Kelly Link’s ‘The Summer People’ shares a title with a Shirley Jackson short story and is as unsettling and cautionary as its namesake. In true Kelly Link fashion, however, the story adds adolescent girls, a terrible pact, moonshine and fairies to Jackson’s cocktail of class critique and horror.
Fran, our teen protagonist, lives with her father, who sells moonshine and does odd jobs for visitors whose holiday houses dot their scenic town in the Appalachian foothills. The story opens with Fran desperately sick from flu, doped up on cough medication and abandoned by her father who’s gone in search of Jesus. Ophelia Merck, a rich girl at school, comes to the rescue. Fairy-tale pretty with her “silvery blond” hair and queer, Ophelia’s family are erstwhile summer visitors who have moved to the town permanently, possibly due to the Merck father’s involvement in a malpractice suit.
These echoes of teen addiction and the opioid crisis take second place to the girls’ hallucinatory visits to a mysterious old house, set between apple trees, “one laden with fruit and the other bare and silver black”. This is the home of the sinister ‘summer people’ to whom Fran (and her mother before her) are bound. They give Fran, who can’t risk the emergency room, a cure for her flu in a tiny glass vial. In the past she’s been gifted other things – tiny, magical toys – but these particular ‘summer people’ are exacting taskmasters. Once in their thrall, it’s impossible to escape.
That is, until Ophelia steps into Fran’s life and offers her help. “I can tell you mean it,” Fran tells the naïve Ophelia and later, “Did you mean it when you said you wanted to help?” Fran gains her heart’s desire to escape town, but at a price. Much to reflect on in this pandemic, when disparities between the rich and poor, those who escape to summer homes and those who toil, have been made starkly apparent.
Chosen by Gita Ralleigh. Gita is a doctor and poet who teaches creative writing to science undergraduates. Her debut poetry collection ‘A Terrible Thing’ was published by Bad Betty Press in 2020.
First published in Tin House, Fall 2011. Collected in Get in Trouble, 2015, Random House/Canongate. Also available as a Kindle single from Canongate, 2015