Henry Holt & Co./Macmillan, 190 pages
In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a mermaid gives up her voice so she can have a pair of human legs, which cause her so much pain that she feels as though she is walking on knives. To please the prince she loves, she moves with grace alongside him and dances enchantingly before him, each step shooting pain through her body. She suffers in silence.
Many of the stories we grew up with don’t need to be recast as horror; frightening visions already course through their plots. Yet in Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, revisionism adds new tensions and tantalizing complications. The results are sometimes mystifying, sometimes thrilling, and certainly worthwhile additions to the retell-me-a-story literary field.
Gender and trade are among those complications. “The Frog’s Princess,” for instance, is Ortberg’s take on the Grimms’ tale “The Frog Prince,” in which a princess drops her golden ball into a spring and must make a deal with a frog to retrieve it. In Ortberg’s retelling, the protagonist goes by the pronoun “he” and is described as both a daughter and a boy. His beauty makes him unlucky, inviting unasked-for attention. “Beauty is never private,” the narrator explains; the boy’s father tells him that “according to a certain understanding you belong to everyone.” When the boy is reluctant to uphold his end of the deal with the frog, his father chastises him: “Do not offer someone your beauty, if you do not intend to repay them in kind.”
There are plenty of gruesome plot twists in the stories, but the true horror here is in the “everyday” of the book’s subtitle: personal qualities, such as beauty, that are not yours, gaslighting friends, the Beast casually telling Beauty, “You are the mistress of the house ... and I am the master of everything that is in it.” A number of the stories depict fairytale worlds that are bureaucratic and money-driven — another form of horror. Before Beauty’s mother gives her daughter away to a beast, the narrator explains, she raised her children with “an eye on the return of her investments.”
Ortberg runs Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column and co-founded the marvelous, now defunct website The Toast, for which he wrote the series “Children’s Stories Made Horrific,” the precursor to the stories in The Merry Spinster. (Ortberg’s name appears on the book’s cover as “Mallory Ortberg”; he recently announced that he is transgender and in the process of transitioning.) He brings the same dark wit to Spinster’s renditions, morphing characters into twisted sisters of themselves and neatly mashing up stories of widely divergent backgrounds — for instance, The Wind in the Willows and a Donald Barthelme story. There are passages when wit crosses over into self-conscious affect. In “The Daughter Cells,” Ortberg’s version of “The Little Mermaid,” the narrator cuts in with brusque asides such as, “I haven’t time to explain to you the way personal property is thought about” in the mermaid’s underwater realm. Such interjections read as overt pronouncements of cleverness, which usually comes through just fine in Ortberg’s stories themselves.
The obscurity of several stories threatens their enjoyment. “The Wedding Party” and “The Thankless Child,” based respectively on the Grimms’ tales “The Goose-Girl” and “Cinderella,” among other influences, are somewhat more disorienting than enlightening. (A list of sources and influences is provided in the back matter.) Other stories, though, like a glorious take on the Grimms’ “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Brothers,” attest to Ortberg’s ingenuity. In that tale, another heroine goes silent. She learns that “someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no.” But throughout her suffering, she never loses her strength; woe to the man who thought he could put words in her mouth.