It’s only February, but 2015 is already proving to be a treasure trove of big happenings in the world of short stories. Take this past Tuesday, when Kelly Link, Charles Baxter, and Neil Gaiman all released new collections, undoubtedly making the world a few orders of magnitude weirder, smarter, and spookier.
With Link’s Get in Trouble, you can expect answers to a lot of questions you may not even have known you wondered about. For instance, “What kind of afterlife do you have as a mummy?” asks [ ] in “Valley of the Girls,” a story up over at Subterranean Press. Likewise, if you’ve ever wondered what happened to the summer people of Shirley Jackson’s 1951 short story, you can re-encounter a Linkian version of them in the collection’s opening story, “The Summer People.” Link’s story originally appeared in Tin House’s Fall 2011 issue on The Ecstatic, and Link also released the opening of the story online as a preview at Steampunk!, the website home for an anthology of steampunk stories of the “past, the future, and the not-quite today” that she co-edited in 2011 with Gavin J. Grant.
Jackson left her summer people, an aging couple from New York City who make the unprecedented and unforgivable decision to stay at their lake-side cabin past Labor Day, as they quietly succumb to their isolated fate:
The wind, coming up suddenly over the lake, swept around the summer cottage and slapped hard at the windows. Mr. and Mrs. Allison involuntarily moved closer together, and with the first sudden crash of thunder, Mr. Allison reached out and took his wife’s hand. And then, while the lightning flashed outside, and the radio faded and sputtered, the two old people huddled together in their summer cottage and waited.
In her story, Link picks up with Fran, a teenage girl effectively orphaned at the story’s beginning by her heavy-drinker/tortured Christian father and her runaway mother. These circumstances relegate Fran as permanent caretaker to the cottage of the summer people. While the allusion to Jackson is palpable, Link’s summer people don’t appear to be Jackson’s; Link’s are tinkerers and jokesters, making steampunk, gear-guided toys and playing pranks on unwanted visitors to their house. They are a mysterious lot, only spotted once:
The summer personage didn’t even look up at her. He was one of the ones so pretty it almost hurt to peep at him, but you couldn’t not stare, neither. That was one of the ways they cotched you, Fran figured. Just like wild animals when you shone a light at them.
Link rounds out the flattened townspeople of Jackson’s story in the shape of Fran, the feisty but lonely figure, who makes and betrays a friend over the story’s course to ensure her own survival. The gears of the quick-turning plot that generate this betrayal shed light on an even stronger influence in this story—that of the dark woods of the fairy tale genre.
With There’s Something I Want You To Do, Baxter has written a linked-story collection, where minor characters in one story become the focal point of others. Perhaps what’s more interesting here, though, is that the characters in each story are faced with a request, or demand, that essentially shapes their story. Baxter, who has long been a scientist of the short story, setting forth essays on the dangers of epiphanies and defamiliarization among other ideas, recently spoke of his concept of “the request” story mode at Bread Loaf. Graywolf Press has the transcript from that talk online. Below is an excerpt that explains Baxter’s request concept:
Literature doesn’t always work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t always work that way. Much of the time in our lives, we aren’t doing what we want to do; we’re performing actions that other people want us to do. We are acting on the basis of a transferred desire, a desire that has been unhoused from its owner and sutured on to us. We lose ownership over our desires; someone or something else may be the absentee landlord of our actions. Sometimes we lose control of our lives by trying to fulfill all the requests that others have placed on us.
Needless to say, it sounds like a fascinating psychological premise for a story collection.
As for Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, Jason Sheehan gives a hard-to-argue-with pitch for it at NPR, making it sound like it’s quite a bit more than just a pretty and timely title. In the words of the storyteller’s introduction to the book, “We each have our little triggers… things that wait for us in the dark corners of our lives,” and this new collection seems determined to pull them for us.