The reason this mad amalgam works is, for one, Link is able to channel teenage-girldom without condescension or over-the-topness. An example: “Grace took over, as if she and Madeline were training for the Olympics in the freestyle unsolicited-advice relay.” It’s amusing and perfectly captures high school, but is also smarter and funnier than any 11th-grader could articulate. And then there are lines with such specificity, so lovely: “There were bats dipping down, as if unzipping the rain.”
More than that, something unnamable in Link’s work hovers right at the edge of consciousness, both the characters’ and the readers’. Her narratives “take place in a psychic space,” says Miller. Here, it’s ideas of closeness, of intimacy between female friends that may — though it’s never stated outright, barely even alluded to — verge on something more than friendship. Likewise in “The Specialist’s Hat,” one of Link’s spookier stories, a strangeness exists, something off-putting, freaky, and it might be sexual, and it might be a ghost, and the reader doesn’t quite know, but the feeling is eerie and uncomfortable — you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate ghost stories. As she writes in “The Wizards of Perfil,” “To be haunted was a kind of comfort.”
But Link is queen of creating discomfort, as well. In the summer-camp-set “Monster,” she juxtaposes real-life horrors of camp life with others less real: “You find out what happens when you leave your wet clothes in your trunk for a few days. . . . You learn how to pretend to be asleep when people make fun of you. You learn how to be lonely.” (Then, on the next page, a monster appears with “a voice like a dead tree full of bees.”)
Hers are dark stories. “As a subject matter, death is inexhaustible,” she says, with round cheeks that lend her face merriness. She admits that every morning she wakes up and goes online “because I’m convinced that something bad has happened.” But her thrill in writing is conveying the heightened states: “One of the great things about writing fantasy, or writing about very dramatic events, is getting to sift through the emotional responses. Because the larger the emotional response is, the harder it is to distinguish between humor or fear or anger.”
Link’s willingness to waltz across genres, to blend high and low, funny and dark, real and fantastic, extends to the press she runs with her husband, Gavin Grant. (She met him here in Boston when she was working at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop. Grant proposed to her in the window display. It’s a Diesel store now.) Their Small Beer Press shares a converted Easthampton mill space with Web comic artists, Web designers, and guys, says Link, who make “very expensive bicycles and play a lot of thrash metal and ride their bikes up and down the very, very long corridor,” as well as somebody cultivating molds (“or maybe funguses?”) to find a way to convert them to fuel. It seems a fitting home. One meant for a person (and a press) that can enter the dialogue from many directions. “I feel that I have this really weird passport that most writers don’t have,” says Link. And, lucky for us, US Customs and Immigration have no jurisdiction over ghosts.
Kelly Link reads from Pretty Monsters on Friday, October 3, at 7 pm at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, in Cambridge, 617.661.1515. Free. Nina MacLaughlin doesn’t scare easily. She can be reached email@example.com.