Kelly Link is one of the speculative fiction field's brightest new stars, and yet so often when I ask people if they've read her stories, they shake their heads and ask what she's written. This is a reaction I'd easily understand if, say, Link had published one or two stories that had disappeared without making so much as a ripple in the pond of speculative fiction. But in the few years that have passed since she began to publish, she has won the World Fantasy Award for her short story "The Specialist's Hat" and the James Tiptree Jr. Award for "Travels With the Snow Queen," and her story "The Girl Detective" was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror in 1999. Small Beer Press recently published her first book, Stranger Things Happen, which collects eleven of Link's stories, including the two award winners already mentioned.
It's difficult to classify Kelly Link's stories. If I were to attempt to do so, I'd have to classify each story on its own terms. In this collection you'll find a science fiction story, "Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water," in which blond aliens who look like Sandy Duncan invade New York City. There are also ghost stories: "Louise's Ghost," "The Specialist's Hat," and "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose." "Travels With the Snow Queen" is a retold fairy tale that would make even the queen of rewritten fairy tales, Angela Carter, giddy with laughter and pleasure. "Flying Lessons" is a contemporary fantasy, set in Scotland, where the old Greek gods and goddesses have taken refuge. And "Vanishing Act" is a tale of magical realism in which a young girl learns how to make herself disappear.
The stories range, then, in genre and tone and theme, but if one thing remains constant throughout, it is Link's poetic command of language and structure, her precise perceptions of characters and their situations. Take "Water Off a Black Dog's Back," a story in which a young man falls in love with a girl whose family is afflicted with loss in the same way that some people are afflicted with illness. Here Link demonstrates, like no other writer, a willingness to allow her characters to say the most intimate things right in front of us:
Carroll was constantly amazed at the things he told Rachel, as if love was some sort of hook she used to drag secrets out of him, things he had forgotten until she asked for them. "Your turn," he said.
Rachel curled herself against him. "Well, when I was little, and I did something bad, my mother used to take off her wooden leg and spank me with it. When I got older, and started being asked out on dates, she would forbid me. She actually said I forbid you to go, just like a Victorian novel. I would wait until after she took a bath after dinner, and steal her leg and hide it. And I would stay out as late as I wanted.
When I got home, she was always sitting at the kitchen table, with the leg strapped back on. She always found it before I got home, but I always stayed away as long as I could. I never came home before I had to."
Along with Link's ability to make characters whom we recognize immediately, her stories are filled with verbal fireworks. In "Travels with the Snow Queen," the heroine of the story carries with her a list of things she wants to tell her lover, who has left her for the Snow Queen. The list is comprised of statements like, "I never really liked your friends all that much," and, "Was I good in bed, or just average?" and "After you left, I didn't water your plants on purpose. They're all dead." Link's brand of humor not only serves to make us laugh, it also functions to make us recognize ourselves and our contemporary culture in stories that take place in fairy tale countries and purgatory-like landscapes. The more stories you read, the more our mundane world and Link's magical world begin to blend together.
The collection also includes several experimental stories, all of which include some element of the fantastic. "The Girl Detective" is a story that fractures our narrative perceptions as a very Nancy Drew-like character attempts to find out where the twelve dancing princesses (and an awful lot of mothers) disappear to every night. "Shoe and Marriage" is another of these more experimental pieces. It functions as a sort of triptych, weaving three separate narratives together through the motif of shoes. One of these pieces is "The Glass Slipper," a meditation on the Prince's shoe fetish after Cinderella leaves him high and dry at midnight, with only the glass slipper as a reminder. "Miss Kansas on Judgment Day" is an apocalyptic beauty pageant in which elements of The Wizard of Oz meld with Lovecraftian strangeness. "The Dictator's Wife," in which the wife of a dictator collects the shoes of her husband's murder victims, finishes this series of snapshots that provide us with an unusual take on the married life, and also on the life of shoes.
Like the motif of shoes in "Shoe and Marriage," this collection shares a loose but common subject (or subtext) of its own. Throughout the stories, characters who inhabit an easily recognizable, ordinary existence witness magical events as phenomena that are separate from them, but ultimately serve as catalysts for change or revelation. In "Miss Kansas on Judgment Day," a couple watches the strange Oz-like beauty pageant on their television in a hotel room. In "Vanishing Act," Hildy, the point of view character, is the only person to witness her cousin's disappearance (and, in fact, has been spying on her through binoculars throughout the entire story). In "The Girl Detective," the girl detective spends much of her time sitting in trees and on top of automatic hand dryers, waiting to see where people will disappear to next. Through this act of witnessing, Link's characters allow us to share in a very special, very magical reality that, in turn, allows us to see our own world with new eyes.
Besides the great fiction, the book is graced with beautiful cover art done by Shelley Jackson, a portrait of the Nancy Drew-like character in "The Girl Detective," complete with an albino alligator lurking on the back cover.
Though Kelly Link's stories are often filled with some of the strangest things that have ever happened in fiction, it's even more strange when I meet those readers who still have yet to discover her. If you crave other worlds, twists in reality, poetic language, ideas that will keep your mind alive and breathing, then buy Stranger Things Happen, available directly from the publisher, Small Beer Press, and also from your local bookshop. You'll fall in love with Kelly Link's stories and soon be as shocked as I am when you come across those who have never encountered her fiction.
Christopher Barzak attended Clarion in 1998. His fiction has appeared here at Strange Horizons, as well as in Nerve, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and other literary journals. He grew up in Ohio, but lives in Michigan, where he works in a library.
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