea number one, to flip that. But then he had idea number two, which was, what makes a haunted house? If you take it to pieces and transport it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, does the ghost come with it if you put it back together exactly the way it was? (p. 281)
I liked this aspect of the story a lot. The problem with the spaceship story that frames it, and which eventually provides a horrifying echo of similar events, is that it feels poorly imagined and therefore distracting. As science fiction it is singularly unconvincing and more than a little ridiculous, an effect which may well be a deliberate choice on the part of the author but which I felt backfired, especially when compared with other recent "haunted spaceship" novellas—Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Dry Salvages (2004) and Genevieve Valentine's similarly entitled Dream Houses (2014) spring immediately to mind—which take their science fiction seriously. The relationships between Link's cake-eating astronauts with their "experimental chickens," and ship's computer named Maureen, feel underdeveloped, fluffy stage dressing only, and sadly out of kilter with the moment of shocking resolution at the story's climax.
The science fiction that drives "Valley of the Girls" (2011) is more convincing and thus more interesting. We find ourselves in a futuristic society in which the very rich employ surrogates—known as Faces—to temp for them in society. While the privileged lead lives of gated seclusion, their Faces fulfil public appearances, conduct business deals and even personal indiscretions on their behalf. Their children have become obsessed with the Ancient Egyptian cult of the afterlife, up to and including the construction of replica pyramids in which to secure their worldly wealth. Of course there is weirdness and intrigue and sometimes murder. The attractiveness of this story lies mainly in its intricate, non-linear structure, which hides the truth of what is going on for a good part of the narrative.
The young people in "Valley of the Girls" are the victims of jealousy and overindulgence. The same could be said of the teenage protagonists of "The New Boyfriend" (2014). Immy loves Ainslie but sometimes hates her too. Ainslie gets everything she wants, including the supposedly unobtainable Ghost Boyfriend, the latest in a line of "living dolls," now subject to a factory recall due to operational anomalies. "The New Boyfriend" is well observed, sharply accurate in its depiction of the tensions and rivalries between teenagers, and spoiled only by the deliberately arch, exaggeratedly fey language of its telling, which contrives to make the protagonists sound much younger than they are obviously meant to be:
Immy is in love. Immy has a secret. Ghosts exist and the world is magic and there is an unreal boy whose real name she doesn't even know with a ring made of hair in his mouth, and he loves Immy because she put it there. He loves Immy even though Ainslie is the one he's supposed to love. Guess what? Immy finally has a Boyfriend. And guess what? It's exactly as awesome and wonderful and amazing and scary as she always thought it would be, except it turns out to be something else, too. It's real. (p. 242)
More intimate even than friendship, it is the relationship between a brother and a sister that forms the defining axis of the final story in the collection, "Light" (2007). Lindsey and Alan live in Florida, but it's not our Florida. It's a Florida of pocket universes and people with two shadows and shadows that grow into a person's actual twin, mysterious sleepers and plagues of iguanas and freshwater mermaids. Lindsey is recovering from the breakdown of her marriage by self-medicating with alcohol. Her shadow-grown gay twin brother Alan turns up and causes more chaos. Meanwhile, a hurricane is brewing and the sleeper warehouse Lindsey is in charge of is over its quota.
I enjoyed the characters in this story. I even enjoyed the warehouse full of sleepers, and as a metaphor for societal disjuncture this could have worked rather well. If it had been used on its own, that is. As things stand, "Light" feels overburdened with random weirdness. Stuff happens because it happens—a facet of much weird fiction that I usually appreciate. Here, as with the spaceship frame story in "Two Houses," it feels gratuitous:
The sky was swollen and low. Lindsey loved this, the sudden green afternoon darkness as rain came down in heavy drumming torrents so loud she could hardly hear the radio station in her car, the calm, jokey pronouncements of the weather witch. The vice-president was under investigation; evidence suggested a series of secret dealings with malign spirits. A woman had given birth to half a dozen rabbits. A local gas station had been robbed by invisible men. Some cult had thrown all the infidels out of a popular pocket universe. Nothing new, in other words. (p. 299)
This passage might almost be a practical demonstration of the accusation often levelled at fantasy: anything can happen, so nothing matters. The over-effusive worldbuilding in "Light" felt so deliberately quirky as to become irritating.
With this in mind, it's worth noting that the story from Get in Trouble that made by far the strongest impression on me contained almost no fantastical elements whatsoever. "The Lesson" is the only piece original to this collection, and tells the story of a gay couple, Thanh and Harper, who are having a child with the help of a surrogate, Naomi. Naomi is six months pregnant but there have been complications and she has been confined to hospital for the duration. As the story opens, Thanh and Harper are travelling to the wedding of a college friend, Fleur, which is being held on an island owned by the father of her rich fiancé. The manner in which Link meshes Thanh and Harper's private crisis with the necessity they feel, to have a good time in public for the sake of their friend, is masterfully done, and painfully resonant:
Before you are allowed to enter the NICU you must wash your hands and forearms up to the elbows for no less than two minutes each time. There is a clock and you watch the minute hand. This is to keep the babies safe from infection. Fleur suggests various games. Frisbee, Capture the Flag, Marco Polo in the water. The caterers play all of these games as if they are not playing games at all. Your wedding ring will fit around the wrist of a twenty-four-week-old baby. All of the wedding dresses have been bundled up in a pile on the beach with some driftwood. There will be a bonfire tonight. (p. 206)
The one speculative element—a stuffed imaginary creature called a Bad Claw—exists as an unobtrusive background detail that is later brought briefly forward as a powerful metaphor for what is going on in the hospital over on the mainland. This story is affecting because it is about something that matters, and Link's determination to show us that it matters is clearly evident in the directness of her writing. In stories such as "The New Boyfriend" and "Secret Identity," potentially important themes are compromised by the wilful coyness of their language. By contrast "The Lesson," which preferences ingenious and original imagery over cute fantasy trappings, feels defiantly stark and resolutely adult as a result.
It is almost impossible not to admire this collection—Link's superlative credentials as a storyteller, combined with the imaginative gift that has worked as a game-changer for contemporary fantasy, are hard to resist. I could not help asking myself, though, if sometimes in these stories the elements we have come to expect from Link's fiction—the real superheroes, the pocket universes, the pleasing lollipop colours that fool you with their concealed astringencies—had been placed there precisely because we have come to expect them. There is a danger in this, a fine line to be drawn between the wonder of "what if there were superheroes??" and the shrugged shoulders of "so what if there were superheroes?" If Get in Trouble does stray too far in the latter direction on occasion, there is plenty here to show us that Link is still capable of genuine surprises. I expect we'll be seeing plenty more of them in future.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #6, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a science fictional re-imagining of the Arachne myth, won the BSFA Award in 2014, and her story-cycle The Silver Wind was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Nina lives and works in North Devon. Find her blog, The Spider’s House, at www.ninaallan.co.uk.
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