I’ve just finished reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Stranger Things Happen, which is available as a free download under the Creative Commons Act at Kelly’s web site (scroll down to find the download). The collection is really grand, in a disturbing, -is-there-something-creeping -up-behind-me sort of way. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of ghost story that avoids explanations and leaves the reader unsettled and wondering about back-story or resolution of the plot. This unresolvedness is a trademark of Robert Aickman’s classic work during the mid-twentieth century. I would imagine that Kelly Link has read lots of Aickman. A story like Link’s “Water off a Black Dog’s Back” is eerily reminiscent of Aickman’s “Marriage,” for example, in its creepy delineation of a sexual relationship with a mysterious girl with a murky and threatening background. Link’s story, like Aickman’s, leaves the reader unsure what happened–the story ends as the protagonist walks willingly towards what seems likely to be a violent death, or at least a maiming. But we’ll never know.
The collection is best summed up, perhaps, by the World Fantasy Award winning story “The Specialist’s Hat,” in which two little girls who have lost their mother move with their grieving and largely absent father into an old rambling house with a dark past. It isn’t difficult to recognize the strange babysitter as the (dead) daughter of the house’s previous owner. The twist (or twists) involve the unexpected ways in which the girls play a part in whatever happens to them, and the role their father may or may not play as well. And, any story that begins “When you’re Dead, you don’t have to brush your teeth” deserves some recognition, I think.
It’s this ability to take the standard, M.R. James-style ghost story and turn it disturbingly on its head that made Robert Aickman so powerful a storyteller (check out the mega-unsettling “The Cicerones”), and it’s an ability that Kelly Link has in spades. Her range of settings and situations is wider–a pair of travelers stumble upon a cannibalistic reunion feast hosted by Mr. Donner (“The Donner Party”), a middle-aged woman uses her best friend’s string of cellist lovers to exorcise a ghost who lives under her bed (“Louise’s Ghost), a woman searches for her lost lover through a fairy-tale world gone mad (“Travels with the Snow Queen”)–but she is working firmly within the largely unexplored country that Aickman called “strange stories.”
I can’t recommend Link’s stories enough, nor can I do justice to the experience. Heavy on atmosphere, chock-a-block with bizarre details (a man who collects artificial noses, for example), these are stories that haunt in the best sense of the term.