“The Hortlak” by Kelly Link
March 14, 2010 at 1:15 am | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
This is a spoiler-heavy post about Kelly Link’s story “The Hortlak” and should be avoided if you haven’t read the story yet. I say yet, because it’s an excellent story and I highly recommend you do read it. I read it in the collection Magic For Beginners, but it’s also available online at Kelly Link’s official site.
Unlike “The Faery Handbag”, there isn’t a lot of comment about “The Hortlak” online. That’s a shame, because it’s an amazing story. Where “The Faery Handbag” related facts and only alluded to the inner lives of its characters, “The Hortlak” makes the inner lives of its characters evident but lets the reality surrounding them remain a dreamlike haze. Although the prose is still fairly simple, there are a couple of very memorable images, like the All-Night as the Enterprise on a voyage of discovery and Charley’s burning city.
Like most of Link’s stories, “The Hortlak” seemingly ends without resolution. Instead of explaining its mysteries, or bringing Eric’s “relationship” with Charley to any conclusion, the story is content to describe the growing disconnection of its three characters from society. For Batu and Charley, this is done by relating events from “off-screen” while the narrative focuses on Eric and follows him as he gets pulled farther and farther from normality and deeper into the twilight world of the All-Night.
“You’re just like my dogs,” Charley says to Eric. The parallels are striking. Like the dogs, Eric has been left behind by his family. He doesn’t understand his situation, and though he wants to be free, he doesn’t know how to achieve freedom. The windows of Charley’s car are rolled “so far down that these dogs could jump out, if they wanted, when she stops the car at a light. But the dogs don’t jump.” Eric could likewise walk out of the All-Night at any time, but he doesn’t. His feelings for Charley are a sort of puppy-love crush. And in the story’s final scene, he is explicitly described as chasing her car like a dog.
Charley’s dogs are destined for death. Is Eric? Everyone dies eventually, but Eric is working at what Batu eventually describes as a waystation on the road between life and death. Both Batu and Charley ask him if he has gone down into the chasm. “Someday I will, I guess,” he says to Batu. In fact, everyone around Eric seems associated with death in different ways. Charley kills dogs. Eric’s mother seems to have gone to kill his father. As for Batu: most of his pajamas depict death in various forms, he kills company managers in Eric’s dreams, and of course he dodges the question when Eric asks him if he’s ever killed anyone. Eric himself is the exception, but according to Charley he’s there because he doesn’t “flip out” when around death.
Apparently “hortlak” means ghost or revenant in Turkish. It’s tempting to take the fact the word is singular and try to pick out Eric or Batu as being already dead. Certainly they seem to be heading in that direction. Right at the beginning, the zombies are said to not come when “real people” are around, raising the obvious question: are Eric and Batu real people? The story specifically states that zombies don’t come when Charley is there, putting her at least in the “real people” column. Yet at the end of the story, a zombie comes up while she’s talking to Eric and acknowledges them both on the way in and out of the All-Night, suggesting that she too is sliding away from life.
Charley also wants to escape to a better life but is just as trapped as Eric. Her description of how a hibernating bear wakes up angry and goes on a rampage appears to be what she wishes for herself. She’s in hibernation, just going through her routine, but getting steadily more angry, and at some point she will break out with sudden violence and force. That she attempts to do so not by quitting her job and leaving town but by biting the man at the shelter is more evidence of the effect her association with death is having on her. Eric could just walk out of the All-Night and Charley could just stop going to her job, but each of them are tied to their dysfunctional lives by bonds they can’t break.
Sadly I don’t have a grand unified theory that explains every detail of the story, but perhaps that’s intended, since from what I can tell the story is about the struggle to understand what is ultimately incomprehensible. Batu spends his time studying the zombies, making notes on a notepad and trying to figure out what they want. Eric studies Batu, trying to figure out why he’s studying zombies, why he doesn’t need sleep, and the origin of his bizarre pajamas. All three speaking characters speculate about the nature of the world at the bottom of the chasm, the land of the dead. The obvious metaphor seems to be human societies grappling with death and its implications throughout the ages.
The story seems pessimistic about this enterprise. Everyone’s speculations amount to painting the zombies as being just like them, living in a mirror-suburb with pets and bars and cars. Yet even as they advance it, they also regard the idea as vaguely preposterous. Since the zombies are clearly unable or unwilling to interact appropriately in real suburbs, why would anyone think they would live in suburbs themselves? It’s a failure of imagination. But despite all the efforts by Eric and Batu to sift the evidence, the only way to find out is to go down into the chasm and see for themselves. Even the testimony of an eyewitness (“Dave”, perhaps a stand-in for mystics and prophets) is not helpful because he wasn’t judged to be reliable (just going into the chasm and coming back, one suspects, is proof of unreliability). Batu seems secretly knowledgeable about different types of ghosts and the chasm itself, but his bias towards seeing everything through the lens of retail means he misinterprets whatever genuine information he does have. To Batu, the zombies are trying to buy things in the store and just getting it wrong, somehow.
Eric seems to have the opposite worldview from Batu, given he is “always thinking of products no one would ever want to buy, and that no one would ever try to sell.” Sure enough, Eric understands that they are simply returning objects from the real world that have been dropped into theirs (that Eric is right is clear from the way the zombies laboriously put all the snow back in the parking lot after Batu shovels it into the chasm). But Eric doesn’t understand them any more than Batu does, at least in part because Batu is holding back information. The scene where zombies give Batu a new set of pajamas strongly implies that Batu has had previous “transactions” of this nature with the zombies and kept it secret from Eric. However, while I’d love to be proved wrong, I don’t think a “solution” to precisely what that scene means is in the story.
Of course, there’s a more metafictional way to interpret the general theme of struggling to understand the incomprehensible. It might be just an inside joke, but at least one of the zombies’ cryptic lines is actually a line from a different Kelly Link story (“The Cannon”, which follows “The Hortlak” in Magic For Beginners). So perhaps Batu’s struggles to understand the zombies parallel my struggles to understand Link’s stories. Eric’s desperate questions of Charley and Batu at the end of the story remind me of how some fans of Lost are obsessed with “answers” to the show’s mythological questions. “The Hortlak” may provide a warning to those fans. When Eric finally gets a straight answer about Batu’s strange pajamas, he’s not happy about it. But really, was there an explanation that would be any more satisfying than “experimental CIA pajamas”? For any piece of surrealism, it may be that an explanation is going to have to amount to some variant of the Simpsons, “A wizard did it!”
But Kelly Link’s writing also shows that just because you aren’t given an answer to, say, what lies at the bottom of the chasm, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the story. If you like the metaphorical approach, I guess it might be saying you don’t have to know anything about an afterlife to enjoy your life here and now. In fact, it’s Eric’s fascination with Batu’s quest that seems to be keeping him from living the sort of life he wants. The only way he can think to break out of Batu’s orbit is by throwing himself at Charley. By the end of the story, as these two influences pull him in opposite directions, he veers back and forth. But Charley is just as stuck as he is in the influence of the chasm and doesn’t offer a genuine way out. Her car seems to offer deliverance, but (as Batu says in his own way) it’s too loaded down with emotional baggage.
Of course, the woman who finds her teenage diary written on Batu’s pajamas has another strategy for coping with the unknown, and while screaming and running away may not seem particularly enlightened, she at least showed the initiative to turn away from the strangeness and escape. In most genre stories, rejecting the fantastic is a sure path to a bad end. It’s a measure of how unusual “The Hortlak” is that in her rejection of the fantastic, that woman shows the path Eric should have taken, while his curiosity, friendship, and even love all lead him back to the All-Night and stagnation.