You Must Read These Gleefully Deranged Stories

Stranger Things Happen
Stranger Things Happen
By Kelly Link
Paperback, 266 pages
Small Beer Press
List Price: $16
Read An Excerpt

Pity the poor librarians who have to slap a sticker on Kelly Link's genre-bending, mind-blowing masterpiece of the imagination, Stranger Things Happen. Are these stories horror or fantasy? Science-fictional romances? Travelogues to nonexistent countries: a nightmarish North America and a very weird New Zealand? Some read like detective manuals for solving crimes in the afterlife; others could be topographical maps of the unconscious. At least one has a naked ghost. This is a book that would probably cause the old wooden card catalog to catch fire.

Link's uncanny tales draw the reader into a state of fluid, lucid dreaming. Works like "Travels with the Snow Queen" and "Flying Lessons" send you reeling through a landscape of heavy snows, "great balls of greenish light," alarming castles, and overnight trains to hell. You won't feel like you're reading at all. More like walking on water, suspended by the trembling gel of Link's prose. These stories cast spells. The sentences in Stranger Things Happen work as a kind of solvent, breaking down the walls of "ordinary" reality and revealing a vast, speechless realm of dream and appetite, the "long white distances" beyond the reach of our conscious control.

I've tried to describe Link to my students as an American Harukai Murakami, or a blue-collar Angela Carter, or Franz Kafka with a better understanding of lady's footwear and bad first dates. But the truth is that Link is like no other writer on the planet. She eschews conventional plot arcs in favor of quests, catalogs and epistles from the afterlife. In her work you are as apt to meet a sardonic reindeer as a mailman.

Karen Russell is the author of the book Swamplandia!

Karen Russell is the author of the book Swamplandia! Michael Lionstar hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Lionstar

In one story, two friends who both share the name of Louise accidentally seduce the same cellist; in another, newlyweds watch an apocalyptic beauty pageant in their honeymoon suite. "Miss Alaska raises the dead," Link writes. "This will later prove to have serious repercussions ..." My favorite story in this collection, "The Specialist's Hat," features two motherless twins in a scary mansion who bail on Go Fish and Crazy Eights to play "the Dead game," a frightening exercise in non-being.

Yet even the most gleefully deranged stories in Stranger Things Happen have a serious moral center. Link draws on fables and myth to expose the core reality of our emotional lives, detailing loneliness, grief, desire and romantic failure with an almost unbearably painful realism — children are bereaved, lovers are left bewildered, family members transform into monsters and strangers.

To paraphrase what these stories are "about" feels in some ways like a betrayal of Link's sorcery, a bogus misrepresentation of their real magic. As Flannery O'Connor said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word of the story to say what the meaning is." And every word in these 11 stories is perfectly placed to make meaning out of the mysteries that bedevil our "ordinary" lives, and to make the impossible true.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman.

Excerpt: 'Stranger Things Happen'

Stranger Things Happen
Stranger Things Happen
By Kelly Link
Paperback, 266 pages
Small Beer Press
List Price: $16

Travels with the Snow Queen

Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you. You enter the walls of the city early in the evening, when the cobblestones are a mottled pink with reflected light, and cold beneath the slap of your bare, bloody feet. You ask the man who is guarding the gate to recommend a place to stay the night, and even as you are falling into the bed at the inn, the bed, which is piled high with quilts and scented with lavender, perhaps alone, perhaps with another traveler, perhaps with the guardsman who had such brown eyes, and a mustache that curled up on either side of his nose like two waxed black laces, even as this guardsman, whose name you didn't ask calls out a name in his sleep that is not your name, you are dreaming about the road again. When you sleep, you dream about the long white distances that still lie before you. When you wake up, the guardsman is back at his post, and the place between your legs aches pleasantly, your legs sore as if you had continued walking all night in your sleep. While you were sleeping, your feet have healed again. You were careful not to kiss the guardsman on the lips, so it doesn't really count, does it.

Your destination is North. The map that you are using is a mirror. You are always pulling the bits out of your bare feet, the pieces of the map that broke off and fell on the ground as the Snow Queen flew overhead in her sleigh. Where you are, where you are coming from, it is impossible to read a map made of paper. If it were that easy then everyone would be a traveler. You have heard of other travelers whose maps are breadcrumbs, whose maps are stones, whose maps are the four winds, whose maps are yellow bricks laid one after the other. You read your map with your foot, and behind you somewhere there must be another traveler whose map is the bloody footprints that you are leaving behind you.

There is a map of fine white scars on the soles of your feet that tells you where you have been. When you are pulling the shards of the Snow Queen's looking-glass out of your feet, you remind yourself, you tell yourself to imagine how it felt when Kay's eyes, Kay's heart were pierced by shards of the same mirror. Sometimes it is safer to read maps with your feet.

Ladies. Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren't easy on the feet?

So this is the story so far. You grew up, you fell in love with the boy next door, Kay, the one with blue eyes who brought you bird feathers and roses, the one who was so good at puzzles. You thought he loved you — maybe he thought he did, too. His mouth tasted so sweet, it tasted like love, and his fingers were so kind, they pricked like love on your skin, but three years and exactly two days after you moved in with him, you were having drinks out on the patio. You weren't exactly fighting, and you can't remember what he had done that had made you so angry, but you threw your glass at him. There was a noise like the sky shattering.

The cuff of his trousers got splashed. There were little fragments of glass everywhere. "Don't move," you said. You weren't wearing shoes.

He raised his hand up to his face. "I think there's something in my eye," he said.

His eye was fine, of course, there wasn't a thing in it, but later that night when he was undressing for bed, there were little bits of glass like grains of sugar, dusting his clothes. When you brushed your hand against his chest, something pricked your finger and left a smear of blood against his heart.

The next day it was snowing and he went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. You sat on the patio drinking something warm and alcoholic, with nutmeg in it, and the snow fell on your shoulders. You were wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt; you were pretending that you weren't cold, and that your lover would be back soon. You put your finger on the ground and then stuck it in your mouth. The snow looked like sugar, but it tasted like nothing at all.

The man at the corner store said that he saw your lover get into a long white sleigh. There was a beautiful woman in it, and it was pulled by thirty white geese. "Oh, her," you said, as if you weren't surprised. You went home and looked in the wardrobe for that cloak that belonged to your great-grandmother. You were thinking about going after him. You remembered that the cloak was woolen and warm, and a beautiful red — a traveler's cloak. But when you pulled it out, it smelled like wet dog and the lining was ragged, as if something had chewed on it. It smelled like bad luck: it made you sneeze, and so you put it back. You waited for a while longer.

Two months went by, and Kay didn't come back, and finally you left and locked the door of your house behind you. You were going to travel for love, without shoes, or cloak, or common sense. This is one of the things a woman can do when her lover leaves her. It's hard on the feet perhaps, but staying at home is hard on the heart, and you weren't quite ready to give him up yet. You told yourself that the woman in the sleigh must have put a spell on him, and he was probably already missing you. Besides, there are some questions you want to ask him, some true things you want to tell him. This is what you told yourself. The snow was soft and cool on your feet, and then you found the trail of glass, the map. After three weeks of hard traveling, you came to the city.

No, really, think about it. Think about the little mermaid, who traded in her tail for love, got two legs and two feet, and every step was like walking on knives. And where did it get her? That's a rhetorical question, of course. Then there's the girl who put on the beautiful red dancing shoes. The woodsman had to chop her feet off with an axe.

There are Cinderella's two stepsisters, who cut off their own toes, and Snow White's stepmother, who danced to death in red-hot iron slippers. The Goose Girl's maid got rolled down a hill in a barrel studded with nails. Travel is hard on the single woman. There was this one woman who walked east of the sun and then west of the moon, looking for her lover, who had left her because she spilled tallow on his nightshirt. She wore out at least one pair of perfectly good iron shoes before she found him. Take our word for it, he wasn't worth it. What do you think happened when she forgot to put the fabric softener in the dryer? Laundry is hard, travel is harder. You deserve a vacation, but of course you're a little wary. You've read the fairy tales. We've been there, we know.

That's why we here at Snow Queen Tours have put together a luxurious but affordable package for you, guaranteed to be easy on the feet and on the budget. See the world by goosedrawn sleigh, experience the archetypal forest, the winter wonderland; chat with real live talking animals (please don't feed them). Our accommodations are three-star: sleep on comfortable, guaranteed pea-free boxspring mattresses; eat meals prepared by world-class chefs. Our tour guides are friendly, knowledgeable, well-traveled, trained by the Snow Queen herself. They know first aid, how to live off the land; they speak three languages fluently.

Special discount for older sisters, stepsisters, stepmothers, wicked witches, crones, hags, princesses who have kissed frogs without realizing what they were getting into, etc.

Excerpted from Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. Copyright 2001 by Kelly Link. Excerpted by permission of Small Beer Press. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

Stranger Things Happen
Stranger Things Happen

by Kelly Link

Paperback, 266 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Stranger Things Happen
Author
Kelly Link

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.