|Jul/Aug 2005 Book Reviews|
Stranger Things Happen.
Small Beer Press. 2001.
Initially I was attracted to Kelly Link's short story collection Stranger Things Happen by the final story, "The Girl Detective." It didn't hurt that the book's cover has a great retro design playing off all the old Nancy Drew illustrations (even down to the Mary Jane pumps and ever present flashlight). I am a big sci-fi and fantasy fan however and it was no stretch to sit down and read the whole book from cover to cover. What I found is what a lot of Link's fans have been saying since the book first came out, her stories go in places you never thought of, never imagined. Her talent is clear and obvious but her stories are often mysterious and even frightening. I never know where she is going to take me when I begin one of her stories; I only know it will be someplace new and most certainly a place that is all Kelly Link and like nothing else I have read.
By their very design short story collections invite the choosing of favorites, something I can't resist. I'm sure everybody has found something to love in Stranger Things Happen and maybe one or two stories that don't appeal as much as others. That's what I love about collections though; they're not like a novel where you are stuck from the very beginning with no hope of change. For example, in "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," the protagonist is dead and alone on an island struggling to remember the life he left behind. It is an exploration of memory I suppose, a consideration of what we take us and keep with us, as we leave one part of our lives for another. It struck me as I read about the narrator writing letters to a wife whose name he can not recall ("Dear Araminta? Kiki? Lolita? Still doesn't have the right ring to it, does it? Sukie? Ludmilla? Winifred?") that my friends and I are trying to remember the name of a former co-worker, a friend we worked with for a couple of years, a face in a picture on my best friend's book shelf. Was it Joe? John? Jeff? It was something like that, something familiar, something short.
What happens to those names?
But while I was wandering down memory lane the book's tone changed dramatically with the second story, "Water off a Black Dog's Back" This is your basic study of the future mother-in-law from hell and I knew something bad was going to happen to poor Carroll, no girl was worth the risk of that woman and her very scary dogs, but he just kept hanging in there, just kept showing up for dinner.
Something bad happens to Carroll, and that fact that it isn't as bad as I thought it would be somehow just made it that much scarier.
There are many mood shifts in Stranger Things Happen, atmospheric changes that swing from creepy to fun. "The Specialist's Hat" is that classic gothic tale that is designed to be told around a campfire and keep everyone up all night jumping at the hint of a noise while "Flying Lessons" is a fabulous contemporary take on ancient mythology and my personal favorite. It's funny and smart and has a certain amount of cheekiness to it that is often lacking in fairy tale literature. (It doesn't always have to be a serious exercise into academic analysis.) I mean, come on, how do you resist the actual Goddess of Love who now writes trashy romances and explains it away as "adapting"? No one else has ever taken this particular set of established characters in such a wild direction. The best part of "Flying Lessons" was that it was still true to the source, true to the Greek myths themselves. And it was funny as hell, which never hurts.
Where else does Kelly Link take her readers? There are journeys deep into fairy tale territory with first the Snow Queen's tormented pursuer and later Prince Charming who exercises his famous fetish for glass slippers in a most unusual way (I was not surprised by this one, I never trusted that guy.) There's the Donner Party in a story that reminded me of that macabre gathering in the ballroom of Stephen King's Overlook Hotel and a little girl who learns about the nature of disappearance and sends her cousin home by reminding her that she is missed. There is, basically, a collection that defies genre assignment and stereotyping, that insists instead that it simply be read and enjoyed.
Consider that again: read this book purely for enjoyment.
There will be no test at the end of Stranger Things Happen, no rush to change the world, change yourself, change your house or hair or spouse. Just read.
My God, can you imagine?
I'm still not sure how I feel about all of Kelly Link's stories, and I know that some of them appealed more to me than others. But I am certain that I have never read such a unique combination or original voice in writing. And I'm looking forward to her new story collection, Magic for Beginners coming out this month. I want to learn more about what Link has to say and besides, I'm looking for something good to read.