Cats who grow and sell weed. A talking snake named after a brand of Icelandic liquor. A brown bear with a gift for storytelling.
Welcome to the world of Kelly Link. The Northampton author has long been known for her off-center, wildly creative short fiction; she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2016 for her collection “Get in Trouble,” which showcased her gift for creating worlds that seem normal at first glance, but are actually anything but.
In her latest, “White Cat, Black Dog,” Link turns her eye to fairy tales, reimagining old stories in a way that’s startlingly new. It’s a stunning collection, filled with her signature wit and charmingly bizarre sensibility.
The collection opens with “The White Cat’s Divorce,” Link’s take on Madame d’Aulnoy’s 17th-century fairy tale about a king who sends his sons on a series of wild goose chases. In Link’s telling, the king isn’t royalty, but rather “a man so very rich, he might reach out and have almost any thing he desired, as well as many things that he did not.”
The man is aging, a fact he refuses to accept gracefully, and he’s constantly reminded that he’s growing old by the presence of his three sons, who live with him and “selfishly insist on growing older.” He decides not to kill them (“being possessed of a tender heart”), instead sending them on a yearlong quest to find him “the smallest, silkiest, most obedient and amiable dog a man has ever possessed.”
The story follows the youngest son, who dutifully collects an assortment of dogs, but his plans to bring them to his father are threatened when he gets stuck in a snowstorm in Colorado. He stumbles upon a greenhouse filled with marijuana plants as well as “cats dressed in lab coats who stood on their hind legs, wielding clipboards and garden shears and harvesting buckets.”
He befriends one of the felines, a white cat who can talk, and who gives him a macadamia nutshell, instructing him to crack it to reveal a dog that’s bound to please his father. Readers familiar with the original fairy tale will recognize how the story plays out, but that doesn’t make it any less enchanting — Link is clearly having fun, and it’s absolutely contagious.
In “Prince Hat Underground,” a reimagining of the Norwegian tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” the title character is a charming man — “beautiful, really. Indolent, fun loving, faithful-ish” — living on the Upper West Side of New York with his partner, Gary. The two are enjoying brunch when they’re approached by Prince Hat’s ex-fiancée, who asks to borrow him for a walk across the block. But Prince Hat never comes back, and Gary decides to search for him.
It’s not an easy quest. Prince Hat has been vague about his past, and all Gary knows about his old life is “bits of flotsam, nothing pinning them to a particular place of origin, except for a bar on a street in Reykjavík.” So he travels to Iceland, eventually finding a bartender who lends him a talking snake, Brennivín — conceivably named after the country’s famous spirit, which tastes a little like a loaf of rye bread that’s been soaked in kerosene for a month — to help him find his partner.
Gary’s journey eventually takes him to the underworld. (Spying a television playing a Jazzercise video, he thinks, “Truly, this is Hell.”) But getting Prince Hat back to the land of the living proves to be as tricky as you would expect. Link deftly balances humor with a real sense of longing, making the tale a beautifully realistic love story — or at least as realistic as a story with a talking snake (and a cameo from a mystery novel-loving rat) can be.
Perhaps the most stunning story in Link’s collection is “The Lady and the Fox,” inspired by the Scottish tale “Tam Lin.” In Link’s version, a girl named Miranda spends Christmas each year with her godmother’s family, a moneyed English clan with a taste for elaborate parties. (“It’s exhausting, almost Olympic, the amount of fun Honeywells seem to require,” Miranda thinks. “She can’t decide if it’s awful or wonderful.”)
At one such gathering, Miranda sees a handsome man outside, gazing through the window; she speculates that “he’s taken offense at something someone said, and is now going to sulk himself handsomely to death in the cold.” Over the years, Miranda and Fenny, the young man, grow close, although she only ever sees him at her godmother’s house, and he tells her each time that he’s unable to come inside.
There’s something not quite real about Fenny, of course, but that doesn’t make Miranda any less attracted to him. The story ends on a sweet note, one that’s enough to bring the reader to tears.
And that’s what’s magical about these stories. Link has a boundless imagination and a sharp sense of humor, but even in tales filled with vampires, monsters, and a menagerie of talking animals, she never forgets the humanity of her characters, even when she puts them through their paces. She’s no sentimentalist, to be sure, but she writes with a seemingly limitless compassion, which anchors the stories in something enduring, something more real than real.
This is a beautiful collection, full of Link’s hypnotic prose and flights of fancy that never come close to approaching twee self-indulgence. There are, of course, other authors adept at blending the real and the unreal, but there may well be no one who does it as impressively as Link.
WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG: Stories
By Kelly Link
Random House, 272 pages, $27
Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas.