Mixing fantasy, horror, the gothic and the supernatural, the stories of Massachusetts-based Kelly Link play host to a menagerie of untrustworthy wizards, talking corpses, vampiric ghosts and undead babysitters. Against a backdrop of recognisable Americana, anything might happen, and usually does.
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I can’t overstate the highs of Pretty Monsters. Halfway into the shortest story, “Monster,” I was tempted to Skype a couple friends and just read the entire thing out loud to them for its great language and emotional subtext. And it turns out? I hadn’t even gotten to the good part yet. That story is about a Boyscout troop full of kids who are too insensitive, and in particular abuse more of their fellow boys, covering him and mud and peer pressuring him into crossdressing. They’re so preoccupied
Link has the knack of quirkiness. In “Surfer,” teens gather in a hanger to avoid a pandemic flu and read classic Science Fiction to take their minds off things. In the eponymous “Pretty Monsters,” a social-conscious teen says she only made up her very real heart condition to get out of gym – letting her not just seem normal, but abnormally cool to her peers. In both realistic and speculative settings, the draw of Link’s fiction is inhabiting specific emotional states in people’s arcs, a most concentrated kind of slice of life.
The finest of these is probably “Magic for Beginners,” about a group of teen fans of a fictional TV show called The Library, which seems like an even weirder Dr. Who. For a few pages you’ll wonder why you’re reading so much about The Library, until the context snaps into place: we’re seeing how these kids use their favorite media to define themselves, and to escape their lives. The trivia of whether or not The Library’s lead character died helps them ignore the unknowably complex question of whether their parents are getting divorced, or why Dad shoplifts to self-destruction. These are things the kids simply aren’t equipped to investigate or understand yet, whereas the cosmic struggles in The Library are shaped for them. And thus “Magic for Beginners” becomes about the utilities of fiction and fandom, including how it allows weirdos to find each other and bond. Those aren’t simple in themselves, either; just wait until Dad bases a character on his son in an upcoming novel, and brace yourself for what things he writes happening to his son.
Pretty Monsters varies stylistically enough to throw just about anyone. While the cover promises it’s ripe for the Twilight and Harry Potter crowd, I can’t fathom most teens engaging in some of the low-action, low-agency and low-stakes stories, which are frankly Literary. And the other side is something like “The Wizards of Perfil” is such a saccharine YA adventure story that I had to force myself to finish it, replete with preposterous stakes, anthems, and trite “major” observations like that war and adults can be unfair. The book is such a rabid mixture that, even if the first story doesn’t land for you, your best recourse is to jump to the next. Link reaches far in only nine stories.
If you haven’t tried Link’s short fiction, you should. Some stories are doubtless still online for free and discoverable through a Google search. And once you’ve gotten a taste, you know you’re a better person for ingesting more. The only dilemma about a 300+ page Link collection is not consuming it too fast and burning out. Savor it, and see what different things a little Speculative Fiction can do.