There are some authors who transcend genre so fully that classification becomes a moot point. Kelly Link is one example. Link’s writing style mirrors other authors - Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Neil Gaiman come to mind - but only superficially; her words are her own. The moods swing wildly, from whimsical to melancholic to deranged, though her voice always comes through. She writes as if talking in her sleep, lackadaisical and sparse, strange but deeply evocative. Yet what truly sets her apart from other genre authors is her incredible understanding of the human mind.
Though she has written some terrifying tales, Link is hardly a simple horror or fantasy writer. It’s difficult to think of a writer whose imagination covers more conceptual territory. “The Specialist’s Hat” may be her most straightforward ghost story, but even this narrative hints at melancholic truths. “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” reads like Raymond Carver’s hidden nightmare, as a young boy tries to impress a girl’s family - or their metaphysical pets will devour him. “Vanishing Act” looks at a telekinetic girl from the perspective of her misunderstanding cousin. Both “Origin Story” and “Secret Identity” envision worlds where superheroes are a part of daily life, loving and breaking hearts and filling voids in their minds. “Survivor’s Ball” is a darkly hilarious imagining of the Donner Party’s ghostly reunion.
When starting one of Link’s stories, it’s impossible to tell what will happen within. Their stylistic and mental acrobatics are fascinating. Her vision to the afterlife manifests as a dreamlike letter from a ghost in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose;” he writes to his wife, whose name he can’t remember, as he slowly realizes he’s trapped in his coffin. “Shoe and Marriage” reimagines three fairy tales featuring these motifs - a cheating prince in Cinderella, bizarre beauty pageants in Oz, and finally the nightmarish tale of a dictator’s wife who must face her husband’s crimes. “Two Houses” imagines people lost in space, telling a story of a man who rebuilt a haunted house to see if the new model would also acquire spirits. “The New Boyfriend” envisions teens buying lifelike dolls, hunky vampires and werewolves, but certain models don’t work as they should. The topic is almost always different, but each story is connected by her precision, and clear understanding of both worlds - the strange one and the one we want to escape.
Because they’re fantastical, these stories may be dismissed offhand, but Link’s talent is unarguably literary. Her plots occur in speculative worlds, but they explore intricate psyches. These characters are lonely people drifting through these worlds, but they aren’t the heroes. The tale of “The Girl Detective,” a cosmic hero in the shape of a schoolgirl, is told by her most ardent (unrequited) admirer. “Black Dog’s Back” and “Specialist’s Hat” are deeply melancholic behind their atmospheres of dread. “Louise’s Ghost,” another story of phantoms, ends with the haunted longing for the spirit to come back. “The Summer People” tells of humans enslaved to fairies - and examines how far they’re willing to deceive their loved ones. Her stories involving superheroes center on their secret girlfriends or unknown admirers who get left behind.
Even surrounded by adventure and speculative wonder, her characters are lonely, lost. They chase after idols and superior beings, face hellish forces, but that can’t overcome that human barrier. Link depicts them with heart-splitting pathos, too, delving into their minds with a detached understanding that lays bare but doesn’t criticize. It’s tender evisceration at work. And because of the humanity at the heart of her stories, Link’s fantastical concepts feel utterly, terribly actual. The ghosts are accepted parts of households; superheroes are the new pop stars. She lures us into her worlds with wonder and strangeness, and by the time we begin to recognize things, we’ve already lost our way.
What are we left with, then, when we finish one of Link’s stories? How can we escape reality if the dream is just as dim? Of course, Link isn’t nihilistic in her prose. Some of her stories - I can’t reveal which - are also deeply romantic, funny, warm pulses of light in the gloom. Like some of the authors she may be compared to, Link makes the fantastic real, and there is joy in this. She shows us the incredible map of our psyches and lets us examine them, familiars and aliens and ghouls included. This is the kind of writing we dream of, and our hearts ache when the covers close. The revelations may be heartbreaking - but we need them.