on White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link

Over the last twenty years, literary fiction has taken a fantastic turn. Jeanette Winterson is reanimating Mary Shelley, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro are writing about robots, and everyone, it seems, is thinking about the apocalypse. But what purpose is this turn serving? A banal answer is that the fantastic provides helpful metaphors. How better to process the disquieting absurdity of our historic moment than through the literature of the unreal? The Victorians turned to vampires to express the anxieties of living under a parasitic ruling class; why shouldn’t we use zombies to explore life in a pandemic? 

The more interesting practitioners of this genre-scrambling mode, however, approach metaphor more suspiciously. In a 2015 interview Kelly Link stated that “I’m always trying to detach the metaphor from the fantastic element.” Her fiction as a whole is steeped in the fantastic; her latest collection, White Cat, Black Dog, offers talking animals, a journey to the afterlife, and a romance with a ghost. But rather than allowing these devices to bluntly “stand in” for the broad mundanities of consensus reality, her stories unsettle and defamiliarize stock elements of speculative fiction, using classic archetypes as jumping-off points for dense, knotty, and delightfully strange explorations of the horrors that lurk within us all.  

One of these stories, “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear,” concerns a woman stranded in an airport. Its intimate character focus and its original publication in Tin House clearly demarcate it as literary fiction. The narrator sits in the departure lounge waiting for planes that never arrive, talks to her wife on the phone, returns to her hotel, and swims in an otherwise deserted pool. Readers are left to soak up the wintry atmosphere of “these transitory and poorly lit spaces.” Then she starts reflecting on her relationship to others: “Pity the introvert with the face of a therapist or a kindergarten teacher. Like the werewolf, we are uneasy in human spaces and human company, though we wear a human skin.” A werewolf may be a slightly unusual image, but so far this is easy to read as an insouciant simile. But when the narrator elaborates, “Pity the werewolf. What should a stranger’s sad story mean? . . . If you listen, a hotel room speaks, too. It says: I will keep your secret,” there’s a sense of something more than analogy going on. 

This creeping unease comes to a head at the story’s climax. Having finally boarded a plane home, the narrator begins to get her period, only to find the toilet clogged and unusable. A flight attendant asks if she is okay, but:

I could not answer her. I could not speak at all. What she saw in my face was not the thing that is usually there. It was the other thing, the thing that lives inside my skin. I turned and went back up the aisle to my middle seat. The moon in the window in every row went with me like a cold white lozenge I could have slipped under my tongue.

It went with me like a thing on a leash, all the way back to my seat.

They would be announcing our arrival soon. I might get a little blood on the seat, but what’s a little blood? Women bleed. Everyone bleeds.

And so the reader is jolted into recognition; this was a monster story all along. Plenty of writers have made a connection between lycanthropy and menstruation, of course, but in Link’s hands that potentially crass premise becomes something intimate and lived-in, part of the banal body horror of an ordinary life. The story’s fantastic conceit is all the more surprising for its initial sublimation, made more visceral and real for leaping from an unflashy middle-class milieu. This is what happens when the metaphorical is unshackled from the fantastic; the werewolf stops being a metaphor, and starts being a person. 


While not quite a household name, Kelly Link has enjoyed several years of influence in American literary circles. Appearing in groundbreaking anthologies such as Michael Chabon’s McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2003) and James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006), Link was in the vanguard of the now-ubiquitous merging of literary and genre fiction. This movement has yet to settle on a single name: “slipstream,” “new weird,” “transrealism,” and “new wave fabulism” have all been mooted as potential monikers. Broadly speaking, the idea is not merely the importation of genre fiction techniques into literary fiction, nor a crass gentrification of genre spaces. Rather, these texts aim for a kind of generic superposition, with multiple sets of literary conventions simultaneously in play, allowing the author to draw on a greater variety of possibilities while preventing the reader from getting comfortable. 

This approach has defined Kelly Link’s fiction from the very beginning, and earned her critical acclaim along the way. For example, her Nebula Award–winning 2005 story “Magic for Beginners” draws simultaneously on the conventions of cult sci-fi television, horror fiction, and coming-of-age narratives to create a tale about growing up in and moving on from obscure media fandoms. Its protagonist, Jeremy Mars, is an avid viewer of and also possibly a character in an inscrutable tv show called The Library. The most memorable passages concern the sort of show The Library is:

Episodes of The Library have no regular schedule, no credits, and sometimes not even dialogue. One episode of The Library takes place inside the top drawer of a card catalog, in pitch dark, and it’s all in Morse code with subtitles. Nothing else. No one has ever claimed responsibility for inventing The Library. No one has ever interviewed one of the actors, or stumbled across a set, film crew, or script, although in one documentary-style episode, the actors filmed the crew, who all wore paper bags on their heads.

This fascination with the mechanics of storytelling, this atmosphere both otherworldly and quotidian, characterizes the best of Link’s writing. Link has referred to her fiction as being powered by “night time logic”; a dreamlike approach. Link states that her ideal readerly reaction is something along the lines of “I don’t understand why that made sense, but I feel there was a kind of emotional truth to it.” In “The White Road,” the Station Eleven–esque post-apocalypse story that appears in White Cat, Black Dog, the narrator literally remarks that, in the wake of catastrophe, “There is some other logic to the way that all things work now.”

Of course, it’s not a style without precedent, nor is Link the first writer to build a career in both genre and literary fiction. Link dedicates one of the stories in White Cat, Black Dog to Iain M. Banks, and identifies herself as a “literary descendent” of Ursula K. Le Guin. In a new introduction to Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven published earlier this year, Link states that “Le Guin’s influence has expanded beyond all original bounds of genre . . . her writing was profoundly slippery, generous, shape-shifting, and outreaching from the very start.” It’s hard to think of a better description of Link’s own style. This eagerness to move “beyond” genre confines is less about escaping genres than cross-fertilizing them; Link’s project is a kind of literary hybridity. It’s a successful one, at that: in 2018 she was awarded the MacArthur genius grant, as prestigious an honor as exists in American letters. The hybridization had been achieved. Now it was a case of deciding what to do with it. 


2018 also saw the first publication of “The White Cat’s Divorce,” the closest thing this collection has to a title story. Commissioned by the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and originally published in the catalog for an exhibit entitled “Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World,” Link displays a casual nonchalance about the highbrow nature of the venue. In a 2019 interview with C. C. Finlay, former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, she was asked whether she approached writing this tale differently to others. The reply: “Not really! Any audience, whether they are encountering this kind of story in a genre magazine or an art catalogue, will have some familiarity with fairytales. They’re more or less in our DNA.”

It’s an admirably undaunted attitude, and one that allows for plenty of Link’s usual playfulness alongside her trademark weirdness. A riff on Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat,” the story concerns a wealthy old man who tasks his three young adult sons with finding him “The smallest, silkiest, most obedient and amiable dog a man has ever possessed,” with the winner set to be named as his sole heir. It’s a story long on strange and delightful imagery, from a cannabis farm staffed by upright cats to a tiny puppy living inside a macadamia nut. The story builds inexorably to a grimly ironic denouement, but that underlying darkness is belied by the story’s whimsical and occasionally corny humor, such as when one character returns to the aforementioned cannabis farm, only to find that “all of the cats on the ranch . . . were now human, though they did not seem to want to talk about how this had happened. All the dogs, however, were still dogs. But then, dogs are more reliable in their nature.” 

That sense of whimsy characterizes many of the collection’s other stories. In “The Lady and the Fox” a young woman falls in love with a ghost who only appears when it snows on Christmas Day. Faced with unreliable weather, she eventually summons him with the simple expedient of hiring a snow machine. In “Prince Hat Underground,” the protagonist follows his kidnapped lover into hell, which is a subterranean suburb lit by birds carrying candles in their beaks. For all the admirable depth and complexity of Link’s scenarios, one of her greatest skills is in creating these singular, memorable images.

The collection’s one real stumble is “The Game of Smash and Recovery.” A surprisingly straightforward piece of science fiction, it follows a pair of childlike AIs on a wilderness planet overrun by vampires, with a larger conspiracy being revealed as juvenile games take the pair into forbidden territory. At a mere twenty-one pages it is the shortest story in the collection; it lacks the unorthodox twists and turns that characterize the other pieces, and what imagery it has is largely clichéd, all swooping vampires and infantile spaceships. It helps demonstrate what Link usually brings to both genre and literary fiction, that the real joy in her work lies in their combination. Presented straight-up, the genre mode at least risks feeling rather drab.


The finest story in White Cat, Black Dog is the closer, “Skinder’s Veil.” Its opening sentence will be painfully familiar to many readers: “Once upon a time there was a graduate student in the summer of his fourth year who had not finished his dissertation.” We soon learn that “By the middle of June Andy Sims had, at best, six usable pages,” and so he takes a housesitting gig at an ancient mansion in rural Vermont in the hopes of getting some writing done. There he is visited by a mysterious woman, a talking bear, and possibly even Death himself, each visitor bringing a story of their own. Originally written for Ellen Datlow’s anthology When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson (2021), “Skinder’s Veil” also appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2022. In her contributor’s note for the latter, Link tells us that

For the last seven or so years, I’ve been wrestling with an extremely long novel. Occasionally I had the chance to work on a short story—“Skinder’s Veil” is the last story written concurrent with this novel, now more or less finished. . . . Andy’s feelings about his dissertation no doubt bear some relationship to my own feelings about large projects (a novel, say).

Link has spent her entire career trying to escape the metaphorical; perhaps “Skinder’s Veil” is the point where it catches up with her. Then again, perhaps this is simply a sign that Link’s work is about to mutate even further. Her first novel, The Book of Love, is scheduled for 2024. If Link’s great innovation is allowing literary authors access to the trappings of genre fiction, allow me to borrow a signature move: the cliffhanger ending. Can Link make her genre-scrambling method work at novel length? Will her prose style survive the transfer to a different format? Will there be any more talking animals? And if this review has ended with more questions than answers, well, what could be more fitting for an author like Kelly Link?


William Shaw is a writer from the U.K., currently living in Virginia. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Doctor Who Magazine.