You might get to the end of “Summer People”, the first story in Get in Trouble, and wonder how you got there. Without giving too much away, it’s probably not an ending you’d expect and it kind of comes out of nowhere.
But then later, while you’re doing the dishes or folding the laundry, it hits you like a smack of lightning: Link set that ending up perfectly, and by the rules laid out in the story, it makes total sense — even if it still might not fit your expectations.
It’s hard to think of a better story to kick off Link’s new collection. “Summer People” is arguably one of the book’s more accessible pieces, centering on a young girl who’s left in charge of some rather odd familial responsibilities. However, it’s also a textbook example of what sets Link apart from many other speculative fiction writers.
In addition to her endings, which often refuse to tie her stories up into neat bows (a trait she’s wonderfully unrepentant about in interviews), there’s the fact that she doesn’t even approach her stories’ connective tissue in conventional ways.
As often as not, and especially in Get in Trouble, Link’s stories feel like they are puzzle pieces that slide together, whether it’s the epistolary pieces of “Secret Identity” (which takes place at a convention for real superheroes) or the way the past informs the present in “Demon Lover” (about an actor who made his name as a hugely popular supernatural character).
Link rarely uses a conventional story structure where Scene A drives Scene B, Scene B drives Scene C, and so on. Her stories, which range from horror to fantasy to science fiction, are very character-based and, like the minds of those characters, can jump around or move in challenging ways.
Running through it all is Link’s guiding principle of nighttime logic, which she attributes to writer Howard Waldrop. Nighttime logic isn’t dream logic, where anything can happen. Rather, it works according to its own rules and logic, even if that logic might not stand up to scrutiny of less forgiving daytime logic.
If that sounds a bit hand-wavy, it’s really not. Reading through Get In Trouble, you repeatedly find yourself in worlds of Link’s devising where these things — superheroes, ghost boyfriends, mermaids, strange things building nests in old houses — are just part of the fabric and not necessarily out of the ordinary for the people who run into them.
Link, though, doesn’t feel compelled to spell out all of the rules for us. “Summer People”, for example, is a cousin to traditional faerie stories, but Link either considers the traditional rules of such folk inconsequential or she expects the reader to be familiar enough with this kind of tale to understand the dangers and temptations. Either way, she’s more concerned with portraying — with a deft blend of regional voice, humor, and dread — how her teenage protagonist navigates this burden that she’s inherited.
It’s easy to see why, faced with rejections from mainstream genre magazines, Link self-published her first two short story collections (2001’s Stranger Things Happen and 2005’s Magic for Beginners). Even now, with her reputation well-established as a writer and as co-founder of Small Beer Press, Link’s stories are more likely to be found in publications like Tin House or McSweeneys than Asimov’s or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Speculative fiction genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction pride themselves on efficient, lean-to-the-bone stories that maintain momentum from start to end in a very linear fashion. That’s not a Kelly Link story. Her characters think things and do things that a traditionalist might argue don’t move the story forward, despite the fact that its these very quirks that make Link’s stories unique.
If you’re a genre reader, Link’s style might force you to recalibrate your expectations a little, but the rewards are well worth it.