February 2015

Cate Fricke

fiction

Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

I love a good ghost story. One of my favorites has long been "The Specialist's Hat" from Kelly Link's debut story collection, Stranger Things Happen, in which two motherless girls are entertained in their assuredly haunted house by a babysitter who may or may not be an emissary from the ghost world. Here, Link showcases her knack for balancing the severe and ominous with the whimsical and nonsensical. There are snakes, a hat that is more creature than chapeau, a chimney, a secret, a garden, a nursery rhyme. And, as in any good story, including ghostly ones, the bizarre is companion to real human trouble. "What makes this a ghost story?" I once asked a classroom full of undergraduates. The suggestion of a ghost, the dead poet, the mysterious arrival of the babysitter, the noises in the attic. "What makes it more than a ghost story?" So very much.

Since the publication of Stranger Things Happen in 2001, Kelly Link's stories have used genre as a launch pad for So Very Much, introducing us to the familiar building of tension we might expect to find in a ghost or monster story, but then stirring it counterclockwise, peppering in surprises, until we no longer recognize what kind of tale we're being told.

In Get in Trouble, Link's first story collection in a decade, she is still playing with genre: our expectations of what it looks like, where it goes, and even pointing out our own jadedness with it. We know ghost stories when we see them; so do Link's characters. We, as well as they, are familiar with teen supernatural romance, superhero comics, and we've even indulged in classic paperback sci-fi. We're all in the know as to what's being brought to the potluck here. Where Link's interest lies is the party that follows. When everyone, including the characters, arrives knowing all the stories already, what will it take to shake us all up?

Get in Trouble is comprised of nine stories in which the elements of genre that readers may once have found surprising are old hat to the characters living amongst them. In "Origin Story," a pair of old friends and sometime lovers rendezvous in an abandoned Oz-themed amusement park to escape the pressures of life with superpowers. In "The New Boyfriend," a teenage girl falls in love with her best friend's boyfriend, who happens to be a life-sized robot-doll -- the Ghost model, in fact, as opposed to the Vampire and Werewolf Boyfriends. Lindsey, the protagonist of "Light," works in a warehouse which catalogues and stores the slumbering bodies of people who have succumbed to a mysterious ailment, all while trying to avoid the impositions of her wayward shadow-brother. In none of these stories, however, do the supernatural elements take precedence over the human drama played out on the page. "Origin Story" is also a story about a heartbreaking secret; "The New Boyfriend," a tale of jealousy and obsession; "Light," the chronicling of a renewal. The magic is unremarkable to these characters, so that their journeys can seem all the more real to us.

The concept of "everyday magic" is one taken straight from the world of fairytales, in which wondrous occurrences take place that seem commonplace to the characters. Hansel and Gretel don't remark with wonder when they find a house made entirely of good things to eat: they are glad, instead, to find food. Link, too, is making use of everyday magic, but it's winking at us: if Boyfriends can come in a box, why wouldn't the most popular models among teen girls be vampires and werewolves? Link's use of everyday magic doesn't just build the world of the characters, but calls our attention to our own appetites for genre, often to hilarious effect.

All this winking aside, Get in Trouble contains some true horror, once again using the story as a lens to examine genre. In "Two Houses," a story originally published in Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury in 2012, a team of astronauts is awakened from cryogenic sleep for a birthday party. In a scene plucked straight from the calm, homey first few minutes of Alien, the team assembles, after years of slumber, for a meal where their camaraderie is immediately apparent. With the help of their sentient ship, which can project atmospheric images on the walls, the astronauts tell ghost stories that accelerate in strangeness until the team is forced to consider what makes them both the tellers of ghost stories and the ghosts themselves. One astronaut, Sisi, recounts the story of an art installation -- two mid-century houses on an old English estate -- owned by an ex-boyfriend: one of the two houses is "real," and one is a copy. In one, something terrible happened; in the other, the evidence of the crime has been fabricated in perfect detail. "What makes a haunted house?" Sisi asks. "If you take it to pieces and transport it... does the ghost come with it if you put it back together exactly the way it was? And if you can put a haunted house back together again... can you build one from scratch?"

One could ask the same thing about a story -- when the elements of fright are deconstructed and placed in a meta-context, or the wonder of space is backdrop for stories of the past, does the shiver up the back of your spine come from the ghosts, from the vastness of unknowable space, or from both of these familiar tropes made strange and new again? "Two Houses," written in honor of one of science fiction's greats, Ray Bradbury, stands out as very relevant contemporary commentary on reading genre literature through a post-modern lens. The layering and deconstructing of tropes does not diminish the wonder and terror of the story, but builds it up and reveals that, no matter how familiar we may be with the elements of genre Link keeps in her recipe book, as readers, our capacity for wonder is never ending. What makes it a space story, borrowed straight from the science fiction shelf? The spaceship, the cryo-sleep, the exuberant descriptions of antigravity. Sure. What makes it a ghost story? What makes it more? So very much.

Link is a master of the contemporary short story, and her zeitgeist is oddness. Many of the stories in 2001's Stranger Things Happen began with hints of this oddness and built to a crescendo in which the stranger things were not entirely revealed -- more was yet to come, in the white space. But in Get in Trouble, the stranger things have already arrived, and are among us. If many of our culture's most popular stories are post-apocalyptic these days, then Link's are post-strange. The world's axis has already turned. The wolf-men are at the bar, having a drink. The demon lovers have become film stars. The spaceships are already in flight. The trouble we can get into, in such a world? That's where Link has worked her best magic yet.

Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link
Random House
ISBN: 978-0804179683
352 pages