ARC · Retellings · Short Stories

The Merry Spinster

I am a huge fan of a retelling. So, seeing this collection of retellings of fairy tales, folk tales and other well-known/traditional stories available for request on NetGalley had me super interested. Needless to say, I was psyched when I got chosen and sent the ARC. I was a little nervous starting to read, because “everyday horror” could mean a lot of things (I totally overlooked that subtitle when originally requesting, as the rest of the description jumped at me first) and I am a giant baby when it comes to scary stories. But these are the perfect type of creepy for me: twisted and dark, instead of full on scary. And I got to read them right in time for Halloween – perfect!

(Side note: Ortbeg also wrote Texts from Jane Eyre, which is an hilarious and entertaining read for any book lover. She also co-founded The Toast. So basically there were just lots of reasons for me to want to read this book.)

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg

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As per usual for my short story collection reviews (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think it’s super hard to “rate” collections like this overall – I loved some stories and thought others were just blah – so this is my attempt to address that), here are some short thoughts on each of the stories:

The Daughter Cells: The way the differences in perspective (between the original Little Mermaid and this retelling) are captured is on point. In general, this was an awesomely gory story to start the collection with.

The Thankless Child: The gender fluidity in the Cinderella retelling was really interesting and I thought that was a fascinating new take. And the uncomfortable focus of the fairy godmother on Paul (our Cinderella character) definitely made this tale a little horrific to read. However, beyond that I am not sure that understood the religious undertones (that were somehow related to salt?) or what the ending meant.

Fear Not: An Incident Log: The angel voice/monologue was a creative point of view. There was definitely a dark humor in carrying out God’s orders as a sort of mundane check the boxes/HR sort of job position. Very original and probably my favorite use of religion in any of the stories.

The Six Boy-Coffins: With details from a couple well known fairy tales (even if you cannot name them, you’ll recognize the elements, like nettle shirts and brothers turned into swans), this was probably my favorite story of the collection! This is a wonderfully horrifying take on the normal “handsome prince marries fair maiden” fairy tale trope, with a lovely feminist commentary on the lack of a no not meaning a yes. And the [well-deserved] lady revenge at the end was awesome! Love this quote: “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 yes.”

The Rabbit: This one likely scared me the most. A sociopathic version of the Velveteen Rabbit, with a very succubus take on what being “Real” in the eyes of a child means. It felt a little like I was reading a stuffed animal version of a pathological killer storyline on a crime show. Yikes! But it was very creative, both in that I’ve never seen this story retold anywhere before, and to be fair it’s not an unreasonable (if still totally dark) reimagining of the original.

The Merry Spinster: The titular story. And sadly not my favorite considering it being based on my favorite ever, Beauty and the Beast. It started out super promising, but by the end I was really confused by the progression of the relationship between Beauty and the “Beast” and the ending. So when I finished I was pretty unsatisfied. However, this quote is pretty much my life: “Instead, she reads books, which did her no good whatever. She was twenty-eight and mostly useless.”

The Wedding Party: The dialogue between the main characters in this story was superb. It was witty, and authentic and creative and I loved it. I also thought the couple unsettling moments between them were well written examples of “everyday” horror. Unfortunately, the rest of the story, like the plot, made very little sense to me. I mean I understood what was happening on the surface, but I don’t think I recognized any of the original tales they were retellings of, which meant I wasn’t getting anything deeper from the story.

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad: Whoa. What a sick and twisted story about messing with someone’s head. So much manipulation at the hands of supposed friends – the mind games and intimidation in this story were definitely a bit terrifying.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters: Probably my second favorite story overall. This was a cool take on the many siren/mermaid/selkie myths. Really entertaining, with a great gory ending and a big dash of over-righteous father (I mean really, you have to be pretty zealous to do what he did to his own son…yeesh).

The Frog’s Princess: This one definitely had some humor too, like an exaggerated warning story to children about making promises they don’t intend to keep. I also feel like there was a chance something deeper was going on, some kind of societal commentary on the importance we place on beauty (“Beauty is never private.”), but I think exactly what that was went over my head. Regardless, this was a lighthearted sort of gross.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: This was a strange amalgamation of a Grimm fairy tale and Frog and Toad. Both of which I like. But the way they are combined here is done very creepily – another really “horrifying in a depressing way” story of manipulation by someone who is supposed to be a friend. It’s well done though and a good way to close the collection.

Finally, a few of my thoughts on the collection as a whole. As I already mentioned, the “everyday horror” was the perfect amount for me: off-putting, but not enough to keep me awake at night. There were religious undertones in a number of the stories, and some I enjoyed, but I felt like it happened a little too often for my liking (keep in mind that I am super atheist and take that with a grain of salt). On the other hand, there were lots of real life phrases dropped in pretty much all the stories, everything from “financial portfolio” to “metal alloys” to “oil-modified urethane finish” and I thought that the jarring juxtaposition of that language with the fairy tale tone used throughout was a great touch. It gave a different sort of spin on the idea of “everyday horror.” One other thing I noticed was that many of the stories had some serious pronoun fluidity and confusion, which I am generally be ok with, but I felt like I couldn’t ever figure out why, what it added to the stories or what message it was supposed to be sending, so I’m not sure how I feel about it in these cases (as far as actually/truly reviewing it). Unless the goal was to just normalize non-traditional pronoun use….in that case – hell yea! Overall, an entertaining collection of super weird retellings and stories inspired from popular tales!

*Expected publication date of March 2018, so keep your eyes open for this collection as we head into spring next year!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Henry Holt & Co, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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5 thoughts on “The Merry Spinster

  1. I’m really looking forward to this collection. Great review! I have a hold request in at the library, and I’m just waiting (impatiently) to make it to the top of the list. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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