This 2018 short story collection by Mallory Ortberg is subtitled “Tales of Everyday Horror.” While I would quibble with the “everyday” designation (the book is quite otherwordly), I fully agree with “horror.”
Each of the eleven stories is essentially a fairy tale for adults. You may recognize some of them right away, while others draw from a diverse range of influences, which are thoughtfully outlined in an appendix. For example, for “The Thankless Child,” the author cites influences that include Cinderella, King Lear, and Psalm 139. I loved that this appendix is included in the book!
The writing is crisp, clever, and sometimes challenging as Ortberg freely plays with pronouns and genders in several of the stories. This is fun, and contributes to keeping the reader engaged with the unfamiliar. (Talking fish, mermaids, and gender roles by choice not fiat! Where is this is place‽)
I should also mention that, generally speaking, the stories are dark. Ortberg’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit will stick with me for a very long time. As a back-cover blurb observes: “The Merry Spinster will ruin your most-loved fables, in the best possible way.”
Here are just a few of the many phrases and concepts that tickled my fancy:
- “Humans die,” said the grandmother, “and humans suffer too, for they lead short lives and when they are dead, no one eats them. They are stuffed in boxes and hidden in the dirt, or else set on fire and turned into cinders, so no one else can make any use of them; they are a prodigiously selfish race and consider themselves their own private property even in death
- A king’s wife is outranked by her belly.
- The devil’s hour occurs at 3AM, the inverse of Christ’s death on the cross at three o’clock in the afternoon.
- “… she looks at one as though she disapproves of how one parts one’s hair, or spells one’s name, somehow.”
- “A whip for a horse,” I said, “a bridle for a donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.” I don’t know why I warned her next, but I did. “I’m going to speak a bible over you now,” I told her. “Brace yourself.”
- “I did not ask what the frog wanted,” his father said, “I asked if the frog expected to be let in.” All the other daughters had stopped pretending to eat at this point and stared in open excitement at the prospect of watching one of their number get into trouble.