Kelly Link’s stories have been published in literary magazines such as McSweeney’s and A Public Space and the anthologies The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of The Year and Hauntings, to name a few. They have been described as “creepy little wonders” and “ . . . a beguiling and eerie blend of fairy tale, fantasy, Ray Bradbury, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and categorized as “[floating] eerily in a midpoint between cool realism and dark science fiction” and “post-strange.” But what they are, first and foremost, are quality short stories—they take advantage of fiction’s ability to create new worlds and honor this power with depth and detail. Get in Trouble, Link’s fourth collection, shows us all that the short story can accomplish. Astronauts tell ghost stories in outer space. A girl’s fake Ghost Boyfriend is haunted by real spirits. Actors famous for playing vampires in movies are haunted by a ghost. There are pocket universes. Some children are born with no shadow, and some children are born with two. Superheroes appear in multiple tales. With each story, the atmosphere changes. You step into a different, fully formed, highly textured world.
In the first story, “The Summer People,” a high-school junior is charged with keeping up the summerhouse of her mysterious neighbors, who give her otherworldly gifts. One such present is a silver toy minnow that will swim in the bathtub. If you catch it on a miniscule fishing rod, baited with a golden worm, it will grant you a small wish. Link’s stories are like these wondrous contraptions: strange, perfectly crafted machines. You can never anticipate where Link’s stories will go, but, when you reach the end and look back, you realize they have been meticulously assembled.
In “Secret Identity,” a fifteen-year-old girl travels from Iowa to New York to meet a thirty-four-year-old man she met playing a videogame online. She has lied about her identity (pretending to be her older sister) and the story itself is her letter of apology. At the hotel where they are meant to meet is a superhero convention. A “bubble of blood” hovers over the fountain in the lobby; a woman with the head of a raven brings it a drink. “Origin Story” is set in Land of Oz, a defunct Wizard of Oz theme park in North Carolina (this does actually exist) and stays close to the third-person POV of the progressively tipsy Bunnatine Powderfinger during a reunion with her sometime-lover and childhood best friend, who also happens to be a famous superhero.
In “The New Boyfriend,” a group of teenage girls can barely contain their jealousy as their friend opens her birthday present: a life-size, life-like fake Boyfriend. This one is the Ghost Boyfriend. The birthday girl already has Vampire Boyfriend and Werewolf Boyfriend. The protagonist, Immy, wants her own Ghost Boyfriend so much it hurts. She wants one so much she decides to steal him. “The New Boyfriend” is about “that awful gap between the real and the almost real” in many ways—the difference between who Immy pretends to be in school and who she actually feels, deep-down, that she is; the way she both loves and hates her best friend; the way that not even her dad is sure, exactly, if love is real. “Everyone who is alive has a ghost inside them, don’t they?” Immy thinks. “So why can’t there be a real ghost in a fake boy?”
Link’s stories feel like worlds onto themselves in a large part due to their intricate, unique detail. The fake Ghost Boyfriend comes in a “coffin-shaped box” filled with pale rose petals. There are butter sculptures of supervillains and “Whore-igami” (as you might expect: pornographic origami). In a decrepit hotel on a small island, there is a taxidermy cat-like creature called a Bad Claw. It was once native to the island and is now extinct. It has a “peculiarly flattened, leathery tail” and poisonous claws.
Sentences that would clash in any other context seem perfectly at home in Link’s unique, exquisitely crafted worlds:
“Ghosts exist and the world is magic and there is an unreal boy whose real name she doesn’t even know with a ring made of hair in his mouth, and he loves Immy because she put it there.”
“Everyone was in agreement that it was almost impossible to distinguish a homemade or store-bought shadow from a real one.”
“‘Your universe or mine?’ he said.”
Recently, Kelly Link read to a packed room at Powell’s Books. If one thing was clear from the reading and from the Q & A session that followed, it’s that Kelly Link understands that fiction is about enjoyment. You’re supposed to have fun. You’re supposed to get in trouble.
A lot of fiction is called “weird” these days. It’s used as a selling point. But very little fiction is actually as thoroughly, effectively, and realistically strange as Kelly Link’s tales. Kelly Link’s stories are intricate, haunting machines that often combine multiple genres and many disparate fictional threads. They slowly induct you into their idiosyncratic, highly detailed worlds; they often creep you out.
Get in Trouble’s last story, “Light,” is the tale you are being conditioned for throughout the whole collection. In this story, there are pocket universes. The protagonist’s job is to take care of a warehouse full of people who have mysteriously fallen into an un-wakable sleep. The protagonist’s husband, a seven-foot-plus tall, greenish-skinned, eight-fingered man from another pocket universe, just up and left with no explanation.
In this world, people are up to no good. The protagonist pokes a man in a bar with a needle for defacing a children’s book. The night guards where the protagonist works undress the female sleepers. Everyone seems to be drunk, all the time. Bad things just happen, seemingly at random. This sensation does not feel all that different from the one we readers have in the world we live in where even reality, sometimes, doesn’t feel all that real. The news comes on the car radio:
“The vice president was under investigation; evidence suggested a series of secret dealings with malign spirits. A woman had given birth to half a dozen rabbits. A local gas station had been robbed by invisible men. Some cult had thrown all the infidels out of a popular pocket universe. Nothing new, in other words. The sky was always falling. U.S. 1 was bumper to bumper all the way to Plantation Key.”
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Reviewed by Sadye Teiser