Kelly Link is something of a short story sorceress. The 2018 MacArthur fellow refuses rules, subverts conventions, and in so doing, delivers unpredictable adventure. “White Cat, Black Dog,” her fifth collection, is a set of seven slipstream short stories that edge, in length, toward novelettes. Where her earlier collections were anchored by a zany, wondrous youthfulness (as well as vampires, faeries, and other fantastical genre staples), this one seems to convey: Never fear, aging has entertaining horrors all its own.
Many of these bizarrely fractured fairy tales are based on obscure ones likely familiar only to devotees of illustrator Arthur Rackham’s 19th-century color-based fairy tale collections, such as “The Blue Fairy Book.” Yet Link’s permutations do retain palpable atmospheric similarities to their originals, marked by the same flatness of character and affect that characterize traditional fairy tales, and similarly bloody plots. Link intensifies her versions by making the stories wilder and setting them in mundane, contemporary situations.
Weird journeys, often featuring creepy companions, recur throughout the collection. The first story, “The White Cat’s Divorce” is a quest narrative based on Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s French fairy tale, “The White Cat,” about a king who tasks his three sons with finding the smallest and most beautiful dog to distract them from pursuing his throne. In d’Aulnoy’s story, the youngest finds himself in a land of talking cats, ruled by a white cat who gives him an acorn to take back to the king. When the prince returns home, he breaks the acorn open to find, improbably, an enchantment, the smallest and most beautiful dog — but the king then sends him on another epic journey. It eventually resolves in a triple wedding. In Link’s version, the premise is analogous: A rich man fears getting old and sees in his sons “the proof of his own mortality.” But when the youngest son sets out, he does so in a roadster with a copy of Kerouac and dog treats, winding his way through a landscape of pot farms and airport security, until the story is darkened by violent betrayal.
The second story begins when one half of a gay couple, Prince Hat, disappears with a woman, evidently a lover from his past. When Prince Hat’s partner, Gary, cannot locate him, a bartender suggests that perhaps Prince Hat has gone to hell, as he’d only come up to this world to gallivant and “see night become day become night again.” When Gary heads out to find him, the story grows forbidding and a little kinky.
“The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear,” about a lesbian woman on a flight home, takes a turn when a woman on the plane mistakes her for her wife, who had slept around many years before. Lest we imagine this will be a realistic narrative about erotic jealousy, the conversations take a peculiar, metaphoric turn when another passenger casually discusses the sighting of ghosts.
The last story, “Skinder’s Veil” is the most overtly menacing, and it’s also one of the greatest departures from its inspiration, “Snow-White and Rose-Red” by the Brothers Grimm. A young man must follow odd, intricate rules while housesitting, keeping careful track of which visitors are allowed to enter which entrances. Our hero is plagued by oddballs wanting to chitchat, but it’s only after years pass that the elliptical mystery of the homeowner becomes clear.
Link leans on a signature technique she employs in other collections, too, like “Get in Trouble” and “Magic for Beginners”: the placement of contemporary, niche objects inside plot structures that belong to fairy tales, such that an off-kilter, highly specific present is always in conversation with the lurid antique. A prince pulled into an Underworld sleeps on a blood-bed, not a water bed. A house sitter must reckon with a pair of crones — or are they maidens?
The atmosphere of these stories is uneasy, much like the act of aging — you feel young, and yet your body betrays a different reality. Like William Ely Hill’s “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” the well-known optical illusion featuring the same pair in a single image, the gestalt shifts and makes it impossible to settle on what, precisely, is in front of you.
Anita Felicelli is the author of the novel “Chimerica” and the short-story collection “Love Songs for a Lost Continent.”
Random House. 260 pp. $27.
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