Miss Nevada has been abducted by aliens on numerous occasions. The stage spotlights appear to make her extremely nervous, and occasionally she addresses her interviewer as 9th Star Master. Miss Alabama has built her own nuclear device. She has a list of demands. Miss South Carolina wants to pursue a career in Hollywood. Miss North Carolina can kiss her own elbow. We try to kiss our own elbows, but it’s a lot harder than it looks on television. Please hold me tight, I think I’m falling.
Miss Virginia and Miss Michigan are Siamese twins. Miss Maryland wants to be in Broadway musicals. Miss Montana is an arsonist. She is in love with fire. Miss Texas is a professional hit woman. She performs exorcisms on the side. She says that she is keeping her eye on Miss New Jersey.
Miss Kansas wants to be a weather girl.
Miss Rhode Island has big hair, all tendrilly looking and slicky-sleek. The top part of her jiggles as she wheels herself on stage in an extremely battered-looking wheelchair. She just has the two arms, but she seems to have too many legs. Also too many teeth. We have seen her practicing water ballet in the hotel swimming pool. (Later, during the talent show, she will perform in a tank made of specially treated glass.) We have to admit Miss Rhode Island has talent but we have trouble saying her name. Too many sibilants. Also, at breakfast her breath smells of raw fish and at night the hoarse mutterings of spells, incantations, the names of the elder gods heard through the wall have caused us to lose sleep.
—“Shoe and Marriage”
Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN is by far the best book I’ve discovered this year. Not just in this little project, but in 2012 overall. Possibly also 2011. 1Q84 might (or might not) be just a little bit better, but only because Link lost me a bit on “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.” Nothing else comes close. (“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is the first story of STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. If you don’t like it, persevere. You’ll thank me later.)
STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN is a short story collection. Link takes two main approaches: Mashups and deconstructions of myths and fairy tales, and surreal horror. The mashups and deconstructions are very good; “Travels With the Snow Queen” and “Flying Lessons” are particularly well done, and “Shoe and Marriage” has an out-spiraling riff on Miss America (quoted only in part above; you should not miss Miss New Jersey) that beats almost any other moment in the book for hilarity and fecundity of imagination. The horror, though, is the best I’ve read. “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” and “The Specialist’s Hat” are creepy in ways whose mechanisms I do not understand. I had bad dreams. Fiction doesn’t give me bad dreams. It turns out I like it when it does, I guess.
Link’s work is magic realism in the vein of the usual suspects, who to me are Borges, Bulgakov, Calvino, Harlan Ellison, Marquez, Murakami, maybe Saramago, and Gene Wolfe (which is not to imply that no female suspects exist, just that I haven’t read them). Her shade into horror is particularly reminiscent of Ellison (say “Croatoan” or “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or “All the Birds Come Home to Roost”) and Wolfe (notably “Seven American Nights”), which I mention mostly because it’s Wolfe and Ellison who benefit by the comparison. Anyway, the point of all this is just to say that it’s hard to imagine anyone who likes literary fiction not liking STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. Her fantasy isn’t secondary-world or urban fantasy where you’ve got to absorb a new cosmology before your hit of story; her horror isn’t monster-based or gory in the ways that tend to squick people. If you don’t like being creeped out at all, then skip “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” and “The Specialist’s Hat” (“Louise’s Ghost” is not horror), but for Christ’s sake read the rest.
I suppose I have two caveats for prospective lectors. One is that, if you yearn for explanations, prepare for disappointment. Personally, I love reading a story where I don’t quite get what’s going on, but think I could if I dug into it; that’s presumably either a source or a consequence of my affection for Gene Wolfe. The other is a certain sameness in the narrative voice. It’s a good voice; Link’s language is extremely clear and accessible, as you see above, her images vivid and startling but precise. So it’s not a huge defect. But it can snag the attention just a little bit if you read three or four stories in a row.
Which you will. Or, anyway, should.
(P.S. Mary Robinette Kowal was patient enough to come by my post on SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and educate me a bit on what she was trying to do there. So we’ve got a bit of back-and-forth in the comments, of which her half at least is worth reading.)