March 21, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Lit Fest | Introducing the Fantastic Fiction of Kelly Link

The 2016 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Kelly Link for a lecture on Wednesday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m., in Baker Theater, and for a reading at on Thursday, April 7, at 8:30 p.m., in Baker Ballroom.

By Jennifer Pullen
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing: Fiction

Kelly Link is that rare writer who manages to be renowned and lionized not only within the fantasy and science fiction publishing world, but also within the world of literary fiction, where stories are more likely to be peopled by spouses in conflict or unemployed factory workers than by the caretakers of a house of fairies. Link’s characters can be counted on to deal with their extraordinary situations in specifically human ways, though, which helps explain why her work is so well-regarded, despite the tendency for some people to belittle science fiction and fantasy. Link has the knowledge and skills to make a story work, no matter what mode she chooses. She’s the editor and co-founder of Small Beer Press, as well as the author of four collections of short fiction, including the Locus award-winning and World Fantasy Award finalist collection, Magic for Beginners.

Kelly Link

Kelly Link

Ten plus years ago, when Magic for Beginners first appeared, there seemed to be a bit of a battle going on between fantasy and realism, at least in the minds of reviewers. In a 2007 review of Magic for Beginners, Audrey Niffenegger wrote: “I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of fed up with realism,” and Laura Miller, in a 2015 article, credited Kelly Link for helping to end the war between realism and fantasy, proving to the skeptics that fabulist literature is complex and multifaceted. “Fabulism,” Miller wrote, “has won.”

While many people, such as Miller, have referred to Link’s work as slipstream, or speculative, Link herself said, in her 2015 interview with Lightspeed Magazine, that at first she wrote “for an audience well-versed in genre, who loved, specifically, fantasy, science fiction, and horror.” In fact, she was initially surprised when her books got attention from the mainstream press. She never intended to participate in the fight against realism, saying, in the aforementioned interview: “I read everything I can get my hands on.”

Every camp within the literary world seems to love Kelly Link and wants to claim her as their own; and perhaps Link’s ability to defy categories reveals the ultimate insufficiency of labels and genre divisions, as well as the power of narrative itself, and of her narrative voice in particular.

With much of Link’s work, readers could be forgiven for thinking that they are, at first, in the quotidian world. Yet, inexorably, strangeness creeps into the stories, revealing the uncanny hiding beneath the familiar all along. In her story “Stone Animals,” a family moves from the city to a house in the country. They get a discount because the place has a reputation for being haunted, a reputation that they dismiss. But the house’s power eventually overcomes them, and the wife repaints it over and over in an attempt to undo its strangeness. Stone rabbits begin to populate the yard. Possessions within the home begin to feel eerie and must be thrown away: “They’d had to stop using the microwave as well, and a colander, some of the flatware, and she was keeping an eye on the toaster. She had a premonition, or an intuition. It didn’t feel wrong, not yet, but she had a feeling about it.” The family struggles at the same time, and the initial realism of the story turns out to be a simple façade over a deeply unstable world.

Any attempt to define the genre of “Stone Animals”—is it a ghost story, a fantasy, a fairy tale, a domestic drama?—hits a many-times-painted wall. The most relevant question for Link’s fiction, though, is not about what it is, but rather what it does. In a review of her new short story collection, Get In Trouble (2015), Michael Girda writes that it “re-enchants the world.” Girda’s praise for Link’s fiction reflects a common sentiment that seems to unite reviewers of her work; they share a sense that her stories reinvest the world with something it once had, but has lost. Perhaps the lost enchantment described by reviewers is the sense of not being alone in world, that our houses, as well as the trees, the lakes, and the roads through the woods, are all occupied, and not only by us. In that sense, Link’s work could be aligned with that of the Romantics as she seeks for secular awe.

Indeed, Link’s stories “re-enchant” the world through the combined effects of fear and wonder. They’re like the deep dark center of the woods, the fairy-tale zone of transition and change, and her fiction often takes readers to a place that is awful, in both senses of that word. Her stories are wondrous and terrifying, more akin to the Wordsworthian sublime than the cozy realm of Arthur Rackham fairies. Wordsworth used much of his work to characterize the sublime as the act of groping toward something which is beyond the self, which can only be grasped briefly. The sublime feels both lovely and terrifying. So does Kelly Link’s work.

The first story in Get In Trouble, entitled “The Summer People,” reclaims fairies from coziness, from Tinkerbell and her twee friends, and returns them to an older and more dangerous form. The main character of the story, Fran, and her father, take care of summer homes for various part-time residents of the town. Fran shops for groceries for these people and cleans their houses, so at first one could easily assume that the title of the story refers to the part-time residents.

In typical Link fashion, though, hints to the uncanny nature of some of the summer people emerge from the start. For example, the 19th century Theosophical Society, as well as some contemporary Wiccans, use the term The Land of Summer, or The Summerlands, to refer to the world of spirits and fairies, so we might get an inkling of bizarreness right away. In addition to the title, other elements of the magical bleed into the everyday world. Fran gets ill and sends her friend Ophelia to the summer people to get medicine. But she cautions her to knock and “Go upstairs directly,” echoing the admonitions of myths and fairy tales. Ophelia is not unlike Orpheus, forbidden to look back at Eurydice, and Fran watches her friend’s journey with a spyglass made for her by the summer people that allows its user to see through walls.

In the house, Ophelia has to pass many doors, all of which are a test of her worthiness: “On the flagstone in front of her were carved the words: BE BOLD, BE BOLD. Despite the invitation, Ophelia did not seem tempted to investigate either room, which Fran thought wise of her. The first test was a success.” The words on the flagstone allude to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and the English folktale of Mr. Fox. But the story quickly moves past allusions into the deeply and specifically odd.

Link’s stories often operate in the space of the uncanny, which is sometimes synonymous with the unhomely. This definition is key since the home of the summer people is at once a house, an artistic object, and a living thing: “Here and there white and red mushrooms in pretty rings upon the moss. More bawbees, too, waiting for someone to come along and play with them. A dinosaur, needing only to be wound up, a plastic dime-store cowboy sitting on its brass-and-copper shoulders.” But Ophelia, wisely, doesn’t pick up anything in the half-living house. For these creatures, like those of older folktales and poems (think Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”) don’t give anything away for free. The caretakers might receive gifts from them, like medicine, or the magic spyglass, but they will pay a price for those gifts.

Fran’s mother, we find out, had been the caretaker before Fran, and, like her mother, Fran can now never leave her isolated town; the story reveals that she is trapped not only by poverty, but by magic: “It’s part of the bargain. Whoever takes care of them has to stay here. You can’t leave. They don’t let you.” The idea of a family being trapped for generations in one town because of some ancient bargain is the horrifying stuff of fantasy. And yet within that dilemma, we can see the tie between Link’s work and naturalism, with both modes exploring the ties of obligation created by family, by place, by the gravity of inertia and circumstance.

In a 2015 interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, Link suggested that she is compelled by “[t]he idea of falling, that vertiginous feeling,” and as we read her upside-down, somehow realistic wonders, we fall with her. Kelly Link’s fiction makes us feel as though we just plunged into Alice’s rabbit hole, but instead of Wonderland, we fall back into our own world, and find it permanently changed.

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