This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Kelly Link was born in Miami, Florida, and is the author of numerous short story collections, most recently Get in Trouble from Random House. In 2000, she and spouse Gavin Grant co-founded Small Beer Press, an independent publisher of fantasy, weird, and other forms of speculative fiction, whose releases have been nominated for numerous awards in the field. She is a graduate of Columbia University and UNC-Greensboro, and has taught writing workshops at Lenoir-Rhyne College, Bard College, Clarion East, Clarion West, and others.
Link’s work has been described as magical realism, slipstream, and weird, amongst other categories. “The Specialist’s Hat,” included in The Weird, originally appeared in Event Horizon in 1998 and was subsequently collected in her debut collection Stranger Things Happen. It was selected for multiple Year’s Best… anthologies and received the World Fantasy Award in 1999. She has won numerous other honors, such as the Locus and O. Henry Awards. Link’s other collections include Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters, and her debut novel is forthcoming. She lives in Massachusetts. More information can be found at www.kellylink.net.
– Christopher Burke
“The Specialist’s Hat” has become a touchstone for a number of overlapping literary movements (magic realism, slipstream, interstitial, metafiction, fabulation, weird fiction), and there is good reason for this. It infuses tropes drawn from Gothic tales such as Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto or ghost stories such as M. R. James’s classic “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” with a playfully postmodern sensibility. The story has a peculiar lightness to it, as it weaves together children’s games, fairy tales, oral histories, and snatches of poetry whose deliberate awfulness amuses us even as it unsettles us. This sort of brilliant cognitive dissonance is a hallmark of Link’s particular brand of fiction.
The story begins easily enough. Samantha and Claire are twin sisters, aged ten. Following their mother’s death, their father has relocated them to Eight Chimneys, a typical Gothic mansion complete with exactly one hundred windows, three-stories, and a supposedly haunted forest. It is revealed that the girls’ father has been studying the literary stylings of the house’s previous occupant, Charles Cheatham Rash, who wrote “three volumes of bad obscure poetry, and an even worse and more obscure novel” (888). While their father works, the twins are cared for by the nameless babysitter, fourteen-years-old, who comes and goes as she pleases. Their favourite game is playing Dead (“When you’re Dead…you don’t have to brush your teeth…”; “When you’re Dead…you live in a box and it’s always dark, but you’re not ever afraid.”) (888). One day they discover the Specialist’s hat hanging on a nail in the attic, apparently made by the poet Rash out of the fifty-two teeth of a range of exotic creatures as well as those of his own vanished wife. The Specialist’s hat, we are told, looks like nothing, but it can sound like anything. The plot of the story itself follows a kind of dream logic that makes it difficult to précis; but its effects creep up on you, a sort of shivery, nerveless numbness, the mental equivalent of knocking your funny bone badly. Is it a love story? A ghost story? Does it end happily or not? Most readers would agree the story is fundamentally disquieting; but few, I think, could agree on why.
You Can’t Make a Hommelette…
While searching for a way to explain the curious effects of “The Specialist’s Hat”, I found myself recalling “Troubles with the Real”, an essay written by the Marxist philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, which I first encountered as a graduate student. The essay, a strange piece of Gothic-tinged criticism in its own right, discusses a monstrous figure first described by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as the lamella or the hommelette (the “man-omelet”), a membranous creature that apparently flies off the moment the foetus emerges. It is extra-flat, moving like an amoeba, capable of surviving any division, and, for all intents and purposes, immortal. “Well!” exclaims Lacan, “This is not very reassuring. But suppose it comes and envelopes your face while you are quietly asleep…” (197−98)
Suppose, indeed! What a horrifying thought! That element of horror was something Žižek picked up on in Lacan’s account of the lamella, leading him to make the leap between the psychoanalytical concept (the lamella represented for Lacan the libido or the “death drive”) and the horror genre. For Žižek, the lamella — indivisible, indestructible, and immortal, an “entity of pure surface…first heard as a shrilling sound, and then [popping] up as a monstrously distorted body” — is undead, possessed not of a “sublime spiritual immortality” but rather the “obscene immortality” of a zombie. It is a creature which cannot die; it recomposes itself in the face of violence and clumsily staggers on. It is unstoppable, a representation of “an uncanny excess of life”; it is the urge to persist beyond the natural cycle of generation and corruption. Žižek memorably compares the lamella to the face-hugger in Ridley Scott’s Alien, an indestructible creature which multiplies when it is cut into pieces, and whose extra-flat body can suddenly fly up and envelop your face: “In it,” he writes, “pure evil animality overlaps with machinic blind insistence.”
So far, so terrifying — but what does it have to do with Kelly Link? In rereading “The Specialist’s Hat” for the umpteenth time, I noticed a striking similarity between the eponymous piece of clothing and Žižek’s lamella:
Hanging from a nail on the nursery chimney is a long black object. It looks lumpy and heavy, as if it were full of things. … There are holes in the black thing, and it whistles mournfully as [the babysitter] spins it. “The Specialist’s hat,” she says.
“That doesn’t look like a hat,” says Claire. “It doesn’t look like anything at all.” (893)
Claire snatches the hat off the nail. “I’m the Specialist!” she says, putting the hat on her head. It falls over her eyes, the floppy shapeless brim sewn with little asymmetrical buttons that flash and catch the moonlight like teeth. (893)
Is this not an eerily evocative description? The lumpy, shapeless, toothy object which emits a strange sound and creeps over your face in order to seal it up? “Yes,” you might cry, “but so what? What does it mean?” Or better yet: “Why does it frighten me?”
Here we might return to that classic ghost story I mentioned at the beginning of the essay: “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M. R. James, a tale with a rather similar uncanny presence. When Professor Parkins arrives for an off-season visit at a seaside hotel, he wanders into the vicinity of a ruined Templars’s church where he discovers an ancient whistle engraved with the words QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT (Who is this who is coming?). The sound of the whistle fascinates Parkins, but as he sleeps he is haunted by a terrifying vision of a long stretch of shore, absent of any distinguishing features except a man, fleeing.
So far no cause whatever for the fear of the runner had been shown; but now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying. (20)
The subsequent night, Professor Parkins discovers the entity has invaded his room, taking up residence in the empty second bed, a rustling and shaking thing to be described later as “a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen” (26). In a fit of panic, Parkins dashes for the whistle which he has left by the window:
This was, as it turned out, the worst thing he could have done, because the personage in the empty bed, with a sudden smooth motion, slipped from the bed and took up a position, with outspread arms, between the two beds, and in front of the door. Parkins watched it in a horrid perplexity. Somehow, the idea of getting past it and escaping through the door was intolerable to him; he could not have borne — he didn’t know why — to touch it; and as for its touching him, he would sooner dash himself through the window than have that happen. (26)
For all intents and purposes, the monstrous apparition of James’s story possesses the very same qualities as the Specialist’s hat: it is formless and flat, nothing more than crumpled linen and yet somehow indestructible, indescribable and intensely horrible. Like the lamella, it emits a strange noise, and it can move at a terrifying speed. It unsettles because its lack of form speaks to its monstrous immortality; how would you destroy such an entity? Is it even possible? What is it? If we return to the inscription on the whistle, we discover our question is only repeated back to us: Quis est? Who is this?
This is precisely the question that Link returns to in the chilling conclusion of “The Specialist’s Hat.” Claire and Samantha have worn the Specialist’s hat, they have allowed themselves to enter a strange stasis, somewhere between the Death of their childhood game and real annihilation. “He’ll be coming soon,” the babysitter tells them. “It will be coming soon” (894). But who is the Specialist? There are only vague hints and suggestions.
Just air. (894)
No one is there. Nothing is there. Or rather nothingness is there. Death.
And then the front door opens. Samantha and Claire huddle together as they listen to someone creeping up the stairs. “Be quiet,” the babysitter commands them “It’s the Specialist.” And then we hear him ourselves:
“Claire, Samantha, Samantha Claire.” The Specialist’s voice is blurry and wet. It sounds like their father’s voice, but that’s because the hat can imitate any noise, any voice. “Are you still awake?” (894)
Is it their father who has come for them? Or is it, as the babysitter suggests, the Specialist? And is this what we find terrifying in the story: the disappearance of the father, his replacement by a simulacrum, almost identical, someone who pretends to love them but who is fundamentally a stranger? Quis est? Perhaps this is part of the terror, but it isn’t everything. What leaves us most disturbed, I think, is not their father’s transformation into the Specialist but rather their own transformation, facilitated by their interaction with the Specialist’s hat — the lamella. And in fact it is the lamella that they themselves seem to become. Think about it. They gain the ability to move strangely, to vanish up the chimney and fly, if they want to, from the bed; they are trapped in a kind of pre-sexual stasis between ten and eleven; they are indivisible:
Last year they were learning fractions in school, when her mother died. Fractions remind Samantha of herds of wild horses, piebalds and pintos and palominos. There are so many of them, and they are, well, fractious and unruly. (894)
Their mother’s death has left them in this state, but they have also chosen it; as a game, as an escape, as a way of liberating themselves from the need to grow up. Like the zombie, the alien, and the spectral presence, they have taken upon themselves an obscene form of immortality; they are undead.
…Without Breaking a Few Eggs
But what then is “The Specialist’s Hat” about? At one level, this is a story invested with enough sexual imagery to make it any psychoanalyst’s (wet?) dream. We begin with Samantha and Claire, two prepubescent girls who lose their mother, only to find that their widower father has recently met a woman in the woods. We learn that the woman is a distant relation of Rash; we know by this point that Rash had a pretty wife who met another man “who wanted to go with her” (889). When Rash’s wife finally agreed, her husband found out and tricked her into drinking the blood of a snake:
And in about six months snakes created in her and they got between her meat and the skin. And they say you could just see them running up and down her legs. They say she was just hollow to the top of her body, and it kept on like that till she died. (889)
This is the first explanation we hear of what sex might mean in the context of the story: snakes, hollowness, and eventually death. The image of the snake reoccurs throughout the story. One of Rash’s poems tells how he met a woman in the wood, and “her lips were two red snakes” (890). The Specialist’s hat makes a noise like a snake. Most importantly, when the girls’ father comes stumbling into the bedroom, he claims “I think I’ve been bitten by something. I think I’ve been bitten by a goddamn snake” (894). The sense of this image is clear: the snake is a symbol of consuming sexuality, a creature that hollows you out, and eventually kills you. Only the twins, who escape as ghosts through the chimney, remain untouched.
So what might Žižek say about this? Recall that the lamella is itself a representation of the libido in Lacanian theory. He describes it as the irrepressible sexual urge, the death drive, the drive for “an uncanny excess of life.” It is also something thrown off from the foetus, amoeba-like, the thing without any sex of its own. It is pre-sexual. The symbolic resonance of the snake as a representation of the lamella is obvious. What haunts Samantha and Claire is the fear that their father has become fundamentally different because of his libido, somehow alien to them; he has vanished into the woods to meet his lover, and he has been bitten by the snake; it will kill him — or worse yet, it will change him.
But the real anxiety, I think, is not simply what the snake has done to their father, but what it will do to them. Sexual women become dead women in this story: Rash’s wife, their own mother. And so they must find a way to stop themselves from growing older, from falling into the inevitable trap of puberty. “Samantha doesn’t care for boys that much,” the story reminds us.
She likes numbers. Take the number 8 for instance, which can be more than one thing at once. Looked at one way, 8 looks like a bent woman with curvy hair. But if you lay it down on its side, it looks like a snake curled with its tail in its mouth. This is sort of like the difference between being Dead and being dead. (894)
For Samantha, the image of the number 8 oscillates between the form of the bent woman, the sexual woman, and the snake devouring itself. Becoming a sexualized woman is like being Dead: it is liberating, the Dead fear nothing, the Dead can move as they will. But the snake also symbolises true death or annihilation: “The morning comes not, no, never, no more” (892). When the twins put on the Specialist’s hat — the ultimate vagina dentata—they gain control of their sexuality, or rather, they gain the power to annul their own sexuality, to control it. The Specialist’s hat, then, is both a sign of what haunts them and the mechanism by which they learn to escape it.
But the horror of the lamella extends beyond a purely sexualised reading of the story. It is truly disturbing, Žižek might say, because it represents the intersection between the imaginary and the Real; it reveals the Real in its most terrifying dimension as the primordial abyss which dissolves all identities and swallows everything. This concept of the Real will be familiar to readers of weird fiction. It is represented in a range of literary guises from Poe’s maelstrom to the horror at the end of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Lovecraft’s elder god Cthulhu, a creature who presents such a dangerous vision of the universe that he cannot be seen without causing madness:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (139)
The critic Benjamin Noys identifies in Žižek’s critical writing a true Gothic sensibility. For Lacan, the Real is inscribed into the notion of human sexuality, but for Žižek, the kernel of reality is horror, the horror of the Real — an encounter with the universe as it really is, stripped of imaginative protection and representation.
“The Specialist’s Hat” terrifies us in much the same way that Lovecraft terrifies us: it hints at an encounter with something which is beyond the realm of our experience — death — and yet which is simultaneously so deeply embedded in our own nature that it is always already there. Beneath the awfulness of Rash’s obscure poetry is an insight we recognise as fundamentally true: we are dying, we have always been dying, and sex, which seems to promise immortality, is not a way out of that trap, but rather a way further into it. Sex is the disappearance of the self, just as death is; there is no immortality, there is only the restless seeking after it, the repetition of the journey into the woods, the bite of the snake, and the hollowing out of the body as skin pulls away from meat, as you grow accustomed to slowness, as your eyes sink in, your flesh decays…
This repetition, this annihilation, this image of the future is what terrifies us — because we know it is true. The twins embrace another kind of formlessness — Death — as a way to ward off or sublimate the vision of natural death they witnessed when their mother passed away. The ambiguity of the ending comes not in the identity of the father — whether he has turned into the Specialist — or indeed in whether something awful has happened to the twins. Rather it comes in the irresolution of the twins’ stasis: like Peter Pan, will they choose Death forever? Or will they accept life with all its dangers, its delusions, and its ultimate dissolution?
James, M. R. “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” In Great Horror Stories: Tales by Stoker, Poe, Lovecraft and Others. Ed. John Grafton. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006.
Kay, Sarah. Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 2003. Print.
Kelly, James Patrick and John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Eds. Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink and Maire Jaanus. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995. Print.
Link, Kelly. “The Specialist’s Hat.” Event Horizon November 1998. Reprinted in Stranger Things Happen. Brooklyn, NY: Small Beer Press, 2001. Print.
Lovecraft, H. P. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Noys, Benjamin. “The Horror of the Real: Žižek’s Modern Gothic.” International Journal of Zizek Studies 4 (2010). <http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewFile/274/372>.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien.” Lacan.com. 2009. <http://www.lacan.com/essays/?p=180>.