Mallory Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster, is more a chimera than a collection of straightforward retellings. Fairy tales, children’s stories, ballads, and prayers weave throughout these short stories, sometimes in form and sometimes in reference, and always like a shared and sinister mythology. If, like the subtitle of the book proclaims, these are “Tales of Everyday Horror,” it is because they’re horrible in their proximity to our everyday lives, and to the strange cultural miasma that informs it.
The fantasy genre is saturated with fairy tale makeovers, usually in some combination of “the original but darker,” or “the original but with better politics.” There’s nothing wrong with these retellings—I might even argue there’s more than one thing right about them—but Ortberg’s playful foray into the western canon feels like a different project altogether. It is dark, certainly, and it doesn’t lack for things to say about gender, violence, love, and a host of other politicized things. It is also—in keeping with Ortberg’s reputation on The Toast (RIP), The Shatner Chatner, and other reputable publications—funny. What makes Ortberg’s everyday horrors truly different, though, is that they map questions onto these old stories instead of answers. Instead of saying “The daughters in these stories should have more agency,” or “The daughters in these stories had agency all along,” they ask: “What is a daughter?” and, “With agency like this, who needs enemies?”
Helpfully, Ortberg (who recently announced their transition to Daniel) provided a list of many more of these questions in a recent interview with the Rumpus. There, they asked:
What does abuse look like outside of a romantic context, and how hard can it be to recognize? What does it mean when someone tells you something is love, and yet it is not love? What does it mean when you inherit something violent? What does it mean when you perpetuate that violence, and you don’t want to acknowledge that to yourself? What does it mean when you’re not honest about what you’re doing?
These are heavy, emotionally intelligent questions for pithy morality tales to be asking. But ask them, they do, whether in the guise of Mole, Badger, and Rat gaslighting their good friend Mr. Toad out of house and home (“Some of Us Have Been Threatening Mr. Toad”), or of a young girl trying to save her brothers from their fates, first as corpses and then as swans (“The Six Boy-Coffins”). Every story in The Merry Spinster is told with a whimsy and a lightness of touch that makes their painful questions, and still more painful non-answers, palatable. Having finished the book, I’m convinced there’s no better way to discuss non-truths than through a host of genres—fairy tales, prayers, what have you—that are known for being stodgily moral and unambiguous. We approach them, after all, with an expectation of wisdom crammed somewhere in between the mermaids turning into humans, and the daughters marrying frogs. But the most important wisdom you can gain from them, and from Ortberg’s stories in particular, is the ability to, not just sit with discomfort, but be enraptured by it.
Even in a collection this short (clocking in at 11 stories and just under 200 pages), there are a few pieces that stand out. The titular story, “The Merry Spinster,” is a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling for those of us with B&B fatigue. It is a modernization, but perhaps not the kind you’d expect, being more concerned with a mid-century model of eccentric wealthiness (fans of Ortberg’s Joan Didion impressions will not be disappointed) than with the old nobility of the Beaumont original. Beauty may be in dire straits when she’s sentenced to life with a strange, cruel beast, but compared to the constant, petty manipulations of her family, the genteel power plays of the beast are nothing. Some of the best and wittiest dialogue is in this story; but more than that, it has something new to say about being alone in a story that is more often treated as a romance.
The most unsettling—and consequently my favorite—of the lot, though, is “The Rabbit,” an almost unwavering retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit. Rather than adding new elements of foreboding and violence to the story, Ortberg brings out what was already latent in the original: the life that the little stuffed rabbit gains has to come from somewhere, and what is gained is more often stolen from someone else. It’s a quiet story, and a short one. That’s part of what makes it horrifying. But I’ve thought about it long after finishing it, and appreciate more and more the ease with which Ortberg could make me look at one of my fondest childhood stories cross-eyed.
Plenty of articles and interviews are floating around about Ortberg’s experience writing a book about gender, power, and bodies while they were exploring their own gender. These personal takes, and knowledge of the author, are not necessary to enjoying The Merry Spinster, which stands quite admirably on its own. But I do think they speak to the real power and authenticity of the questions in these stories. The Merry Spinster is an unnerving book, a familiar one, and a delightful one. It changes and transforms stories that we may hold dear. That convergence of contradictions is very much what makes it great.
The Merry Spinster is available from Henry Holt & Co.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL. They want to know: we can all agree gender is horrifying, right? They didn’t have to say it?