‘Get in Trouble’ by Kelly Link or prepare to have your senses exploded like a jar of pickle

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A strange kaleidoscope, full of societal interactions giving validation to the marginalised

Kelly Link has been on my radar for quite a few years, ever since noticing her short-story collection, ‘Pretty Monsters’ on the Canongate website. While I should have just gone with my instincts and ordered a copy, the fact that I hadn’t heard about her from anyone else kind of made me hold back (stupidly). I am sure we have all found reassurance from, and been swayed by the kind of enthusiasm espoused by a fellow book-loving compadre, that follows when they have discovered a new author and sing their praises from the rooftops- the kind that infuses you with same said enthusiasm and hurtles you out the door to the nearest bookshop to secure your own copy. Through my then clearly limited literary circles, this had not yet crept onto my bookish radar- so any inklings I had weren’t verified or acted upon. Fast forward a few years and the bookish world has become much more global and open, with bookish communities on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and You Tube. Now here is something a literary purist, like me, never¬†thought they would be saying- thanks to such sites and being opened up to a much broader pool of recommendations, new titles and authors are springing up and grabbing my attention all over the place.

Step forward Kelly Link. One fateful day, guided by some unseen force (Canongate Books Twitter feed) a poor, neglected author weaselled her way to the front of my readerly awareness. Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it clever marketing. Whatever it was it worked! Canongate were offering to send out promotional copies of ‘The Summer People’, so of course I intervened and saw this as the opportune time to become more intimately acquainted with her talents. Like an over enthusiastic school-girl, hand straight up, I jumped the queue and got my hands on said copy and was immediately enamoured. Couple this with reading ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ in Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘Ghostly’ and it was pretty apparent I had made a grave error in ignoring my initial instincts *note to self- be bolder in your textual selections and don’t seek reassurance in future*. Purchase of ‘Get in Trouble’ swiftly followed, to join my ridiculously large to read pile, vying for pole-position with several other urgent reads- because, well aren’t all reads urgent?

Luckily for Kelly Link, her curious cover kept winking at me ensuring she didn’t have to wait long. Good old fate also somehow entwined this process with the announcement she had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, should such validation really be necessary. I’m sure Kelly Link, would give no never mind judging by the curious and singular approach she brings to each and every story. She gives the impression that she is all about the process and the creativity that seams through each one like a particularly zingy lemon. You get the impression that she really enjoys her writing, and just like her title, ‘Get in Trouble’ implies really isn’t all that interested in conforming. You only have to look at the surreal blends that take place in her stories. It is almost like she has a giant jar of random story ideas that she dives in to to gain inspiration and mould her ideas together in response to. In a less masterful writer, juxtaposing subterranean pyramids with some kind of weird Stepford children vibe could fail dismally. Instead, Link takes our puzzled curiosity and makes us examine the consequences of this universal drive for perfection and makes us start thinking about how this is detrimental in our own lives.

Yet this dysfunction also takes us to more unsettling places, like in ‘The Summer People’. Right off the bat we are disoriented as we try to make sense of what is happening, through the flu- addled eyes of the central character: home alone Fran. Through her delirium we try to work out who the Summer People are; this is more dark fairytale than the sanitised Disney versions we expect. You almost wonder who you should be feeling sorry for. Or take the unsettling premise of ‘Secret Identity’ where a 15 year old girl has snuck away to meet with a man in his 30s, that she has met in a chat room. With all this latent subtext, you await exploitation- yet it is the reader whom is exploited when the plot takes an entirely different direction: exploding your expectation. Both stories contain delightfully imaginative elements, whether it is the world of superhero comic cons and a greasy fight or the miniature battle reenactments with unseen enactors and dangerous weapons! Both stories transcend their hybrid structures by making you use their fantastical material to consider much deeper (albeit disturbing and unsettling) questions. Particularly, ‘Secret Identity’ made me wonder about who people really are, who they show to each other and whether any of us really know each other. Is life really just about a series of characters interacting with each other?

Throughout this collection, which is full of similarly intriguing and enchanting tales, we get glimpses beyond such clever story-moulding and character realisation as to precisely why Kelly Link garnered a much deserved Pulitzer nomination. Here is a writer so in control of what she wishes to say and with such confidence in her use of language that she can afford to be quirky. She can pepper together ideas that should not work in combination. She can play with our perceptions via her structural choices ( such as in ‘I Can See Right Through You’ where the narrative is sliced like an editors cut- like a disappointed lover seeking the perfect memories- wow this works in so many ways) to add further meaning than the main narrative drive. She can just delight us with chilling or laden images, such as ‘everyone who is alive has a ghost inside them, don’t they’ or ‘muddy violet clouds, silver veils of rain’ like an ingognito poet. What she always does is intrigue us and make us work for the meaning that we come away with:through a surreal psychedelic labrynth that can only be Kelly Link!

I for one will be revisiting these stories and devouring her back catalogue. I will be singing her praises from the rooftops. She had moved to pre-order territory! Roll on this novel she is working on.

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‘Ghostly’ by Audrey Niffenegger (ed) or be careful if your torch backlights it’s pages

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Read at your peril: torchlight reveals it’s haunting properties in ways fragile imaginations cannot take

 

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Behold: A book ghost!

 

 

Now Audrey Niffenegger clearly knows a thing or two about the dark, macabre and the gothic. Hanging out in Highgate Cemetary can only result in a more fervent eye toward such matters- something that any reader of ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ or ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ would eagerly concur with. If you want a brooding story with an unsettling tone and haunting sense of yearning then she is your author! Imagine my delight, then, last Halloween when it became abundantly apparent that she had curated and illustrated an anthology of haunting stories. If you are beginning to know anything about me, then it will come as no surprise that I was straight into my nearest bookshop to snatch up a copy of ‘Ghostly’ as fast as my greedy and expectant mitts could cooperate (basically immediately)!

It will also come as no surprise to you that this rapid determination, could not follow through when it came to said reading. Not because this collection somehow diminished in appeal (as if) but purely because I always have an astronomical to be read pile, that just keeps increasing like some sick, but albeit pleasurable joke. While I did tuck in with gusto, somehow I got waylaid- something it took several months to rekindle. This is not because the selection was somehow lacking. Indeed, Niffenegger has weaved together the selected stories with real sensitivity. They ebb and flow with a respectful reverence toward their accordant subject matter, in a way that both heightens and draws contrasts in meaning as one story ends and the next begins. It really must be noted that this is a mark of her skill. Great ghostly stories are often placed in such anthologies: rarely do they weave together in such a manner. Rarely do we then consider them as a whole- for ghost stories, in their usual short- form are written to be enjoyed alone in more ways than one. No, instead my pause was garnered by the particular effect the centrepiece of this collection rendered on my poor senses: Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ rendered me mute and unable to continue.

As anyone who has encountered a particularly powerful story will testify, sometimes you must cease and allow your subconscious the space to process and recover from such an unexpected effect. While I am not entirely sure why it held such magnetic sway, well apart from the psychological malaise it infused via its central protagonist and the brooding, oppressive atmosphere that seeped through its pages and into my psyche as it’s dank, maudlin environs overpowered those that resided in its pages, what I do know is that it felt better to wrap myself in less affecting prose and allow myself to detangle from its grasp. Yet, like all compulsions it was only a matter of time before I once more immersed myself in this tome and surrendered myself to whatever awful fate may befall me.

Perhaps such an extended pause was really about allowing myself time to process the explicit mastery encountered in this particular tale. The best of any ghostly fiction must surely recognise that success comes from creating the requisite atmosphere to compound our uncertainties and fears- which it must do in such a way that does not reveal to us how it drawn us in or suspended our disbelief. Confusion and uncertainty are then key ingredients. That Niffenegger would include this story in exactly the position that she has in this collections’ chronology only further highlights the mastery and knowledge of this genre AND of how fear works. This reveals her skill in all its glory. Such confidence then also allows the full range of writing that this genre can muster to sing together and educate us- showing us all the directions that great ghost stories can take. Who could not enjoy the humorous departure of a bachelor haunted by the fear of marriage in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ (light relief at just the right moment). Or the art of the twist in the masterfully short ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. Kelly Link’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ just makes me want to read her work voraciously (especially after scoring a promotional copy of ‘The Summer People’ from Canongate- which was bloody excellent): who says ghosts are in charge of the scares! Enough said.

While I could explore EVERY included story in miniatuae, it has to be A S Byatts’ haunting ‘The July Ghosts’ that had the most emotional impact. The beautiful prose adeptly explains the yearning that loss brings with it, so lightly that you cannot help by be moved. It truly is haunting. In many way, Niffeneggers’ own work draws much from this approach- it makes you wonder how influential she has been in informing her particular style of writing. In any case, it has certainly made me want to read more of Byatts’ work. In much the same way that Niffeneggers’ particular proclivity for weaving has made me eager to see how she will continue to weave her own writing. Let us not forget the beautiful artwork that also compliments and provokes us as readers: from the smoke -like wisps of the cover to the deceptive sway of the feline fatale.

Just be careful if you read by torchlight. Your eyes may deceive you if you turn the pages too quickly: behold any book ghosts that may reveal themselves…