Kelly Link has been writing and publishing dizzyingly peculiar short stories for 20 years. During that time, she and her husband, Gavin Grant, have edited the magazine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and operated Small Beer Press, whose ongoing success belies its modest name. In fact, to understand the particular weirdness, the pleasing charm of “Get in Trouble,” it pays to look at the authors whom Small Beer publishes, among them Joan Aiken, Elizabeth Hand, Kij Johnson, Howard Waldrop, Maureen McHugh, John Crowley, Ted Chiang, Ursula Le Guin, Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler and John Kessel.
All these writers excel in fiction that may be characterized loosely as “fantastika” (to use John Clute’s umbrella term) or described flounderingly as absurdist, surreal, gonzo, Borgesian, slipstream, fabulist or dreamlike. This is art that re-enchants the world. Who needs tediously believable situations, O. Henry endings or even truthfulness to life? Give us magic; give us wonder. What matter most in pure storytelling are style and visionary power. If your voice is hypnotic enough, you can make readers follow you anywhere.
Consider “The Summer People.” Set in West Virginia or Tennessee, it opens when Fran’s daddy informs her he is going away for “a week or three” to a prayer meeting in Miami: “Any man tells you he knows the hour or the day, Fran, that man’s a liar or a fool. All a man can do is be ready.” Link makes us hear his gospel twang in just that one sentence. While daddy’s gone, Fran — despite the flu she’s suffering from — is reminded to buy groceries and keep house for the summer people, such roustabout work being the family’s main source of income.
So far, we might be reading a backwoods Appalachian story by Erskine Caldwell. But Link slowly starts to deepen and skewer reality. At school, the sick Fran solicits a ride home from a well-to-do classmate named Ophelia, who, after settling the feverish girl on a couch, discovers an odd little toy. Wind it up, and the monkey egg wobbles along the ground on pincer-like legs, cracks itself open to allow a monkey’s head to emerge and, following a few more antics, eventually refashions itself into an egg. An unusual plaything, though not quite an impossible one. But Fran, when she was little, seems to have owned lots of toys you don’t find at Wal-Mart.
The next day, when Ophelia comes back, Fran, feeling no better, decides to take drastic measures:
“She lifted a bill off a stack of mail on the floor, pulled out the return envelope. She plucked out three strands of her hair. She put them in the envelope and licked it shut. ‘Take this up the road where it crosses the drain,’ she said. ‘All the way up.’ She coughed. Dry things rattled around down inside her lungs. ‘When you get to the big house, go round to the back and knock on the door. Tell them I sent you. You won’t see them, but they’ll know you come from me. After you knock, you go in. Go upstairs directly, you mind, and put this envelope under the door. Third door down the hall. You’ll know which. After that, you oughter wait on the porch. Bring back whatever they give you.’ ”
The summer people, as you might have guessed, aren’t your ordinary vacationing family.
Link once said in an interview, “I’ve always thought of myself as a reader first and a writer second.” Given this, it’s no surprise that “The Summer People” reuses bits from several classic works of fantasy, starting with a title borrowed from a typically unsettling Shirley Jackson story. When Fran describes a curious tent that is bigger inside than seems possible, many readers will think of the Drinkwater house in John Crowley’s “Little, Big.” A window that always looks out on a single idyllic moment brings to mind Bob Shaw’s heartbreaking masterpiece “Light of Other Days.” Link’s story is almost as brilliant, though its conclusion seems overly abrupt and enigmatic.
In that same interview, Link also declared that she loves two kinds of fiction: the kind that “takes things which are comfortable and familiar and makes them really strange, or else . . . takes things which are strange and impossible and finally makes them feel comfortable, to a certain extent.”
The stories in “Get in Trouble” do both. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a middle-aged actor, famous for playing a sexy vampire, seeks help from an old girlfriend who is now the producer of a reality show about ghost hunters. It closes with an extremely neat kicker, one that pays homage to the classic ghost story (and to Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” in particular).
Far more disorienting, “Light” depicts a world of pocket universes and sleepers who cannot be awakened, where mermaids are an invasive species and people are born with two shadows. It’s told with brittle, world-weary wit: “I would have made margaritas, but all you had was the salt.”
Some Link stories could be labeled young-adult romantic fantasies. In “Secret Identity,” a 15-year-old takes the bus from Iowa to New York to meet a man she knows only from his online avatar. He’s 34, and she’s pretended to be her 32-year-old divorced sister. At the rendezvous hotel, which is hosting both a dentists’ conference and a superhero convention, she meets a chef who has shaped butter into life-size effigies of notorious supervillains: Hellalujah, Patty Cakes, Mandroid, Shibboleth.
In “The New Boyfriend,” teenager Immy falls hard for what is essentially a partially animate life-size Ken doll. She gets together with her “ghost boyfriend” when his owner is off at a concert of the glam rock group O Hell, Kitty! In “Origin Story,” we learn about a superhero who regularly saves the world and his high school sweetheart, who can levitate a few feet off the ground. At one point, they discuss a classmate who invented “Mann Man. A superhero with all the powers of Thomas Mann.”
In all these stories, the reader initially feels off kilter, unsure of what’s going on. In the deliberately schizophrenic “Valley of the Girls,” Link mixes ancient Egyptian pyramid lore with a future in which really rich kids are protected from unwanted media attention by a public “Face.” This is “a nobody, a real person who comes and takes your place. . . . If you go online, or turn on the TV, there they are, being you. Being better than you will ever be at being you. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you have to be careful or you’ll start to feel very strange. Is that really you?”
The titles of Kelly Link’s three previous collections — “Stranger Things Happen,” “Magic for Beginners” and “Pretty Monsters” — better suggest her deadpan tone and fantastic subject matter than “Get in Trouble.” Still, only the marvelous contents of these books can demonstrate Link’s mastery and self-confidence as an author: She believes in her stories, no matter how off the wall they might seem, and she makes her readers believe in them, too.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
GET IN TROUBLE
By Kelly Link
Random House. 336 pp. $25