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‘The Merry Spinster’ by Daniel Mallory Ortberg ****

I had not heard of The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror before I plucked it from a library shelf, but I had read snippets about its author, Mallory Ortberg, around the Internet. I really enjoy magical realism, and hadn’t read much of it during 2020, so I very much looked forward to beginning this short story collection.

The Merry Spinster reminded me – after reading its blurb, and a host of comments which point to its originality – of something by Kirsty Logan, an author whose work I always find clever and imaginative. A review by John Scalzi particularly caught my eye; he writes that ‘the sloe gin wit of Dorothy Parker and the soul of a Classics nerd’ have been combined in Ortberg’s work.

The Merry Spinster is comprised of eleven ‘darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien’, Ortberg ‘updates traditional children’s stories… with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity and a keen sense of feminist mischief.’ The author has also included a short note on the sources and inspirations used in this collection – the Brothers Grimm feature heavily, but authors famous for tales about anthropomorphic animals, such as Kenneth Grahame and Arnold Lobel, also make an appearance. There is even a biblical tale, based on Genesis.

I very much liked the frank, cool matter-of-fact prose in these tales. In the first, ‘Daughter Cells’, Ortberg writes: ‘There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with his daughters. Another man might have filled it with something else – potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines – but this one filled it with daughters, so there’s no use arguing about it now.’

I loved the unusual descriptions which Ortberg often creates, in which the monstrous is made a thing of beauty, and vice versa. For instance, in ‘The Daughter Cells’: ‘Now here is what the sea witch looked like: she was hinged neatly in the middle; she could jump very high by bending and straightening her great-foot; she could whistle water through her teeth and hit a swimming fish one hundred yards away; and she had no head at all. She was lovely to look at.’

Ortberg somehow makes the lewd and ridiculous feel quite realistic, and writes throughout with a practiced hand. A lot of societal conventions, particularly those regarding sexuality and gender, are turned on their head. There is something both whimsically old-fashioned and searingly modern to be found within The Merry Spinster, particularly with regard to its dialogue patterns.

Clues are given in each story regarding their original source material, but there is certainly something which feels fresh and new within The Merry Spinster. Much of Ortberg’s prose holds the sinister, unsettling feeling which, of course, exists in the vast majority of fairytales. Ortberg’s stories, which often move in surprising directions, are rather beguiling, and highly memorable. They provoke much consideration in the mind of the reader with their clever subversion of events. The Merry Spinster is strange and unsettling, but it also hums with a true beauty.