Book Review: Get in Troubles: Stories by Kelly Link

“A collection of stories on the loose theme of jeopardy; of risk and error and consequence on the part of the characters. But it is more than that.”

Kelly Link - Get In TroubleDuring an interview for Geeks Guide To The Galaxy podcast, Kelly Link reveals how she and friends like to play a little game when they’re watching TV. Say you’re sitting through an episode of Friends, about an innocuous and safe as U.S. sitcoms of the last twenty years get. Now point out which character is actually a vampire. There’s never going to be any implicit evidence of course, but you just have to observe and eventually decide which character is the most likely to drink blood and be immortal.

These are the sorts of observations that instil the stories of Get In Trouble with a booby trap-like sense of horror. From the first few lines, any of Link’s stories tend to speak in an ultramodern, almost recalcitrant tone. Sentences are short as in the way character-limitation is short (Twitter et al), and there isn’t often very much exposition to carry the weight of a switched-off reader.

Take ‘The New Boyfriend’ – ostensibly the story of a moneyed-up white girl’s birthday with “sushi and cake and lots of pictures to put up line”, along with the murmurings of envy and grudging admiration that emanate from the surrounding group of specially-selected party attendees. The name of the story itself, and given the sort of magical realist tendency for the disturbing Link is know for, would imply from the first few lines that, yes, Ainslie is getting a ‘new boyfriend’ for her birthday: a synthetic boyfriend of some kind. Superficially, ‘The New Boyfriend’ echoes The Twilight Zone’s tendency to satirise the commercialisation and mass market manipulation of romance/relationships/teen love/whatever. Ainslie’s previous synthetic boyfriend models (which now appear mostly done-with and neglected) are all staple bad boys: the “Vampire Boyfriend”, the “Werewolf Boyfriend”. But when Ainslie gets a “Ghost Boyfriend” (whom she names Mint), something altogether more sinister creeps out of the story.

Immy covets Ainslie’s good fortune, both with birthdays and synthetic boyfriends. She becomes obsessed with Mint and begins breaking into Ainslie’s home at opportune nocturnal moments to spend time with him. Mint has different settings: when he’s in “Spectral Mode” you can’t stroke his hair or interact physically at all because he’s “like a movie projection and he floats around. You can hang out with him like that, but it’s random or something. Like, he comes and goes.” Mint also has an “Embodied Mode” (which is as the name implies. Sort of). If you put three strands of hair in Mint’s mouth, he will fall in love with you. Immy does this, and things become very disturbing. Mint’s love for Immy is pure and unobstructed. Immy’s interest in Mint before he died is met with nothing but insufficient answers. Then Mint becomes Embodied but simultaneously he also has a Spectral self, who happens to be a girl with dead holes for eyes. ‘The New Boyfriend’ is a ghost story so modern, you could almost make out the shelf life of it. But its grasp of the uncanny – the utterly dislocating sensation of resurrection and life after death – leaves more than a lasting impression on what cannot, or should not, be regurgitated or reproduced in consumer-led youth culture.

In ‘The Summer People’, Link takes the reader into another inversion of the contemporary youth expectation. Compared to the domesticated tech of ‘The New Boyfriend’, ‘The Summer People’ feels like a heady bucolic daydream, a quieter America not quite there anymore but still visible from time to time. Flu-suffering Fran gets her schoolmate Ophelia to drive her back to her home out in the country. When they arrive, “You could hardly see the house itself”, thinks Ophelia, “hidden like a bride behind her veil of climbing vines: virgin’s bower and Japanese honeysuckle, masses of William Baffin and Cherokee roses overgrowing the porch and running up over the sagging roof.”  Ophelia’s long expedition from urban normality is taken a stage further when, refusing medical aid, Fran instead instructs Ophelia to drive alone to the house where the Summer People live, for help. She gives Ophelia three hairs in an envelope (a strange recurring theme of Link’s, lending any story an occult, transactional quality) and claims that “You won’t see them, but they’ll know you come from me.” The house of the Summer People is a dream-situated lair, depending on who is approaching it. For Fran, and to a certain extent Ophelia, the house contains medicinal qualities just by being there. The Summer People never show themselves to the reader: only the odd tortured glance at them by Fran hints at some of them being “so pretty it almost hurt to peep at.” When the two bad boys Kyle and Ryan end up entering the Summer Peoples’ house “uninvited”, no amount of avoidance on the part of the author hides the fact they will have come to a gruesome end. Compared to the media-savvy social interactions of Ainslie’s clan, Fran is independent. She knows secrets that help her to stay alive; ancient, private secrets carried in-between summers.

For outright scares, particular mention should go to ‘Two Houses’, not only one of the most intriguing stories of the collection but also possibly one of the best English language ghost stories of the last ten years. Set on the deep space vessel House of Secrets, the crew share supernatural tales to wile away the hours on a long, generic mission. Maureen, the House of Secrets’ own sentience, provides the aesthetic surroundings whilst the all-female crew attempt to out-scare each other: Maureen manipulates the ship walls and lights into the Great Hall of Halfmark House, with its “Tapestries hung on plaster walls, threadbare and musty”. Through the leaded windows of the Great Hall, the crew witness incarnations of each others’ stories: the rain-soaked tragedy of the girl cut in half by a fallen tree during a tornado, her torso-end still crawling along with lifeless energy. The stone table setting of a collection of ghosts in the foot of a valley, carefully beckoning young farm hands to join them from afar. And ultimately, the dual-housed story of Liam (Sisi’s ex-boyfriend) and the possibly haunted art installation, involving people with far too much money, the unchecked psychological illness of Liam’s mother and the after-effects of an unsolved murder. From the meticulously considered layout of the House of Secrets, to the meticulously recreated second murder house of the art installation Liam shows Sisi, ‘Two Houses’ leaves the reader in a state of shadowy limbo throughout. Like a fluxed hybrid of Iain M. Banks and M. R. James, the story is a technical mystery from beginning to end and where the occult and supernatural remain yet again  things technology and knowledge cannot grasp or understand.

The House of Secrets’ decades-long journey, combined with an ever-presented ‘haunting’ by its vanished sister ship, the House of Mystery, becomes less of a journey of intrepid space-age discovery but rather one that takes the reader further and further from home, and into the realms of mystery, fear, and all of it lit by darkness. Get In Trouble, as the name implies, is a collection of stories on the loose theme of jeopardy; of risk and error and consequence on the part of the characters. But it is more than that. Kelly Link is inviting us readers to do just that: to get in trouble by reading these stories. To look a bit further than just the superficialities of setting. To seek out the dangers that aren’t quite in view until you search for them. Are those fangs Phoebe Buffay bares in the shadows?


Publisher: Canongate
Hardback (336pp)
Release Date: 3 February 2015

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