Small Beer press has done fans of good short stories a favor by making much of Kelly Link’s collection Magic for Beginners available for a free download.
Link first came to my attention when her absorbing, funny, and weirdly terrifying story “Stone Animals” appeared in one of the annual best short stories volumes a few years back. In “Stone Animals,” a family moves to an old house outside of the city, and finds their yard to be overrun by creepy rabbits. The longer they stay, more and more things in the house become inexplicably unnerving to them—as if haunted—and they soon find that they can no longer comfortably stay in the same room with the television, the dishwasher, or a particular box of paper clips. Meanwhile, the parents’ marriage suffers from the strain of the husband’s long commute, and they struggle to understand what’s going on in the heads of their children. These are very common themes in contemporary short fiction, but here Link transforms them into something utterly strange and new. We can always predict what’s going to happen next in a kitchen sink drama, and nothing ever takes us out of the fully comprehensibly realm of the mundane. But by injecting so many fantastic and terrifying and genuinely odd elements into stories like “Stone Animals,” Link unsettles our certainties about how we understand what’s going on in our lives, and reminds us of the fundamental strangeness of human minds, emotions, and relationships.
There are several other superb stories in Magic for Beginners—none of which rely on conventionally realistic storytelling. “Catskin” applies the logic of a fairytale to a contemporary setting, offering a fascinatingly off-kilter take on parenthood, childhood, inheritance, death, and grief through the story of a dying witch and her children. “Lull” contains more than one story within a frame of a conversation over a card game. The story is full of strange, arresting, and in some ways funny images that have the mythic resonance of things out of fairy tales—including one moment where a cheerleader touches the Devil’s tail with a pompom while the two of them are locked in the closet during a game of spin the bottle. And “Magic for Beginners” tells the moving and involving story of a teenage boy who’s afraid he’ll lose his friends and his parents if his mother leaves his father and takes him to Las Vegas, where she’s recently inherited a wedding chapel. The story contains the wonderful fantasy invention of a television show set in a vast library beset by pirates, in which different actors play the same characters every night. The show has no set broadcast schedule, and appears on a variety of channels in an unpredictable manner. No one knows who produces the show—some of the characters suspect it might be a broadcast of real events from some strange and fantastic world. As the protagonist’s parents’ marriage disintegrates, the narrator begins to receive phone calls from someone he believes to be one of the characters on the show, asking him to help save her life. Like many of Link’s stories, “Magic for Beginners” moves fluidly between reality, fantasy and dream, and by the time it’s over, none of its mysteries are revealed or explained. Instead, Link leaves us in a place of deep empathy and understanding for her characters’ ordinary struggles, while also keeping our sense of wonder at the world intact.