“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link
March 31, 2010 at 1:16 am | Posted in Short Stories | 3 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
After a bit of a delay, I’m back with another post in my series of individual takes on stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. There will be spoilers so if you haven’t read the story, do yourself a favor and read it first. It’s very good.
Reading through Magic For Beginners I’ve been struck how pairs of apparently very different stories share themes. Maybe it’s just in my head, but the stories are arranged next to each other in the collection, which makes me think Kelly Link noticed these connections as well. “Stone Animals” isn’t actually adjacent to “The Hortlak” (“The Cannon” sits between them) but I still see the stories as similar in that they are both about estrangement from normal life. Tens of thousands of stories (at least) have been written about alienation, but what Link depicts in these two stories strikes me as subtly different. Instead of just failing to fit into normal society, the characters in both “The Hortlak” and “Stone Animals” fall away from it. They want to fit in, yes, but their problem is not that they fail to find their place in society, but rather they even locate society any more. This is, perhaps, not quite so immediately relevant for the reader as the more typical alienation stories, but it sure is creepy.
Despite this somewhat meager connection, the stories are different in ways that are useful to contrast. “The Hortlak” is strange and dreamlike from start to finish, while “Stone Animals” starts out almost normal and then builds toward a violently dislocating conclusion. Both stories are third person, but “The Hortlak” sticks to Eric’s perspective while “Stone Animals” flits between different characters. “Stone Animals” is also the more serious story, although it is also funny at times.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two stories is the reaction of the characters to their predicament. Where Eric and Charley in “The Hortlak” are passive, wishing for a better life but unable to work towards it, the characters in “Stone Animals” are trying to wrest control of their lives away from the strange forces that are pulling them apart. Even a minor character like the real estate agent is caught in this struggle. “Nobody ever remembered her name,” we’re told, “which is why she had to wear too-tight skirts.” Later, we learn that she wants to take a striking pseudonym when and if her book is published. Notice she’s not able to reverse her fundamental problem: nothing on heaven or earth, it seems, can undo the problem with her name. But she’s actively working around the problem regardless.
The family has far larger issues, of course, but they approach them in the same way, starting with the house. The house is haunted, but just like the zombies in “The Hortlak”, the word turns out to mean something different from what the reader would expect. Link uses the word “haunted” to indicate that something is somehow other from the viewpoint character. This is actually a much more sensible definition, in that it describes a feeling we actually feel in the real world when placed in unfamiliar surroundings. The family loves the house (or the parents do, at least) but although they now own it, it is strange and different. The story speaks of the parents “colonizing the bedroom” by filling it with “things that belong to them”. In a normal house, this would indeed offset the unfamiliarity. The main fantastic element of “Stone Animals” is the idea that this house is unrelentingly other, to the point that the family’s familiar possessions become unfamiliar through contact with the house instead of the reverse.
In his interesting 2004 review of the story, Matthew Chaney speaks of the story as “full of binaries, a world falling apart for lack of gray areas.” I don’t think this is quite right. Other than Tilly dividing the yard, I don’t see a lot of binaries in the story. Even the haunted objects are themselves gray areas: owned by the family yet claimed by the house. Although the feeling of haunting can’t be explained away, it’s not so dramatic that they are always sure which items are haunted. Henry’s work is alluded to but never directly shown, and their problems don’t end when he’s at home (arguably they intensify).
I think a more useful approach to the story is to look at the struggles for control. Everyone in the family is trying to impose control on their world, and all of them are failing:
Catherine paints the house repeatedly and eventually even writes on the walls, trying to impose her personality on her surroundings, but she is never satisfied. She plants a garden, but the rabbits consume everything she plants. She chafes and complains about the physical limitations imposed by her pregnancy and the way it has made her own body unfamiliar. When she thinks about why she loves Henry, she thinks about how she’s able decide what clothes to dress him in. Even her initial endorsement of the house is directly attributed to the effect the house has on Tilly.
As for Tilly, she can’t stop herself from sleepwalking, so she denies that it happens in the first place. She sees her brother as a possession, we’re told. She marks out the yard as a way of ordering him around, and when he eventually has the temerity to violate her rules she is so disturbed she decides he too is haunted. Carleton, younger and less sophisticated, deals most directly with the rabbits that personify the otherness of the house, first trying to buy them off with Tilly’s things and then finally chasing them with a stick.
Henry is probably the least active character. At times he seems the most connected to the real world. He’s the least willing to just accept that an object is haunted. “Our stuff is fine,” he tells Catherine. “I love our stuff.” Unlike the other characters, he goes back to New York and admits he loves his job there. But there is another line of imagery that actually associates him closer with the house than any of the others. Early in the story, Catherine gives him a robe which the narrator says has “heraldric animals” on it, but of course these are rabbits. When he puts it on, Catherine describes him as the “king of rabbits…the plenipotentiary of Rabbitaly” and appears to regret giving it to him. And he is completely unable to meet Catherine’s friends, even when he’s in the house at the same time. In the end, of course, he joins the rabbits as a sort of antagonist to Catherine’s dinner party.
I interpret this as relating to the main dynamic in the story: Catherine and Henry’s struggling marriage. Henry is clearly the object of most of Catherine’s desires for control. Long before they ever go to the haunted house, Catherine lies about an affair to provoke Henry into giving her more attention. When the positive effects of this maneuver fade, she seems to have instigated the family’s move out into the countryside. Viewed in this light, Henry’s connection with the house and the rabbits is clear. Although he is going along with Catherine’s stated desires, unlike her he is already content. He loves his job and seems to be satisfied with his level of involvement with his family. Her attempt to control him via the house is failing, and this manifests as problems with the house in addition to her issues with Henry himself.
I think that Catherine is really the story’s main character and that despite the omniscient narrator, the story is in some sense from her perspective. This has the virtue of explaining why the scenes at Henry’s job are so indistinct in an otherwise vivid story, for we see only what Catherine herself really understands about it: the taskmaster boss and the long nights. This interpretation is strengthened, I think, by the way the story ends. In the last crescendo of estrangement, everyone but Catherine end up directly engaged with the rabbits: Carleton chases rabbits, Tilly is led into a hidden passage by a rabbit, and Henry rides at the head of a sort of rabbit army. Catherine is not actually shown but is presumably still eating dinner with her friends and thus is not taking part in the dislocation. The house has claimed her possessions one by one and now has finally claimed the other members of her family. They too have become haunted.