Book Review: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

I am growing to become a huge fan of Kelly Link. When I first read her story “Lull” in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #16, it prompted me to send her an email, begging her how exactly she came up with her weird, surrealistic ideas to have a palindromic story that consisted of a poker game, a cheerleader playing spin the bottle with the Devil in a backwards-time world, and a man who lived with different clones of his wife.

Link never responded. Which is a good thing, I guess. I imagine if she had responded, it probably would’ve been something along the lines of: “I prick my finger at two in the morning, squeeze red droplets into a glass of sand, then go down to Menards where I dance in the parking lot, vocalizing whale songs until the ideas come to me and I write them down on a flat sheet of styrofoam with a toothbrush made out of ferret fur.”

Actually, it’s probably as as mundane as: “Well, I read a lot and I write a lot.” But where’s the fun in that?

Link’s website is a fascinating smorgasbord of all she’s involved with: Small Beer Press, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. But best of all, all three of her short story collections can be found there for free under the Creative Commons license. At the time I went there, only “Stranger Things Happen” were available, but now I see that all three collections: Magic for Beginnings (which includes the awesome Lull story) and Pretty Monsters are also available.

“Stranger Things Happen” is a good introduction to Link’s style, starting with “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” a story about a man who wakes up alone in the afterlife disguised as a hotel, writing letters to a wife whose name he cant recall. Link’s use of language is poetic and serene, with just enough surrealness thrown in to make things interesting.

Most of the stories in the book have a dash of fairy tale. “Travels With the Snow Queen” retells Hans Christian Andersen’s story from a world-weary, love point of view. “Shoe and Marriage” starts off with the Prince of the Cinderella story still looking for a lost mate. The Girl Detective stalks the 12 Dancing Princesses to find where they go at night (an existential Asian club, it appears).

But there are original stories too. Strange, surreal, and dreamlike. “Survival’s Ball, or, the Donner Party” mingles a toothache with a strange love affair that ends at a questionable party. “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” has a young man dealing with his girlfriend and her odd parents. “Flying Lessons” has a girl falling in love with a demigod. And “Louise’s Ghost” tells the story of two women named Louise who are best friends…I think…

Sometimes, Link’s stories tend to switch plots in the middle. What starts off as one story ends in another. “Shoe and Marriage” was like that, the Cinderella story suddenly turning into a a couple watching a bizarre pageant show on TV.  There are also some stories that get downright confusing. Louise Ghost”, never gives the last name of the two Louises, so it’s hard to differentiate who’s who. Oddly enough, it is my favorite story in the book.

And there are stories which are poignant. In “Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water”, the narrator, a woman dealing with unrequited love and lived in her father’s garage, resonated with me. Or maybe it was her feeling that she was competing with a bunch of blonds for the guy she loved. Or maybe it was that all the blonds look like Sandy Duncan and smelled like Lemon Fresh Joy. Probably the least surreal of the whole bunch is “The Vanishing Act”, (not that there isn’t surrealness there), the story of a girl and her cousin who comes to stay with her temporarily, and “The Specialist’s Hat”, the story of two twin girls who live with their absent-minded father in a strange house.

This isn’t a book I suggest reading beginning to end in one sitting. Reading it in bits and pieces works wonderfully though, and I can’t wait to dive into her other two books. This ranks Four Louises out of five.  One of them is in love with the cellist. You just have to read carefully to figure out which one.

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