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.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, 16th Annual Collection

Time for another Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror book review. I’ve done one for 2004 and 2006, and today’s review will focus on the 16th annual 2002 book. I’m beginning to see a theme to these anthologies. The 2004 had lots of vulgarity and warped ickiness to it that truly turned me off, while the 2006 focused on lesser known authors (at least, to me at the time–now that I’ve done a lot of reading, names like Elizabeth Hand and Nisi Shawl are quite familiar to me now). I like this idea of vaguely themed anthologies. It gives the appearance that the stories have connections to each other, even the ones that don’t.

The 2002 book has a distinct British feel to it. Many stories had British themes, British settings, British writers–including writers who spent at least six months in Britain before coming to the States. However, the story that stood out most to me is not British. It’s very American…if you can call time travel and palindromes American…

Lull by Kelly Link is the first story in the anthology, and it threw me for a loop. A time loop, if you will. I’m hard pressed to describe it because there isn’t a linear storyline. Well, there is, but it isn’t really told in a linear fashion. It starts off with a group of guys playing poker in someone’s basement while listening to a cassette tape of songs playing backwards and forwards set on an endless loop. They’re telling stories to each other about a house, then they call up a phone sex line, except the woman at the end tells stories, and she tells a story…

…about a cheerleader who lives in a world where time flows backwards. She gets locked in the closet with the Devil, and she winds up telling a story about…

…a guy named Ed (who is one of the poker players), whose wife Susan is creating green copies of herself from different times and creates her own green Susan beer…

Okay. I’m going to stop because just writing this out is so freaking weird and bizarre that you have to think, what the hell kind of story is that?! But let me tell you something: Link makes it work. Yes, it’s bizarre. Yes, it’s weird. But it’s also the most incredible piece of writing I’ve ever seen. She intertwine the stories so that they flow back and forth, much like the tape that plays forwards and backwards. And in the meantime she interweaves themes of death and life and storytelling so as not to be forgotten. And the whole world where time flows backwards thing–it’s wonderful and tragic, because in such a world there is no surprises. Everyone knows what will happen already; or rather, they know what has already happened, so they just live the events that lead up to it and…

Pure brilliance. I can’t get it out of my head. I even wrote an email to Link asking her how she did it. Haven’t heard anything back yet, but it’s okay. A story such as this needs, no, begs to be studied, so I’ll probably do that.

Now that I finished gushing over Lull, here are some other stories in the anthology that stood out to me (I’m skipping poetry because I did that in the previous post).

Details by China Mieville: an interesting spin on the phrase “The devil’s in the details…”

The Assistant to Dr. Jacob by Eric Schaller: A man learns that his gentle memories of a Doctor and his greenhouse are not what they seem.

The Pagodas of Cibourne by M. Shayne Bell: Sick kid gets healed by living broken bits of pottery. It’s actually more touching than it sounds.

Stitch by Terry Dowling: Evil lurks behind a cross-stitched nursery rhyme. Nice use of dread.

Porno in August by Carlton Mellick III: The only other surreal story in here that was just weird, but also in a strange way made me think of the emptiness of the porn industry–literally. Bunch of actors get dropped in the middle of the ocean to shoot a film. They eat jellyfish. Sharks eat them. Weirdness ensues.

Mermaid Song by Peter Dickinson: A very touching fable about a young girl who learns about mermaids.

The Green Man by Christopher Fowler: Freaky story about a couple who goes to oversee a retreat hotel in a jungle inhabited by possessive monkeys. And we all know how that turns out.

Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea: Guy runs around painting obscure messages on people. Humorous and poignant.

Thailand by Haruki Murakami: This is another story I want to study. In some ways, I’m struggling how this got included in the anthology, because on the surface of the story, there’s no apparent threads of fantasy. In fact, remove the faint hint of magic realism at the end of the story, and it would still remain as a quiet literary story of a woman who goes to Thailand to relax and swim, and her knowledgeable chauffeur/guide. But there is something about this story that really struck me; perhaps the quiet manner it is told–the woman goes to Thailand, swims at a pool by herself, talks to the chauffeur, and then flies home after several days. There’s no action other than mostly introspective, but it makes for a very beautiful story.

The Rose in Twelve Petals by Theodora Goss: Wonderful retelling of Sleeping Beauty in twelve separate parts.

Road Trip by Kathe Koja: story told in 2nd person about a guy deep in grief over the death of his daughter.

The Least Trumps by Elizabeth Hand: Tattooist finds a couple of tarot cards that hold dreams-come-true.

Actually, there were so many more stories in this one that I really liked a lot. If I find this in a used bookstore, I would probably buy it. This ranks 4-1/2 Susan beers out of 5. And watch that first sip–it’s quite a doozy.