Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link
Published by Small Beer Press
266 pages, 2001
Meet Me in the Moon Room
by Ray Vukcevich
Published by Small Beer Press
253 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Although Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen and Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room are specialty publisher Small Beer Press' first books, they are not its first releases. Its catalog includes two chapbooks: Dora Knez's Five Forbidden Things and Kelly Link's 4 Stories (whose contents are fully reprised in her new, 11-story collection) and the semiannual fantasy zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (to which both Link and Vukcevich contribute).
Kelly Link, in fact, wears many hats here: she is co-owner of Small Beer Press, co-editor of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and the publisher's star writer. In recent years, her stories have been seen frequently in the trendsetting annual Datlow/Windling anthology, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. With only a modest output of stories, she has already garnered gushing praise from highly regarded writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers, Peter Straub and Karen Joy Fowler. Kelly's fiction reminds me somewhat of Fowler's in tone and approach, although the landscape she explores is totally her own.
Like Fowler's, Link's stories often -- with a peculiar blend of obliqueness and directness -- refer to classic literature, fairy tales, or story types. And so, Link infuses her stories with Greek gods, Cinderella, girl detectives and so on. All of that could be nothing more than window dressing, except that her choices of source material are clues to the heart of all her fiction. Link decorates her stories with the stuff of childhood imagination. At some level -- and usually it's upfront and explicit -- Link's stories deal with children that have been let down by the real world. They are abandoned, neglected, unloved, misunderstood and, as a result, they are seduced, for better or for ill, by stranger things, as the collection's title announces. For children learning about the ways of the world, the supernatural is no stranger than the mysterious and bizarre world of adults, perhaps even less so. Link situates her stories within that hidden cognitive corner, where children seek a world that won't disappoint their needs for affection and excitement.
These dreamlike stories interact directly with readers' own childhood mythologies. Their resonance, more so even than with most fiction, depends greatly on what readers bring to the experience. Personally, I was wistfully amused by the clever, low-key mythological shenanigans of "Flying Lessons" and entranced with the mystery of "The Girl Detective"'s elusive identity.
Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room packs 33 stories and an astonishing number of mindwarpingly weird ideas into 253 pages. Vukcevich is spectacularly adept at the short short. He introduces characters, setting and ideas with seamless economy, but his stories are vaster by far than the number of pages that they occupy in the physical world. Almost every sentence invites readers to stretch their imaginations and inhabit the surreal strangeness he depicts. Invariably, he anchors his story ideas by inextricably interweaving them with human relationships, most often between lovers. So, for example, what happens when your lover vanishes into outer space by catching a spacesuit virus that grows an unremovable space suit around her body and makes her immune to gravity ("By the Time We Get to Uranus")? Or when, pulling on the sweater your lover has handmade for your birthday, your head gets lost in the infinite spaces between its waist and neckline ("The Sweater")? Reading a Vukcevich story is somewhat akin to being caught in a Salvador Dali painting while thinking about Philip K. Dick and reading James Thurber out of one eye and R.A. Lafferty out of the other.
Vukcevich writes delicious first sentences, the kind that force you to continue to read because they tease your mind with the promise of something new and different. A few sample gems include: "The missile silo was Stuart's idea" ("Pretending"); "So I come home to find her sitting on the hide-a-bed with this brown paper bag over her head" ("In the Refrigerator"); "Bobby wanted to practice it on his mother, but he knew her face would turn red, then purple, and he'd see all the veins pulsing in her head" ("The Finger"); "You've got to discipline your tattoos regularly" ("The Next Best Thing"). Often, the titles are enough to titillate: "We Kill a Bicycle" and "White Guys in Space," for example. In every case, Vukcevich succeeds in outweirding the most outlandish expectations, with flair, wit and empathy.
Both Link and Vukcevich write intensely personal fiction, coded and constructed with their uncompromisingly unique imagery. They do not try to cater to popular tastes. These texts require a willful abandon to the unknown and unknowable. They come to life only when readers actively engage their own imaginations with the material. The work of both of these writers demands that readers actively think, reflect and participate. Stimulated by the work of these two talented writers, the effort becomes an exhilarating experience. | August 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.