Some years ago, a couple of friends and Shelster and I decided to start a book group. One of the friends chose a novel called The Life of Edgar Sawtelle, a 500+-page retelling of Hamlte set in rural Wisconsin, with many roles (Ophelia, the Player King and Queen, etc.) played by dogs, told with a relentless humorlessness that would make Jane Smiley jealous. Shelster thought it would have been an OK book if the editor had trimmed about 200 pages; I was less enthusiastic, though I tried to tone down my response when I saw that our friends had liked it.
It was my turn next, and I chose Magic for Beginners, a story collection by Kelly Link. Our friend C said she got through two stories and wanted to throw the book into the fire, while P said it wasn’t realistic enough for her (surprisingly, since P is a specialist in medieval literature, a field where realist fiction is pretty thin on the ground). RIP book group.
Certainly Link’s stories are not very comfy, but I was a bit surprised to see her “Louise’s Ghost” in an anthology of “The New Horror.” The usual thing with horror is that normal life is disrupted in one specific way; if you can figure out the rules for how to deal with the vampire or the evil ghost or whatever, you might be able to get the world back to normal, and that will be a happy ending. Link’s worlds have taken so many left turns that the idea of normality comes to seem completely unrealistic. In one story, we are alarmed to find that the workers in a convenience store seem to sleep in the back room. That kinda explains why the manager is wearing pajamas,, but not why the designs on his pajamas are so disturbing (I recall the pattern of tiny Hindenburgs with special fondness). Also, many of customers are zombies up from the Ausible Chasm. They’re not really a problem, they don’t steal anything (they do sometimes leave bits of detritus from the Chasm), but they also don’t buy anything, and it gradually becomes clear that the manager is being pressured from above to find out what the zombies might want to buy. And so on.
To get back to “Louise’s Ghost,” the ghost isn’t even scary, he’s a harmless naked guy who slithers around on the floor if she plays Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline. What is scary is the vapidity and loneliness of the characters—Louise hopes that her habit of affairs with married men is a charming quirk, like sleeping with cellists (as her friend Louise does) and not a character flaw like being tone-deaf or eating only green food. When she finally gets rid of the ghost (it leaves in the instrument of one of Louise’s cellists), she realizes too late that she will miss it/him (“Go ahead and comb your hair,” she says).
Some of Link’s best stories are so weird that they seem more like poems, whose power is based on image and pattern, tone and linguistic surprise as much as attachment to characters. This is how I remember “Stone Animals,” a nightmare fugue in the costume of some dreary realist story about unhappy suburbanites. Henry’s soul-destroying job in the city enables him to buy a dream house in Connecticut (or equivalent), but there are issues with rabbits on the lawn, plus some rooms become haunted and have to be repainted in increasingly strange colors, and…
Here is the final paragraph of “Stone Animals,” which I don’t think will ruin the story for anyone. If this kind of writing makes you want to throw things in the fire, then you probably shouldn’t read anything that I recommend:
So Henry goes home, he has to go home, but of course he’s late, it’s too late. The train is haunted. The closer they get to his station, the more haunted the train gets. None of the other passengers seem to notice. And of course, his bike turns out to be haunted, too. He leaves it at the station and he walks home in the dark, down the bike path. Something follows him home. Maybe it’s King Spanky.
Here’s the yard, and here’s his house. He loves his house, how it’s all lit up. You can see right through the windows, you can see the living room, which Catherine has painted Ghost Crab. The trim is Rat Fink. Catherine has worked so hard. The driveway is full of cars, and inside, people are eating dinner. They’re admiring Catherine’s trees. They haven’t waited for him, and that’s fine. His neighbors: he loves his neighbors. He’s going to love them as soon as he meets them. His wife is going to have a baby any day now. His daughter will stop walking in her sleep. His son isn’t haunted. The moon shines down and paints the world a color he’s never seen before. Oh, Catherine, wait till you see this. Shining lawn, shining rabbits, shining world. The rabbits are out on the lawn. They’ve been waiting for him, all this time, they’ve been waiting. Here’s his rabbit, his very own rabbit. Who needs a bike? He sits on his rabbit, legs pressed against the warm, silky, shining flanks, one hand holding on to the rabbit’s fur, the knotted string around its neck. He has something in his other hand, and when he looks, he sees it’s a spear. All around him, the others are sitting on their rabbits, waiting patiently, quietly. They’ve been waiting for a long time, but the waiting is almost over. In a little while, the dinner party will be over and the war will begin.
PS some cool KL factoids: her books are available for free download from Small r Press. She edits an SF magazine called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which I think is the best SF magazine name ever. And the acknowledgements for Holly Black’s White Cat thank “Kelly Link for letting me ride around in her trunk.”