NEA Big Read
Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters

by Kelly Link

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.


Kelly Link (Sharona Jacobs Photography LLC)

"Her stories are about more than strangeness, more than the fantastic—they're about inclusion, diversity, and acceptance of alternate world views." — Lit Hub

Though all but one of the ten magical and macabre stories in Kelly Link's collection Pretty Monsters were written for young adults, several of them first appeared in publications for adults, garnering Link a cross-generational fan base. The heroes of the stories are mostly teenagers in familiar settings grappling with angst and alienation, awkwardness and awakening desires. That they are also grappling with unexpected monsters, ghosts, wizards, gods, aliens, dueling librarians, pirate-magicians, shapeshifters, possibly carnivorous sofas, and undead babysitters should give readers a hint to keep their expectations in check. Pretty Monsters is part-haunted house, part-fun house, part-safe house, and part-something that doesn't resemble a house at all.

"I like writing from the point of view of children, or young adults," Link told One Story. "They're in this weird transitional space, between worlds. Their actions have real consequences, but that doesn't mean that they're taken seriously.... They want things with a kind of great and terrible intensity that makes them great characters to write about.... When I write about adults, I'm most interested in writing about adults who have retained some of these qualities."

"Magic for Beginners," a Nebula award-winning, metafictional story that's also the title of Link's second book, is about a 15-year-old boy named Jeremy and his friends who are devoted to a surreal, science fiction television show called "The Library" that they watch together and discuss and get lost in while Jeremy copes with his parents' possible separation. It's based on Link's experience watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer during a seven-year period when she moved homes several times. "The one thing [that] all of the places I lived [in] had in common, besides too many books, was a room with a television where we got together with various friends to watch new episodes and then dissect, praise, complain, rewrite and rewatch. It was an enormously social experience, and it's not one I've had since Buffy ended. I wanted to write something that would capture the way it feels to be a fan and a member of a fandom" (One Story).

The Hugo award-winning story "The Faery Handbag" draws inspiration from myths and folklore. A girl is tasked by her grandmother to be the guardian of a black, hairy, 200-year-old family heirloom purse that's home to a whole village. Open it one way and it's just a purse; open it another and it's either the village itself—which, if you go into the bag to see it, you might not return for 100 years—or the dark, threatening land that smells like blood where the guardian dog of the purse lives. The girl makes the mistake of sharing the story of the bag with her boyfriend who gets too curious. Said Link: "I've always loved stories where the insides of something were bigger than the outside" (One Story).

Link's dry humor and witty dialogue are on full display in stories like "The Wrong Grave" about a boy who digs up the grave of his girlfriend to retrieve a poem he wrote and mistakenly buried in her coffin. In "Monster," boys at a camp are bragging about going out in the woods and seeing a monster until one rainy night the members of "Bungalow 6" actually do. It has red eyes and smells of rotting fish and kerosene. James, one of the boys who had just been teased by the other boys in his group right before the monster devoured them (and not him because he was wearing a dress), asks the monster who he is. The monster belches and jokes that he's Angelina Jolie.

Adding to the richness of the collection are illustrations at the start of every story by award-winning, Australian illustrator Shaun Tan. The drawing for "Monster," for example, is a large, pointy-toed footprint next to an open flip phone showing on its screen a mouth full of teeth. Below, a snail glides along like a nonchalant passerby. "You can take her casually enchanted tales literally, or you can read them as allegory; the effect is equally unnerving" (The Believer).

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