Queerly Told Tales
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror is a collection of fractured fairytales and other amusingly shocking retellings. The stories glow with just the right amount of cheekiness, creepiness, and clever insight about oral tradition. I read Mallory Ortberg’s fantastical work the old-fashioned way, on dead trees and on loan from my public library, but their first incarnation happened in the Millennial way (Ortberg is the same age as my daughter, which added to the odd intimacy I feel with her … the imagined intimacy a reader can develop with writers she has never met), on a website, The Toast, in a series called Children’s Stories Made Horrific. Mallory, as named on the book cover, is now Daniel, and the change appears to have happened during the writing of this book, which does some to explain the gender mixing of characters like Paul who is a “she” and a princess who is a “he” and a newlywed couple who debate which of them will be the wife. Here is a lovely review of the book and appreciation of its gender issues, by Annalisa Quinn.
The stories feel at times like ground glass in the lining of one’s heart, a pain that pulses as the heart beats, but to which one becomes acclimated as one does to a noxious smell or ringing in the ears. I recognize this sort of pain. I lived with it throughout my working life. I was awkward and tone deaf and emotionally stupid in the real world. The pain resulted, I think, from a constant, low-level terror at what unexpected consequences might result from my sincere but blind efforts. (Now, retired, I rarely feel that pain. Only when I wake at 3 in the am.) Ortberg’s characters roam a similarly unpredictable and dangerous land. Conversations have multiple meanings, the most important of which one always misses and knows that one is missing. Seemingly solid ground is not and reliably solid tropes are tricks. Everything happens in raw real-time where there are no take-backs. Mircea Eliade called it “the terror of History” and it is the default mode of Post-Modern Boomers. Millennials appear to be moving on into a Queer world which will, I hope, pin down and beat up my Post-Modern angst. I am sick to death of it. Daniel Mallory Ortberg perks up my stale world view with impishness and glee. Ground glass will always be there. The Buddha always said we would suffer. But Daniel Mallory explores a queer joy that laughs in the face terror.
A few of the stories:
“The Daughter Cells” —Robert Graves claimed that various 50 daughter families of ocean deities in Greek mythology were metaphors for colleges of priestesses, but the wise, watery grandmother in this story knows better. She explains how an underwater king "knows exactly the number of daughters - or sons, if he wants any - he needs and produces them as necessary." Humans, however "have to go to a great deal more more trouble than that if they want to get up more people. And they can make only one or two at a time, which makes for a devil of a time with planning, so that sometimes there are too many, and sometimes not nearly enough and always there is the question of who they are going to make new people WITH. They can't make daughters as individuals OR as a body politic, nor bud nor generate colonies, as sensible people do. They have to split off into two first, and commit sexuality against one another. I told you it wasn't decent." Perhaps this singularity explains the vast selfishness of humans. "They are powerfully ungenerous," Grandmother says. "They do not think of the future, as we do; each one keeps a little soul all locked away for himself, and once their bodies are used up, their souls go off somewhere no one else can reach and continue along in perfect isolation forever and ever."
“The Thankless Child” — Here is King Lear remade as Cinderella's godmother, demanding gratitude from 3 daughters. And what a godmother! "The godmother could read, and write a little when the situation called for it; she could walk in the noonday sun without fainting; commission deacons; haggle with the grocer; perform minor miracles; turn a dog into a man for upward of three hours; cast out territorial spirits; slaughter a chicken without spilling a drop of blood; initiate mysteries; and she could name over one thousand neurotoxins." And then there is an assertive, gender fluid Cordelia/Cinderella called, of all things, Paul. "Paul said nothing. Paul was not allowed to make the same acts of contrition as her sisters; Paul could only ever be forgiven in a manner that was peculiar to herself, which often meant that she went unforgiven altogether." The story almost has a happy ending, but toxic parent figures have a habit of showing up, no matter how far the adult child thinks she might have gotten from home.
“Fear Not: An Incident Log” -- Best portrait of an archangel since Mike Carey’s Lucifer. “I didn’t look then like I do now. This was before the great cloud with brightness around it and the fire flashing forth continually, before everyone had settled on having four faces and calf feet and burning coals on their lips. People, I have found, have a very keep eye when it comes to forms that resemble their own, and it’s better to look as different from a person as you possibly can than to try to re-create one of their appearances.” Sounds like angels figured out long before humans about the uncanny valley effect.
“The Six Boy-Coffin” -- What is it like to be the unwanted child of a woman denied the abortion she desperately needs to save her six living children? “Once there was a little girl who tried very hard not to be born.” Amazingly, the story does have a happy ending, where the patriarchy gets its just reward. I won’t spoil the story for you.
“The Rabbit” -- Best rabbit vampire story since Bunnicula. The Velveteen Rabbit retold as a delightfully evil stuffed toy. Some questions the Velveteen Rabbit asks the Skin Horse: What is Real? Does it hurt? Can you hurt something else when you become Real? Can you take someone else’s Real, or are you stuck having to get it brand-new each time on your own? What I mean is, if something else was already Real, could you take it from them, and keep it for yourself? Can you take the Real out of a boy, then? Can you take his heart into your own self and leave him stuffed with sawdust on the nursery floor in your place?
“The Merry Spinster” -- A Beauty oblivious to the needs of her Beast. She has “weak eyes” and her family calls her Beauty “in jest, but she did not seem to notice the insult and answered to the name. Now she would answer to nothing else. She had no sense of when she was being praised or slighted. Instead, she read books, which did her no good whatever. She was twenty-eight and mostly useless.”
I have sometimes felt “mostly useless” with all the book reading that does me “no good whatever.”