It seems appropriate that, so soon after I put up the display, lists, and post about the adult fairy tale category for this year’s Reading Challenge, The Field Library acquired The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, which is a collection of very dark short stories based on various famous or less famous fairy tales (and children’s stories, which I’ll get to in a minute). It’s a quick read, but be warned: all of the stories are warped, and some of them are quite disturbing.
Do you need to know the original stories in order to appreciate The Merry Spinster? No, though you probably are at least generally aware of the outlines of such stories as The Little Mermaid (here told as “The Daughter Cells”), The Wind in the Willows (here “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”), or “The Frog Princess” (here “The Frog’s Princess”). As with any retellings of famous stories, you are of course better able to appreciate the new version if you’re familiar with the original, but you can read these stories without a lot of knowledge of their source material.
And what stories they are! Some of them, like “The Daughter Cells,” just take the original story and look at it through a completely different lens: consider what a mermaid would really be like and exactly how she might view humankind, keeping in mind that creatures that live underwater might not have such a human-oriented point of view. “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” told by an angel who had various tasks to fulfill in the time of the Bible, seems perfectly reasonable until you get to the end (the angel’s encounter with Jacob), and think about the twist in the story and what it means for the future.
Though these stories are creepy, they’re not really “horror” as I see them. Some of them, though, are genuinely scary and even haunting. For instance, The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child, and Ortberg’s version, “The Rabbit,” follows the original fairly closely and then diverges to absolutely ruin my memory of the original, turning it into something nightmarishly chilling. Similarly, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” here would make anyone scared of Rat and Mole and Badger and horribly sympathetic to poor Toad.
If you don’t mind having some really creepy dreams, and you enjoy looking at famous stories from different angles, and you have a dark sensibility, then by all means give The Merry Spinster a read. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.