WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG by Kelly Link (BOOK REVIEW)
“We all want things it would be better not to want,” the cat says. “We pursue them anyway, don’t we?”
Kelly Link’s uniquely wonderful and unusual short stories have established her as one of the premier voices of Weird fiction and fantastika. She is known for her skilful blending of the magical and the uncanny into an otherwise recognisably realistic present day world. Her new short story collection White Cat, Black Dog (2023) is themed around fairy tale retellings. Over the course of seven stories, Link radically reconfigures stories both familiar and obscure. The stories in this collection sometimes veer quite far from the originals, but Link manages to capture the bones of these stories whilst returning something of their inherent strangeness and disconcerting nature even as she imagines modern and futuristic contexts in which to set them. The end result is a powerful collection that reaffirms Link as one of the modern masters of the short story. White Cat, Black Dog is a treat for fans of Link, as well as a great introduction for those unfamiliar with her work, and a must-read for enthusiasts of the fairy tale. It’s also an absolutely beautiful book. Each story is accompanied by an appropriately haunting and unsettling illustration from the wonderful Shaun Tan, who wonderfully captures the uncanny yet seductively magical atmosphere of Link’s writing, and Andrew Davis provides a gorgeous, striking cover with thematically appropriate hidden sinister elements lurking among its lush fairytale motifs.
Link quickly sets out her stall with the opening story, ‘The White Cat’s Divorce’, a retelling of ‘The White Cat’. Link expertly emulates the tone of fairy tales and fables, but the presence of mobile phones, tech firms and the stock exchange place this once upon a time recognisably in the present day. Few writers other than Link could navigate the tension between the fairy tale and the mundane without overspilling, but typically things only get stranger from there, as our protagonist, on a mission to find the ideal pet dog for his rich father, is taken in at a cannabis farm run entirely by talking cats. The story perfectly demonstrates how Link is able to play the fantastical and realist aspects of the story off each other to unnerving effect. This is a theme running throughout the collection, from ‘The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear’, which sets ‘The Boy Who Did Not Know Fear’ in the modern liminal space of the airport, to ‘The Lady And The Fox’, which reimagines the Child ballad ‘Tam Lin’ in the modern day with a romance between a wealthy family and the daughter of their disgraced former cleaner.
Each story in the collection provides the source story underneath the title, allowing the reader to bear the original in mind whilst reading Link’s tales, highlighting the connection and allusions. This can be helpful, as some of the stories are fairly obviously Link-ian variations on the original theme, whilst in others share a much more oblique connection to their inspiration. In the latter category is ‘The Game of Smash and Recovery’, a nightmarish science fiction story about a sentient spaceship reminiscent of those in Iain M. Banks’ Culture stories abandoned on an alien planet, which is twisted and mutated from ‘Hansel and Gretel’ into something new and very strange. Similarly, ‘The White Road’ is a horrifying transfiguration of ‘The Musicians of Bremen’ to a post-apocalypse in which our technology has opened up ways for terrors from another dimension to feed on us unless we guard ourselves with a corpse. Link effectively branches out into science fiction and horror, bringing to the fore the strange and frightening elements that run through all fairy tales to show them in a new light.
Perhaps the most powerful and effective stories in the volume are ‘Prince Hat Underground’ and ‘Skinder’s Veil’, complex and twisty tales that defy easy categorisation. ‘Prince Hat Underground’ is recognisably ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, but morphed into something that is very much Link’s own creation. The story chooses as its protagonists the middle-aged, queer couple of the magically charismatic Prince Hat and his mundane but loving partner Gary. Prince Hat is one of the fair folk, destined to marry Agnes, the Queen of Hell, but Gary does not know this about him until he is spirited away one day by Agnes, and he must go on a quest to find his beloved and win him back. Link takes us on a breath-taking exploration of the mythic, in which Gary is inducted into Prince Hat’s mysterious other life through a series of trials, in a world hidden just below the surface of our familiar world. But the story is equally an exploration of Gary and Prince Hat’s relationship, as Gary is pushed past the limits of his understanding of the world to discover the strength of his love for Prince Hat. The story is inventive and surprisingly moving, as in the end Gary may be able to save Prince Hat from the clutches of Hell but not from the mortal death that awaits him should he choose to remain in the human world with Gary.
‘Skinder’s Veil’ is even more impressive, in which Link transforms ‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’ into a deeply uncanny reflection on death and destiny. The story follows PhD student Andy Sims, who is having trouble finishing his dissertation thanks to his annoying roommate when he receives what appears to be the offer of a lifetime – his friend Hannah invites him to cover her house-sitting job in Vermont for three weeks. Andy will get handsomely paid to stay in a beautiful isolated house in the forests, and all he has to do is follow a handful of strange but simple rules – anyone who comes to visit the house and knocks on the back door he must let in, whilst if the owner of the house approaches the front door and asks to be let in he must refuse them. Andy soon finds his mundane concerns swept away by the magical and the mythic, as his experiences with the house and its magical visitors forever change the course of his life. Drawing deeply from the original tale but in oblique and surprising ways, beautifully told and with excellent character work, the story is an excellent showcase of Link at her phantasmagorical best.
White Cat, Black Dog is a wonderful addition to Link’s small but powerful body of work, and shows just how much life there is left in fairy tale retellings if the writer is bold and inventive enough. The stories delight, frighten and disrupt in equal measure, and serve as an ample reminder of Link’s remarkable talents.
White Cat, Black Dog is available now from Head of Zeus. Order your copy HERE