Monday 9 April 2012

Strange Stories #11: The Hortlak by Kelly Link

Strange Story #11: The Hortlak
Author: Kelly Link
Collected In: Magic For Beginners
Also Available to Read or Download on the Author's Website

The zombies came in, and he was polite to them, and failed to understand what they wanted...
For this week's story, I though it would be interesting (for me at least) to read and comment on a story by an author completely new to me. No prior knowledge, no research on Google - just read it and then write this piece. And if you don't like it you only have yourselves to blame, because this story was chosen by the readers of this blog when (for reasons that doubtless made sense at the time) we composed a contents list for a non-existent Scattershot Writing Horror Anthology. Kelly Link was one of the writers who was new to me who got a lot of votes, so I've been meaning to read her for awhile now. Also you can get this story, plus many others, for free on her website, which is great.
Anyway -  The Hortlak. (Okay, I lied. That thing about not doing any research? I did Google the meaning of the title. It is Turkish for 'ghost' or 'phantom').  It's immediately obvious from the style of this story that this isn't a straight horror story - the writing and range of references is too knowing, stylised, and arch for that. Like Douglas Coupland if he'd seen more George A. Romero films. And it seems to me Romero's zombies, and the notion that they are a metaphor for mindless consumerism are a touchstone here, albeit one completely transformed and transfigured by Link's prose. The zombies in The Hortlak come out of a chasm in the ground, behind a twenty-four hour convenience store. They don't go on a flesh eating rampage though. They seem to go... shopping. Sort of. Anti-shopping.

The zombies didn’t talk at all, or they said things that didn’t make sense. “Wooden hat,” one zombie said to Eric... They tried to pay Eric for things that the All-Night didn’t sell.
The story, despite its tone, seems preoccupied with death. As well as the zombies, there is Charley, who works at the vet putting down unwanted dogs, after giving them a final ride in her car. The dogs may or may not come back as ghosts, ghosts you can't see but can smell. The central character's mother appears to have left town to hunt and kill his father. The two central characters, Eric and Batu, spend a lot of time speculating about what life, so to speak, is like for the zombies down in the chasm:

“Yeah?” Batu said. “Zombie bars too? Where they serve zombies Zombies?”

It seems telling that they are unable to imagine the zombies as living a life that much different to their own - a life of consumerism. When all the evidence is that the zombies are not like this: they try and give things not buy them, they are attracted to objects because of their intrinsic value (they like shiny things) not their monetary worth.

The Hortlak seems to me in part a story about our inability to truly imagine death, despite it being all around us and inescapable. And about our inability to imagine an alternative to capitalism, perhaps, despite all its faults.

I may be doing the story a disservice here, because as I said I've only just read it, and I have a whole load of unanswered questions after that first reading. I hope some of you who are also new to Link are intrigued enough check it out (see the link above for free a downloads). And I haven't even mentioned the man with the bees, the pyjamas (what the hell is going on with the pyjamas?), the Startrek references, the Turkish translations, the Canadians, the...

If you have read the story before, have you any theories of your own? Have I missed the point or got anything wrong?

And if you were one of the people who recommended this story to me originally: thank you. This one looks like a keeper.

Next Week: Strange Stories #12. The Long Sheet by William Sansom. 


Keith B. Darrell said...

What a trip! I think I've become a Kelly Link fan after reading this. My favorite lines were "The zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you." and "Or should I put it with the chewing tobacco and the mouthwash, and make a little display of things that you spit?”

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I really understood The Hortlak, but it does pass one of the tests for a really good story for me - it's stayed with me, long after reading it.

James Everington said...

Keith - yes I also liked that line you quoted; I almost used that one in my post.

Iain - nail on the head.