Pretty Monsters
 by Kelly Link

Canongate, 2009 
First collection? No

Nominated for a World Fantasy award

Kelly Link broke onto the bigger literary scene with her short story collection Stranger Things Happen, followed by Magic for Beginners. Because of the creativity, humor, and intelligence evident in each of her complex stories, she moved quickly from being known by a small group of readers to winning Nebula awards and a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award.

Read an interview with Kelly Link and win a copy!

"Anyone might accidentally dig up the wrong grave. It’s a mistake anyone could make"

Reviewed by Kristin Thiel

There are two things one might think of first when trying to put Kelly Link and her writing, and specifically this latest collection, into context for Link’s new readers.

One might be the author photo in this edition of Pretty Monsters - in it, Link appears so unassuming. Only the tiniest of smiles and her gaze not meeting the viewer’s. Take that level of quietness, that level of introversion, casualness, plainness, sweetness - whatever one may consider it - and reverse it one hundred eighty degrees to understand her writing.

Link’s stories are sharp and tart, and a reader cannot avoid the clarity of her voice and the complexity of her thoughts. In the tiniest of details, Link zaps both her characters and her readers, as she does in the story Monster, in which a human-eating beast infilitrates a children’s camping trip:
"There was a picture over Terence’s camp bed of this girl sitting on an elephant in Thailand. The girl’s name was Darlene. Nobody knew the elephant’s name."
That last line both fits voice of the main characters, children, and adds a spark of humor unexpected in a story about demons both physical and mental.

Monster exemplifies Link’s detail-oriented style. Readers meet a young man who writes poems about girls’ breasts looking "lonely but also beautiful, like melted ice cream", and later in the story, mud oozes out of a shoe pulled from a swampy trail like "lonely, melting soft-serve ice cream."

Elsewhere, the jolting frenetic ghost storytelling and mean joking of prepubescent boys are paired with the monster’s "voice like a dead tree full of bees: sweet and dripping and buzzing" - and then all of that is mixed with the unexpected gentleness of the camp’s bully. Without being asked, the bully stands next to counsellor Terence, holding out his shirt so that the "rain wouldn’t fall in Terence’s ear" while the counsellor looked for that previously mentioned lost shoe.

Another of this collection’s stories, The Surfer, is set after the AOL Cable Access Riots of 2012, near enough to present day that the Darwin Award still exists and everyone still uses uses cell phones, but far enough that people also use peeties and googlies, much cuter sounding versions of the Kindle, and more intimidating sounding "smart crayons"; California and Mexico have become Calexico and parts of the United States and Canada have become the Potlach Territories, Vermont is under martial law, McDisneyUniverse formally exists; and aliens have landed and gone away. Fourteen-year-old Adorno and his father have journeyed to meet Hans Bliss, the throwback German hippie to whom the aliens appeared.

Link doesn’t just write prettily and forcefully, those two terms not being exclusive. Rather, Link does as any good writer and says things, not just speaks them. Sometimes her work has a high threshold - a reader may not quite understand a story, even after multiple readings. But in The Surfer, Link is nothing if not a commentator on our own current world. Adorno’s mother and brother died in the previous, but not the world’s last, flu pandemic, which jumped to humans from horses. The world overall has broken into unignorable fighting and frustration. The ending is maybe not unexpected, as much as anything written by Link is not unexpected, but it’s shocking and true-feeling all at once.

Even when dipping close to today’s current events, Link avoids the cliché. Bats, possibly even vampire bats, invade the flu quarantine hangar in Costa Rica where Adorno and his father stay before meeting Hans Bliss. When the bats left for the night, "they bled out into the twilight in a thin, black slick, off to do bat things … This whole corner of the hangar floor was totally covered in bat guano. My dad said it wasn’t a health risk, but as a matter of fact, one of the joggers slipped on it the next day and sprained an ankle." No reader is thinking about the Twilight series
anymore after that.

Finally, that other bit of context to help readers new to Link’s work? It may be found in these lines, from Pretty Monster’s title story:
"There were two girls in a room. They were reading a book. Now there are two wolves. The window is open and the moon is in it. Look again, and the room is empty. The end of the story will have to wait."
Link has a knack just for sentences that are so stubby and quick-paced they leave a reader breathless, or sure, a little annoyed:
"Where was I?…My legs. And I was strapped in. I was holding on to something. A soccer ball…I had a sip of water. Swallowed."
And she has a knack for remembering even among big-picture issues that her youthful and quarantined characters would set up a petting zoo of bedraggled crabs and sandy snakes, drawing out long and lovely phrases and ideas.

But readers should not look to Link’s stories for finality. Satisfaction, yes, but not finality. Link’s stories are like warm peanut butter - sticky enough to last past the final turned page, slick enough to drip-drip-drip off the edge and land … where?

Read a story from this collection in The Guardian

Kristin Thiel is a fiction writer, reviewer, and editor based in the US Pacific Northwest. Find her via her web site or on Twitter, @KristinWithPen.
Kristin's other Short Reviews: Derek Green "New World Order"

Stephanie Dickinson "Road of Five Churches"

Nuala Ní Chonchúir "Nude"

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If you liked this book you might also like....

Kelly Link "Strange Things Happen" and "Magic for Beginners"

Alan DeNiro "Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead"

Shelley Jackson "The Melancholy of Anatomy"

What other reviewers thought:

Fantasy Magazine

Locus Magazine

The Guardian

Reading Matters


Fiction Writers Review

Time Out Chicago


Hipster Book Club


School Library Journal

Boston Globe