Stranger Things Happen is Kelly Link’s debut collection of weird stories, some of which won major awards. This was my first experience with Ms. Link’s fantasy fiction. Overall I was impressed with her imagination and style. While I admired all of the stories and liked several of them, the emotion I felt most often while reading Stranger Things Happen was unsettled. Link’s stories reminded me somewhat of the work of Peter Straub, another brilliant writer who I admire but don’t naturally gravitate toward. Here are the stories in Stranger Things Happen:
- “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” — (originally published in Fence magazine in 1998) A dead man writes to his beloved wife whose name he can’t remember. This story has a great setting. It starts off beautifully heartbreaking and becomes horribly heartbreaking by the end. Because of the emotional impact, this was one of my favorites.
- “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” — (Century, 1995) Carroll is finally going home with his girlfriend Rachel to meet her family. Carroll has suspected that Rachel was embarrassed about either him or them so he’s not too surprised to find that they are odd and they have secrets. When he meets them, he has to decide whether or not he really wants to fit in. (In case you wonder, I would have run away.)
- “The Specialist’s Hat” — (Event Horizon, 1998) Claire and Samantha are twins who live with their father in a mysterious house. When a babysitter comes over one night, they find out just how weird the house really is. Another creepy and unsettling story that, frankly, I just didn’t get.
- “Flying Lessons” — (Asimov’s, 1995) I liked this story about teenagers June and Humphrey who are falling in love and are just starting to discover something pretty special, and really weird, about their families.
- “Travels With the Snow Queen” — (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Winter 1996/7) A young woman travels far to find out why her boyfriend left her for the Snow Queen. She has a few things she’d like to tell him, too. Along the way, she discovers that travel through fairy-tale lands is hard for the single woman. I loved this whimsical story.
- “Vanishing Act” — (Realms of Fantasy, 1996) Jenny Rose’s parents, who are missionaries in Indonesia, have sent their daughter to live with her cousin Hildy’s family in the United States. Jenny seems to be pining away, almost like she’s becoming a little less substantial each day. Hildy thinks Jenny’s condition is causing her own family’s decline, too, so she decides to take matters into her own hands. I enjoyed this haunting little story.
- “Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party” — (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 1998) A traveler meets a strange girl in Queeensland and ends up at a weird party. This disturbing story is about the shame and relief of survival. Interesting concept, but too surreal for my taste.
- “Shoe and Marriage” — (4 stories, 2000) This one contains short vignettes relating different types of marriage to different types of shoes. Weird and cute.
- “Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water” — (Original to first edition, 2001) This odd story is written in the first person by a young brunette woman who lives in her father’s garage. She seems to be in love with her best friend Jack who is obsessed with blonde women and develops an interesting theory about them.
- “Louise’s Ghost” — (Original to first edition, 2001) Most writers wouldn’t dare use the same name for the two main characters of a story, but Kelly Link dares and pulls it off. Louise and Louise are best friends. One of the Louises is being haunted by a friendly ghost and the other dates cellists. Together they hatch a plan to use the cellists to get rid of the ghost. A clever story.
- “The Girl Detective” — (Event Horizon, 1999) In this bizarre story, a Nancy-Drew type girl detective whose mother is missing is involved in a series of investigations which involve Chinese restaurants, bank robbers, dancing princesses, and the underworld. The whole thing feels more like a dream than a story and it’s got some memorable recurring imagery.
Stranger Things Happen was originally published in 2001, but a new edition has just been released by Subterranean Press. This signed limited edition includes cute cover and interior art by Kathleen Jennings and a new chapbook called Origin stories which contains two related stories about superheroes in a society that made me think of Wild Cards:
- “Origin Story” — A superhero is spending some time with his high school sweeheart when he returns to his hometown for a visit. At the end, we’re wondering which one of them is actually the superhero.
- “Secret Identity” — In this quirky story, a 15 year old girl travels across the country to a hotel in New York so she can meet the 34 year old man she’s been flirting with in an MMORPG. He thinks she’s 32. The hotel is sponsoring a superhero convention which makes for some pretty amusing scenes. I think this was my favorite story in the book. I notice that I prefer Kelly Link’s teen characters to her adults.
As I mentioned, I admire Kelly Link’s style and creativity, and while there were a few stories I truly enjoyed in Stranger Things Happen, I had a hard time warming up to many of them. Most of the characters are so strange that they’re hard to relate to, the surreal plots make it difficult to settle into the stories, and the explicit sex between characters I didn’t like, or who didn’t seem to like each other, was a little off-putting. However, when Link writes about characters who seem real enough to care about (such as the 15 year old gamer in the last story) I find that I love her absurdist style. Therefore, I’m looking forward to reading more of Link’s work. If you’d like to try some of Kelly Link’s stories, she offers most of them for free DRM-free download at Small Beer Press. Let me know what you think.