Fairy tales have long fascinated me. I grew up with Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales From Around the World and The Maid of the North (both compiled by Ethel Johnson Phelps) as well as a Hans Christian Andersen collection. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, we had no TV and the internet wasn’t around yet, so I loved those stories. I read them often and was completely shocked when I saw the Disney version of The Little Mermaid – I can very vividly remember telling my mother that the ending was wrong (the ending of the movie and the original story diverge pretty wildly). More recently, I’ve been fascinated by how much fairy tales incorporate experiences of infertility and loss.
So when I read a review of (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg’s* The Merry Spinster: Tales of Every Day Horror, I knew this was a book I had to get my hands on. I was a little apprehensive about the “horror” part as I’m not at all into scary stories, but having enjoyed Ortberg’s writing in the past, I was curious about the twists he might put on the fairy tales he incorporated into his short stories.
Besides, let’s face it, fairy tales are horrifying in the originals. The Grimm Cinderella has parts of feet being cut off to fit in shoes and eyes being pecked out. I figured I could probably handle Ortberg’s renditions, which turned out to be as gruesome as any Grimm story in places. Blood runs freely throughout the book.
Like most short story collections, there are a few misses in The Merry Spinster. I really did not get The Wedding Party despite having read it several times. Some of the stories just didn’t pick up Ortberg’s usual wit or really pull me in.
The hits of the collection, however, made the book absolutely worth it.
Fear Not: An Incident Log is one of my favorite stories from this year. Ortberg replays the incidents from the biblical book of Genesis from the viewpoint of an angel and the result is biting and also very funny. Written like a dry technical support log, the angel starts off explaining why such appearances always begin with “fear not”: because “…appearing before [humans] without some form of reassurance is liable to result in total system overload, followed shortly by shutdown.” Despite the humor, it’s also beautiful and profound in places and I don’t think I’ll ever read or hear the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel quite the same way again. Ortberg’s background as a PK (pastors’ kid – both his mother and father) is on full display in this story, and I wasn’t expecting the humor or tenderness that Ortberg gives the original text in his retelling.
The horror promised in the title is on full display in The Rabbit, Ortberg’s retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit. The quest to become “real” takes on a whole new meaning in this imagining. An early conversation between the rabbit and the well-loved Skin Horse immediately tips into a creeping awfulness: “’Whose skin do you have?’ the Rabbit had asked him, and the Skin Horse had shivered to hear the excitement in his voice.” Ortberg’s description of the rabbit’s voice as “… a crawling black thing across the floor…” is hideously evocative.
Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters explores a different – but no less terrifying – horror. Examining the ways in which the character uses certain passages and beliefs to justify and even encourage the unspeakable acts at the culmination of the story feels timely and relevant as a reminder and a caution.
Finally, The Six Boy-Coffins holds not only a well-done recasting of the original Grimm tale The Six Swans but also an incisive discussion of power and consent. The line “She was beginning to learn the danger of silence, and that someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no” feels particularly resonant in the #metoo era. The ending packs the rarest quality in this volume: the sense of justice done.
Ortberg is very fluid with genders throughout the stories, and in fact, was in the process of exploring the beginning of his transition from female to male at the time of writing. Daughters may be referred to with male pronouns or have traditionally male names and husbands and wives may choose which role they want, regardless of sex. Initially a bit confusing, it took me a story or two to get used to this particular quality, but overall, it enhanced the stories and makes playing with the tropes of fairy tales sharper.
As a rating, I’d give it 4/5 stars. It’s definitely a book that appeals to a particularly dark sense of humor and a tolerance for fairy tale type violence/gore is a must.
*Author is listed on the book as Mallory Ortberg, but he has transitioned and taken the name of Daniel Mallory Ortberg