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A novel take on Byron; fear at reality's edge

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land
By John Crowley
Morrow, 480 pp., $25.95

Magic for Beginners
By Kelly Link
Small Beer, 272 pp., $24

While it can often dominate speculative fiction, the fantastic can be used simply as place, a setting through which characters navigate their lives. This can still reduce characters to empty genre ciphers, nothing but vehicles for weird ideas. Two recent books reveal what can be useful about fantastic backdrops in fiction, and each shows off the literary chops of two great fabulists.

John Crowley offers an eerily authentic simulation of Romantic literature in his new book, ''Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land," which considers an alternate reality in which a modern-day researcher comes upon a previously unknown novel of the poet's.

Alexandra Novak, a young historian working on a website devoted to women in science, uncovers a series of papers belonging to Ada Byron, Lord Byron's estranged daughter. Ada, highly regarded for her scientific mind, worked closely with Charles Babbage and his calculating machines, regarded as the first computers. Ada grew up under the shadow of her mother, who deeply despised Byron. After Ada discovers Byron's novel, she cleverly hides it from her mother in the form of a mathematical code, while allowing the manuscript to be burned.

In the Byron novel we are introduced to Ali, a young man born of two worlds. Growing up an orphan in Albania, he is suddenly taken from his home by a man claiming to be his father, the devilish Lord Sane, and brought to England. Fate throws him against every possible kind of misfortune and adventure. All the while Ali remains steadfastly a hero, never succumbing to the evil legacy of his father. Ada adds her own annotations to the text and, through Ali, comes to know the man kept from her by her mother.

In the e-mail exchanges between Alexandra, her mathematician lover Thea, and Alexandra's own estranged father Lee, the characters are handled with precision. The Romantic and the digital ages do not meld smoothly, however. The author doesn't make enough of a mystery of how the book was hidden by Ada and decoded in the future. The story of Alexandra and her father nicely reflects the relationship of Byron and Ada, but Byron's novel dominates so much of the book, the story of Alexandra is buried beneath the gravitas of Crowley's remarkable literary sleight of hand.

It's possible Crowley simply wanted to write a great romantic tale and therefore has used the postmodern trick of writing a novel within a novel, where the book in question is a lost literary treasure. By having his real-world protagonists ''find" the book, Crowley is free to write the novel he really wants. This makes the whole somewhat unsatisfying, but Crowley's Byron novel is enjoyable once you give yourself over to the beautiful but unfamiliar prose.

Kelly Link's new collection of stories, ''Magic for Beginners," is filled with genre tropes: the living dead, witches, haunted houses, and other ghostly things. But they exist on the edges of reality, somewhere between what is mundane and what is inexplicable. Link draws from folktales, urban legends, and pop culture, and infuses these elements into miniature surreal portraits. While they each offer very different aspects of the fantastic, a common feeling of unease underlies many of them.

''The Hortlak" evokes a chill as it tells of an all-night convenience store on the Canadian border that rests near the precipice of something known as the ''Ausible Chasm," a city of the dead, who are known to climb out of the pit and into the store, looking for glimmers of their old lives. Two clerks -- Batu, an older Hindu man, and 19-year-old Eric -- live and work at the store as they await an unknown apocalypse that will eventually send them into the chasm, all the while pining for the same girl. The story is a strange and melancholy meditation on death and love.

''Stone Animals," the strongest of the lot, is a deeply affecting tale of an urban family haunted by their new rural home. The slowly descending madness calls to mind ''The Shining," but Link is so subtle and adept at describing disordered states of mind, it's uncertain where madness and sanity begin and end.

Soap, a young ex-convict, is haunted by ideas of art, icebergs, and what to do in the case of zombies in ''Some Zombie Contingency Plans." Nothing much happens, but Soap's anxieties are so palpable as to almost beg for a climactic moment. When Soap does act, the story ends with the threat of tragedy.

The title story is a dense character study of an adolescent boy played out in a world where a television show he and his friends are obsessed with might be more real than the world they live in. Adolescent angst, the pains of first love, and new erotic feelings are all handled deftly. Again, the mysterious unseen world, which may or may not be real, intrudes with a slight menace.

Link's stories are delightfully playful, almost precocious, as she creates palimpsests of secret passages, hidden doors, quiet pulses of deeper meaning. Don't look for unexpected twists or tight resolutions. Nevertheless, many images linger, and the characters are memorable, real people placed in impossibly strange circumstances, sometimes of their own making.

Link is fast becoming a major talent. While she happily positions herself as a genre writer, I would compare her with writers like George Saunders, authors who work in a recognizable world but can't dismiss the hidden things that tap on our windows at night, that flutter around the edges of photographs, that inhabit the stone animals in our gardens.

Peter Bebergal is a writer living in Cambridge. He can be reached at pbebergal@yahoo.com.

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