Willfully ever after: Kelly Link’s latest collection features
fairy tale–inspired oddities.
White Cat, Black Dog: Stories, by Kelly Link, illustrations by Shaun Tan, Random House, 260 pages, $27
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When we describe fairy tales as “timeless,” we typically mean they’re scrubbed of specificity. The forest is any forest; Hansel and Gretel didn’t buy their bread crumbs from Kroger. Fairy tales exist out of time and place, a tradition of stripped-down narratives inviting infinite variations. The stories gathered in Kelly Link’s new book, White Cat, Black Dog, plunk old tales into new contexts that are more or less well defined: the time (with one exception) is now, and we travel from a weed farm in Colorado to a remote house in Vermont, making pit stops in Hell and Chattanooga on the way. Many of them involve journeys; all involve the inexplicable unsettling the mundane—and, as often, the reverse. Throughout, what’s notable is Link’s particular, tightly enmeshed blend of weird fabulism and contemporary realism, and the deliciously absurd and oddly moving combinations this blend sparks.
Stay on the path! Follow the rules! As in many fairy tales, imperatives like these show up frequently in White Cat. Like Link’s previous collection, the Pulitzer-finalist Get in Trouble (2015), this one demands its characters resist or work around the rules imposed on them (by, for example, the Queen of Hell), an agenda modeled by Link herself in her storytelling—and in her career overall. Link published her first book, Stranger Things Happen (2001), on her own Small Beer Press, which she co-runs with her husband Gavin J. Grant, in a moment when fiction that lived between SFF and the literary—sometimes called slipstream—confounded the markets. Link helped pave the way for younger writers like Carmen Maria Machado, who have arguably occupied that space more easily.
Now a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow and a best-selling author on a Big-Five press, Link still remains true to the short story as form. (Though two here, at forty-eight and fifty-seven pages, stretch the limits of what can reasonably be called “short.”) She has published only collections; White Cat is her fifth, and is hardly Link’s first adventure with fairy tales, either. Whether directly or indirectly, much of her work has engaged with the tradition, from “Travels with the Snow Queen” in Stranger Things Happen to modern-day versions like Get in Trouble’s “The New Boyfriend” and “The Summer People.” Along with Kate Bernheimer, whose writing has challenged the critical disregard for fairy tales due to their associations with women and children, Link has been a driving force of the most recent cycle of fairy-tale revivalism—followed by others like Machado, Helen Oyeyemi, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Lincoln Michel.
What continues to set Link apart from those fabulist peers may be just how far off-path she is willing to go. Any given fairy tale is a blurry form made up of overlapping variants, but Link’s retellings often proceed with gleeful infidelity to their inspirations (which are listed in parentheses under each story’s title). The most faithful is “The White Cat’s Divorce,” wherein Link drops the French tale “The White Cat” into the present day, reimagining the enchanted cat-princess as the boss of a cannabis operation. A more selective take is “Prince Hat Underground,” which riffs on a portion of the Norwegian “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”: in this version, the usual female protagonist gets swapped out for an Upper West Side gay man in search of his elusive partner. Written with wry humor, great warmth, and a strength of imagination that could wallop an ogre—I’m still chuckling about the uncommon abilities of the talking grub Sæmundr the Learned—“Prince Hat” is among the best of these marvelous stories.
Far less recognizable is “Hansel and Gretel,” here pulled into the sci-fi environment of a devastated planet called Home. But I’m more interested in the chilling, wonderfully strange “The White Road,” which draws just a few elements from its named source, “The Musicians of Bremen.” In this case, the performers we follow are not animals, as in the classic, but humans; and they are on a journey not to Bremen, Germany, but to a town in the American South (possibly Bremen, Georgia?). Other connections are tenuous: like their predecessors, our troupe has, in a way, escaped death. Or, rather, death travels alongside them, as represented by the unnerving white road that runs parallel to theirs. “Turn your head in one direction,” our narrator tells us, “and there, through the trees, is the road”—sometimes “thin as a ribbon,” other times “at least a mile across.” Its proximity shifts, too, first glinting from a cool remove, “wriggling now obscenely, like a fat worm in a kind of ecstasy of nearness.” The white road by day is empty. At night, those who travel it (the dead, we infer) appear, a threat to the living. “The White Road” advances with spellbinding dread.
A few stories have an anthology effect, containing tales of tales. In the final, riveting “Skinder’s Veil,” a house sitter is regaled with strange, disturbing yarns by his mysterious guests. “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” embeds a variation of its precedent (“The Boy Who Did Not Know Fear”) into a brief story told to our protagonist on an airplane; this woman happens to be afraid of a lot of things, especially of flying when the moon is . . . Sorry! I want to say more about all of these, but abundant twists make them difficult to describe without spoilers. My favorites swing into clarity at the end, like a puzzle that’s fuzzy until the last piece is placed. (The only dud for me is the predictable and overlong “The Lady and the Fox.”) What I can tell you is that they reward multiple readings. Also, there is a cat (or cat joke) in most. And they are unstinting evidence (if we needed more) that the fairy-tale resurgence Link has helped to shepherd remains robust, tenacious, here.
Megan Milks is the author of the novel Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, finalist for a 2022 Lambda Literary Award, and Slug and Other Stories, both published by Feminist Press.