Except you can’t judge a book by its cover. Whether or not this story has a happy ending depends, of course, on who is reading it. Whether you are a wolf or a girl. A girl or a monster or both. Not everyone in a story gets a happy ending. Not everyone who reads a story feels the same way about how it ends. And if you go back to the beginning and read it again, you may discover it isn’t the same story you thought you’d read. Stories shift their shape.
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
400 pages; Viking; October 2008
Having read Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen earlier this year (and loving it) and then taking out from the library her Magic for Beginners, and realizing, “Hey, I already read this, and that’s why I started using Goodreads and reviewing, so things like this wouldn’t happen, numbskull,” I treated myself to the last collection of her stories I hadn’t read, Pretty Monsters.
First, look up there at that cover. That is one gorgeous cover.
Then, you get this inside the front flap: this totally made me laugh. Both Tennessee Fainting Goats AND possibly carnivorous sofas!
OK. This book is billed as YA. The only thing YA about this book is that the protagonists of the stories are…well, young adults. That’s it. That’s the tenuous connection to the world of YA there is in these pages. Really, this is a book of beautifully-written fantasy/horror/suspense short stories whose main characters happen to be younger. If you’re one of those “ZOMG NO NO NOT YA!” people (and if you are, what’s wrong with you? Have you READ any YA recently? It’s WONDERFUL!) that should assuage you.
Where to begin. Well, for any Link fans, there are some repeats here. Actually, 8 of the stories are previously published; two in her two previous collections, the rest in other story collections. The titular story is new to this collection. It’s also brilliant. Utterly, completely brilliant. (And it’s the one with the Tennessee Fainting Goats in it. Coincidence? YOU DECIDE.)
This collection has my favorite of her stories thus far in it – “The Specialist’s Hat,” from Stranger Things Happen (also known as the story that gave this jaded horror aficionado the creeping willies, no small feat) which I totally read again – I like it just that much. It also has “The Faery Handbag” in it, which I read years ago in a short-story collection and loved; I was glad to rediscover it and re-read it here.
From the new-to-me stories, though – well, let’s work our way up to “Pretty Monsters,” which bowled me over so much I had to take a breather before starting to write this, ok?
They’re all beautiful. They’re at different levels of beauty, but Link has such a way with words that I just want to immerse myself in her nouns and verbs and pronouns and descriptors and just bathe myself in them. Her characters are lost, and broken, but fierce. They glitter like window-glass left over from a morning car-crash in the afternoon rush-hour traffic; left over, forgotten, but still just a little deadly, still warning you off. They speak like we do, and they speak like fairy-tale creatures, and they speak like they’re divining the future, all at once. You want to know them, but you’re a little afraid to know them.
“The Wizards of Perfil” finds cousins split apart; one sold to be a servant to mysterious wizards who live in a swamp, the other left behind with his aunt and younger cousins. Somehow, their bond only intensifies with distance, and each of them learn things about themselves they hadn’t known before; the one who was weak learns to be strong, and the one that was strong learns that weakness isn’t a bad thing, sometimes. “Monster” tied bullying and death and gaybashing and loneliness all into a ball and set it in a desolate campground not far from a summer camp; you wonder who the true monster is. Do we ever know who the true monster is?
And finally, “Pretty Monsters.” If Link saved this story for the one new to the collection, and for last – it shows she knows what she’s doing. We didn’t know who the true monster was in “Monster” and we don’t know who the true monster is here, either. It’s a story within a story within a story; there is a girl in love with the boy who keeps saving her, there is an amusement park slowly sinking into a field, there are two sisters tied to a tree in the dark, there is something scratching at the door, and did you know goats sneeze to warn their pack – be it caprine or human – of upcoming danger?
The goats sneeze a lot in this story. You can never quite tell who the monsters are when they wear pretty faces to cover their true selves.
I’ll read anything Link writes. She understands what I need from a story: poetry and danger and love and mystery and beauty. You don’t always find that all in one place. When you do, you have to hold onto it. Even when it’s dark, and there might be monsters.