Margaret Atwood writes, “Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.” Tales, as we are familiar with them, also evoke the idea of youth, innocence, and darkness–rites of passage into adulthood. Atwood turns this on its head by writing about adults who are facing endings rather than beginnings.
This collection begins with three linked stories about a love triangle among bohemian artists in the 1960s, told from the present day. Each member of the triangle has gone on to pass the decades separately. In “Alphinland,” Constance (C.W.) Starr, a widowed author of an enormously famous fantasy series, navigates the mundane task of preparing her home for a snow storm, all the while listening to the disembodied voice of her dead husband as he doles out practical advice and encourages her to “pull yourself together.” In “Revenant,” famous poet Gavin Putnam prepares for an interview with a young academic about his work, but becomes irate and unmanageable when he learns her analysis of his work is filtered through the rubric of Constance’s Alphinland series. Atwood addresses the merit of genre fiction between these two characters and stories. Gavin is often dismissive of his own work in order to tease students while expecting to be taken as a serious genius. Constance is publicly dismissive of her work because she knows no one will take her work seriously. But to her, Alphinland is a real place where she can hide herself and her secrets. “But Gavin never grasped at the inner significance of Alphinland. It was a dangerous place, and–granted–preposterous in some ways, but it was not sordid. The denizens of it had standards. They understood gallantry, and courage, and also revenge.” So too, do the characters of these nine tales. “Dark Lady” follows the third party in the love triangle, Marjorie, who prepares to meet Constance at Gavin’s funeral over fifty years since breaking up their relationship, and in doing so, faces a graceful transformation for both women.
Speaking of transformation… “Lusus Naturae” (roughly translated as “freak of nature”) is an absurd Kafkaesque tale of a young woman with a genetic defect that causes her family to hide her, to fake her death, and to abandon her to villagers who mistake her for a vampire. In “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” a gambler and con man kicked out by his wife constantly fantasizes about his own death as he goes about his day selling antiques and bidding on abandoned storage units for what lies within. In one unit he finds the exact thing he fears the most. Facing the potential killer bride, he goes in for one last gamble…but his luck hasn’t been so great lately. “I Dream of Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth,” follows three characters from Atwood’s The Robber Bride later in lives as they sort of regress to their younger selves and one of them faces repeating a terrible mistake. “The Dead Hand Loves You” is a nightmare of intellectual property rights. I shiver at the thought of the legalese.
The titular story “The Stone Mattress” finds Verna on an Arctic cruise facing a tormentor from her past, someone who changed the course of her entire life. And for that, he must die. The title refers to fossilized blue algae that stacks together to form stone slabs or “mattresses.” Atwood wrote this tale while on a cruise to entertain fellow passengers on how to commit the perfect murder on a cruise ship. “Torching the Dusties” is the final tale about a blind woman and her companion, residents in an assisted living facility that is being threatened by a group of protesters filled with hate and violence for the elderly squandering useful resources. Wilma fears them, but she also accepts them, just as she accepts the “manikins” or tiny costumed people–complex visual hallucinations that occur to patients suffering from Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
It’s appropriate that we are discussing this book in October because, as the subtitle suggests, these nine tales are definitely “wicked.” This collection is like Atwood doing Tales From The Crypt, with all its domestic scenarios laced with violence and the macabre, but with enough humor to be laugh-out-loud funny at times. The down-on-his-luck gambler who doesn’t know when to quit in “The Freeze-Dried Groom” reminded me of Kevin Tighe and Lance Henriksen’s camp-filled performances in the episode “Cutting Cards.” Yes. Yes! Yes!
Join Demi and Jan here at BookPeople this Thursday at 7pm as the New & Noteworthy Book Club discusses The Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales, Margaret Atwood’s first collection of short fiction since 2006.