Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link
Small Beer Press
“Think of the underworld as the back of your closet, behind all those racks of clothes that you don’t wear anymore. Things are always getting pushed back there and forgotten about. The underworld is full of things you’ve forgotten about. Some of them, if only you could remember, you might want to take them back. (241).
This quote, from the opening paragraph of, “The Girl Detective,” is a good characterization of the world that Kelly Link reveals in her short stories. For just as the underworld is never entirely absent, it remains the abode of horrors and frightening beasts, such as ghosts with erections and black dogs that nip at one’s hands, it remains forever ready to burst out through the façade of normalcy. Like the closets in old sitcoms, being milked for a gag as an innocent cast member opens it only to be pummeled senseless by a dizzying array of old sports equipment, clothes no longer worn, and miscellaneous bric-a-brac piled to the ceiling that come crashing down, so too is the world of Kelly Link one that is shot through with stratifications of myth, the supernatural and even the paranormal.
In each of these stories, the characters find themselves in a situation where the logic of everyday life no longer holds true. The world of myth, the repressed logic of the fairy tale and the dark truths of the ghost story all hold sway over these characters lives. Yet no matter how dark the stories may become, Link always retains a deft touch that provides enough comic edge to offset the ominous tones. In truth, these stories are hilarious. They are funny, witty, erudite, and incredibly strange. The narratives provide an unsettling (but quite humorous) juxtaposition of the mundane and ordinary with the fantastic.
The second story, “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back,” is telling example of Ms. Link’s skill. A librarian falls in love with a girl whose father collects artificial noses and whose mother has a wooden leg. The father, who lost part of nose as a child, maintains an exotic collection of prosthetic noses that has created from a wise assortment of materials. Paper mache, wood, and even tin, all elaborately decorated. The mother, who lost part of her leg to an infection, has a leg carved by her husband with her name in it. The mother, however, wants her daughter to have very little to do with the librarian and warns both of them of the ill-fitting match that they make. Ultimately, her warning and admonitions take force when the librarian is attacked by one of the black dogs, forever seen slinking around his lover’s house.
At her best, Link has an eye for detail virtually unmatched by her peers. The tales she weaves combine a unique flair for characterization and atmosphere that is capable of moving from insightful psychological probing in one story (“Vanishing Act”) to full tilt surrealism in another (“Shoe And Marriage”) to a witty, modern updating of the standard ghost story in yet another (“Louise’s Ghost”). Consider this passage from the aforementioned “Shoe And Marriage,” itself comprised of three distinct pieces that somehow turn on the relationship between foot apparel and love. This excerpt, drawn from the second passage, “Miss Kansas on Judgement Day,” veers back and forth, between a couple on a honeymoon and their viewing of a Miss America pageant, televised from the lower bowels of hell.
“Miss New Jersey’s complexion is greenish. She has small pointy breasts and a big ass and she twitches if from side to side. She has a tail. She twitches her ass, she lashes her tail; we both gasp. Her tail is prehensile. She scratches her big ass with it. It is indecent and we are simultaneously dismayed and aroused. The whole audience is aghast. One judge faints and one of the other judges douses him with a pitcher of ice water. Miss New Jersey purses her lips, blows a raspberry right at the television screen, and exits stage left (176).”
In a lesser author’s hands, such a recipe would surely invite disaster, but throughout, Kelly Link manages an awe-inspiring balance. Her gift is a rare gift and as this collection demonstrates, she certainly must be one of the finest authors writing today.
At only eleven stories, this collection certainly leaves readers wanting more. A rare and unique vision, one can only hope there will be much more to hear from Kelly Link in the future. Her gift for unsettling fiction is only exceeded by her gift of a comic’s eye, a poet’s understanding of language, and the ability to creatively meld these disparate strands into a unified whole.
Kelly Link: http://www.lcrw.net/kellylink/