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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Kelly Link

eclectic reviews and opinions

Kelly Link

Stranger Things Happen

I've been hesitant to write about this book because I don't want to gush overmuch, but I can't recall the last time a book from a writer I hadn't heard of previously made me feel so much like cheering. It's scary and tender and angry and funny and surprising, and I thought it was wonderful -- perhaps the best single volume I've read this year.

Several of the short stories in this volume are loose re-working of mythic themes in modern day settings, a trope that Link shares with Neil Gaiman, whose cover blurb is just about as enthusiastic as I'd like to be. But Link is, to my taste, a stronger prose stylist (and probably somewhat less interested in conventional plot structures). Some of these stories have an amazingly hallucinatory dream-like quality. "The Specialist's Hat" is one of the most unsettling and unusual ghost stories I've read in years (I couldn't help noticing that Gaiman borrowed one of its punchlines, nearly verbatim, for a scene in his own American Gods), "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" is one of the eeriest evocations of the afterlife I've ever encountered. Even the weakest of these stories -- I'd nominate "Shoe and Marriage" -- having striking images. Months after I've read them, I can recall them all quite vividly, and individually. Look, here:

1. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.

Listen, because I'm only going to do this once. You'll have to get there by way of London. Take the overnight train from Waverly. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don't fall asleep.

When you arrive at Kings Cross, go down into the Underground. Get on the Northern Line. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don't fall asleep.

(That's from "Flying Lessons" ... don't you want to keep reading? )

It may be that Link is in an uneasy place for many readers: yes, strange things happen in these stories, and when I gave a copy to someone I worried that it might be "too fantasy-y." Likewise, I suppose some genre fans might find some of the "postmodern" literary qualities off-putting. Yes, there is a story in the 2nd person present-tense. Yes, some of them are more loosely-connected series of images and scenes than traditional beginning-middle-end stories. But the more obtrusive devices are definitely in the minority, and again, many of those scenes and images are truly startling and compelling regardless.

The book's biggest weakness is that some of the stories are perhaps a little too similar, thematically, to each other, and might not be best read all in a single sitting. But it's a rare single-author anthology indeed that can steer clear of that flaw. Even if Link is not the most versatile of authors, I found the collection as a whole delightful, a word which here means "full of delight," and I've also been glad to discover that the other authors published by Small Beer Press (, Carol Emshwiller and Ray Vukcevich, are working in somewhat similar territory.

Kelly Link (editor)


Trampoline contains 20 stories, many strong and memorable. For the most part they inhabit the murky territory of other Small Beer Press books like Link's own Stranger Things Happen. Often (but not always) characterized by hazy, dreamy antilogic, they sometimes veer into genre territory ("horror," "fantasy") or drift into naturalism. Usually they eschew easy classification. Somehow I discovered the Small Beer Press crew before Donald Barthelme; I've since rectified that omission, and Barthelme now seems an obvious reference point.

A loose common thread runs through much of Trampoline: messy confrontations with the evidence of mortality. Shelley Jackson's "Angel" and Christopher Barzak's "Dead Boy Found" both turn on the discovery of a corpse and the corruptive (and unsettlingly sexual) effect it can have on the living. Maureen McHugh's "Eight-legged Story" and Karen Jay Fowler's "King Rat" revolve around the anxiety of losing children. The dying narrator of Dave Shaw's funny/sad "King of Spain" mirrors the chaos inside his body by rooming with a chimp who trashes his apartment. Mimi spends Glen Hirshberg's "Shipwreck Beach" wondering when (more than if) her black-sheep cousin Harry will kill himself. And Ruth, whose hair is mysteriously falling out, encounters a strange girl who claims to have a pet black hole in a cigar box and offers to show her the "Destroyer" (in Beth Adele Long's story of the same name) that people are too scared to face.

Greer Gilman's "A Crowd of Bone" deserves particular mention. Its prose is dense, poetic, even opaque. Archaic words abound and familiar words are weighted with unfamiliar meanings. The linguistic complexity is mirrored in the story's structure, which uses multiple framing devices and no fixed chronology. But after persevering through this dark and elliptical tale of a witch's daughter and the foolish fiddler who woos her, I was rewarded with a pervading and lingering sense of strangeness. I felt as if I'd witnessed, and almost -- but not quite -- understood something genuinely beyond my ken.

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