From Mallory Ortberg comes a collection of darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Adapted from the beloved "Children's Stories Made Horrific" series, "The Merry Spinster" takes up the trademark wit that endeared Ortberg to readers of both The Toast and the best-selling debut Texts From Jane Eyre. The feature has become among the most popular on the site, with each entry bringing in tens of thousands of views, as the stories proved a perfect vehicle for Ortberg’s eye for deconstruction and destabilization. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien all at the same time, The Merry Spinster updates traditional children's stories and fairy tales with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminist mischief.
Readers of The Toast will instantly recognize Ortberg's boisterous good humor and uber-nerd swagger: those new to Ortberg's oeuvre will delight in this collection's unique spin on fiction, where something a bit mischievous and unsettling is always at work just beneath the surface.
Unfalteringly faithful to its beloved source material, The Merry Spinster also illuminates the unsuspected, and frequently, alarming emotional complexities at play in the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, as we tuck ourselves in for the night.
Bed time will never be the same.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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The Daughter Cells
Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with — if you've got them on hand. They don't cost much more than their own upkeep, which you're on the hook for regardless, so it's not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible. There are, you may know, kingdoms underneath the sea as well as above it, with all manners of governance, as it happens. Kings have daughters there too, in the manner of kings everywhere, and fathers there must find something to do with daughters, just as we do on land. There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with his daughters. Another man might have filled it with something else — potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines — but this one filled it with daughters, so there's no use arguing about it now.
Each of this man's daughters had a little plot of ground in the central gardens of the underwater city, which she could develop as she liked. Each daughter had use of the land but did not own it. (I haven't time to explain to you the way personal property is thought about in states where all borders are by definition liquid. There are other books about that sort of thing.) You might call the daughters princesses. I wouldn't, but if it's easier for you, then you might. You might call them something else, too — there are words for such things that live under the sea and haven't legs. You certainly wouldn't think to call them girls, if you happened to see them.
At any rate, these girls didn't own their patches of land, but they had the use of them, which made for good practice. They might ornament their allotted land with flowers, they might grow crops, or they might stuff it with old sea glass and bits of shipwrecked kettles, as they saw fit. The only way to teach the value of something is to give someone the chance to waste it — or at least that was how the thinking went under that particular administration. And most of the daughters grew up with a reasonably discerning sense of what was worth something and what wasn't, so that's one point in that philosophy's favor. Most of them didn't farm sea glass either.
The youngest of the daughters planted nothing at all in her garden, and no one thought any less of her for it. If a single polyp so much as presented its head above the ground there, she'd twist it out and fling it over the wall before it could so much as think of partitioning itself. She had no particular genius for growing things, and saw no reason to force a skill when there were so many others to cultivate.
You might well ask — and some did — why bother to go to all the trouble of patrolling for kelp and rhizomes and bits of eelgrass if you weren't going to grow anything in their place. "The point isn't that I'm growing anything else there, at least not at present," she always said. "There's the whole rest of the sea available to go be a polyp or a rhizome or a bit of eelgrass in; they just can't do it here. I can go look at a flower anywhere without having to put in a lot of effort to grow a poorer version of my own," which everyone celebrated as an eminently sensible answer.
Nothing gave the youngest daughter so much pleasure as to hear about the worlds above the sea, and the ways in which they were variously apportioned and administered. She made her old grandmother tell her all she knew of the ships and of the towns (a great deal), of their fortifications and their distribution of resources (very little, but she didn't mind lying). The defining characteristic (or so it seemed to the youngest daughter) of these places was what a great store its peoples seemed to set in declaring one place not another — this country here can never be that country there and vice versa, and how strictly important the notion of a front door was.
"You mean if someone has something, and I should like to use it, and they don't want me to," she said to her grandmother, "all they have to do is put it behind their front door, and keep it there, and there's nothing I can do about it?"
"Not unless you were willing to get into a great deal of trouble for the keeping of it," her grandmother said.
"But that's unreasonable," she said. "What right has a front door to keep me from anything? My goodness, I keep clams and things out of my garden, but I don't expect them to stop trying just because I put a few rocks around it. It's my garden because I till it, not because the world stops trying to grow things at my say-so."
"Nevertheless," her grandmother said, "they set a great store by it, and wouldn't give up their front doors for anything."
"You can't have understood it properly," the girl said.
"Front doors," her grandmother repeated, "they're absolutely mad for them, and their fish are covered in soft scales, and roost in stiff pods of kelp that don't move in the slightest, and scream at one another from their nests all day long, for everything that lives there hates quiet. All day long a hot coal rakes its way across the roof of the world, and all night they freeze as little white maggots peep out all over the sky to watch them."
"It isn't decent," she added, and the general opinion was that she was right.
"Decent or not," the girl said, "I'd like to see it for myself."
"And you will," said her grandmother. "When you're of an age, and your affairs are in order, and you have your family's consent, you may sit on the rocks by the coast and watch the ships go by moonlight. Then you will come home, and you can think about what you have seen."
At last the girl came of an age, and her affairs were in order, and she had the consent of her family tucked under the wallet strung round her waist.
"Now you are grown up," said her grandmother, "and you must let me turn you out so everyone who sees you will know your rank," and she placed ropes of nautilus on her neck and ordered eight solemn oysters to clamp onto her hair.
"But this hurts so," said the girl, who had never suffered before and did not like it in the least.
"I would not hurt you unless I could bear the same thing. You are not being asked to do anything without precedent," said her grandmother, "and no one likes to hear someone talk about their aches and pains. Have the decency at least to be quiet about it."
"All the same," the girl said, twisting her mouth, "I don't believe I should like to suffer again. As a matter of fact, I don't believe I will suffer again at all. Good-bye, for now at least." And with that, she drew herself up and vanished into the blue haze overhead.
The sun had set just before she broke her head into the air. Nearby, a large ship rested on the water. The sea and the sky alike were still and cool, but the surface of the ship seethed in continual motion against the waves. Dark figures crawled all along the rigging with a great shouting and waving of arms. Lanterns had been tipped up all around the deck and stuffed with fire, and pennants flashed from every spar. A lurching, crashing music tipped over the sides of the ship and scattered on the waves so that the girl sputtered and thrust her head back under the water, where everything was blessedly dark and quiet. She swam closer to the cabin windows and looked in through the glass. There she saw a smaller crowd of people, not moving about so wildly as the first, but richly dressed, who smiled at each other and spoke in soft voices.
Among them was a young prince — "for practical purposes, much the same thing as a daughter, at least to them," her grandmother had said. His rank was obvious from the deference offered him, despite the conspicuous lack of nautilus and clamshells on his person. He was dark-eyed and solemn, or at least civil, and the girl thoroughly approved of him for it. The celebration was for him; it was the prince's birthday, and they were marking it with tremendous merriment, for they had only a single prince to share among all their people.
The girl remembered what her grandmother had told her: "They aren't made as you or I were made. Here, a king knows exactly the number of daughters — or sons, if he wants any — he needs, and produces them as necessary. They have to go to a great deal more trouble than that if they want to get up more people. And they can make only one or two at a time, which makes for a devil of a time with planning, so that sometimes there are too many, and sometimes not nearly enough, and always there is the question of who they are going to make new people with. They can't make daughters as individuals or as a body politic, nor bud nor generate colonies, as sensible people do. They have to split off into two first, and commit sexuality against one another. I told you it wasn't decent."
When the prince moved from his cabin to the deck, a terrible shouting came from the sailors gathered there, and more than a hundred rockets shot out across the bow, singeing the sky with such a brightness that the girl could hardly bear to look. She had to bathe her eyes in salt water before she could open them again. When she did, it appeared as if every star in heaven had been wounded, and that they were unspooling themselves into blazing white threads that dripped into the sea. Everything was freezing cold and burning hot all at once. The ship itself was so brilliantly lit that everything onboard seemed lost in half radiance, half shadow. No one seemed in the least bit frightened, and everyone who saw the prince smiled at him. In this way the girl figured he must be lovely, so she smiled at him, too.
It grew late, yet the girl did not take her eyes from the ship, nor from the prince once they had adjusted to the glare. One by one, the lanterns drooped lightless, the music paled, and the ship grew quieter. The sea became restless, and every wave began to hiss foam, but still the girl remained by the cabin windows, bobbing up and down in the water. Then suddenly the deck was no longer quiet; sailors moved in a black line up the mast, seizing at the rigging, but the waves threw themselves to yet greater heights, where they were joined by fat lashings of lightning. The sails were soon swamped, and the ship dove down like a swan, and all of it made for great sport for the girl, who had long been cradled by storms such as these.
At once the sea rushed over the deck, sweeping everyone before it. All around her there was a struggling of limbs and gasping for breath, and the girl felt rather sorry for complaining about the weight of a few oysters, now that she could see how thoroughly everyone around her suffered. "I won't complain about them next time," she promised herself.
Now and again she had to swim slightly out of her way to avoid the scattered side effects of the shipwreck. It became so dark she could imagine herself on the seafloor, but then a flash of lightning threw the scene into relief, and she glimpsed the prince sinking below the waves. She brightened at the thought that soon he would be down in her father's country, where she might show him her garden and explain her philosophy of relative value and effective stewardship. After all, she thought, better for him to join us than for us to join him, if he is the only administrator his father has, as having one is scarcely better than having none at all. Then she remembered that humans could live only under the strictest of conditions, that their lungs were quite useless when wet, so that by the time he reached her father's house he would be quite dead and unable to learn anything about her philosophies at all, much less help implement them. So he had better not drown.
She dove among the beams of the ruined ship, and found him drifting a few lengths below, tangled in a bit of sail. His eyes were closed, and he seemed not to take a bit of interest in the goings-on around him (for there was still a great deal of thrashing going on just under the waves). The girl, being fair-minded, was careful not to attribute this to indifference and so did not hold his lack of curiosity against him, but tucked him squarely under her left arm and made for shore, mindful that his head faced upward. It was a generally clumsy and inefficient form of travel, but like any good administrator, she never held anyone responsible for their natural limitations.
The prince remained similarly useless once they reached the shore, and since his head seemed determined to loll about on his neck, she was compelled to steady him with one hand on either side of his face. His eyes still did not open, but his mouth hung slack, so she closed it.
"You're very quiet," the girl told him. She frowned meditatively. "I don't mind it. You may kiss me, if you like." The prince said nothing at all to that, so she kissed his forehead, and pushed back his damp hair, and kissed him again. The prince's assets — silence, introspection, slowness to judgment, pliability — all spoke of good breeding and more than compensated for his lack of seaworthiness. He also had, it seemed, the quality of Loveliness — Or, at least, the girl thought, is recognizably lovely to others of his own kind when he is awake, which was much the same thing.
Soon the morning had scrubbed both storm and ship clean from the horizon, and still the prince's eyes did not open. She had never seen anyone who lived above water so placid before. It seemed eminently sensible, and so she decided to love him for it. She was delighted that she had been away from home less than a day and already she had found something useful to do.
Considering further delay unnecessary, the girl dove back into the sea and tucked herself just beneath the waves, so that she might not have to see him wake up. A little farther down the shore was a long, low building, and a number of people surged out of its doors onto the sand and busied themselves about the prince. One of them sank next to him and pressed his hand tenderly; he soon opened his eyes and sat up, and the activity on the beach consequently increased. When she saw the prince disappear behind the front doors of the building, the girl considered him unlikely to drown again, so she swam farther out into the waves, flipped over neatly, and made for home.
She had kissed him, and she had kept his lungs from getting wet; this made him hers according to the laws of most commonsensical people. It certainly made him more hers than anyone else's, which meant there was a great deal to attend to before she was ready to challenge any front door's claim on him.
Everyone at home made much of her return, and she let herself be fussed over with patient indifference.
"If human beings are not drowned," said the girl to her grandmother once she had been thoroughly scrubbed and fêted, "can anything else kill them? Are they like sea grass, or like seals? Will the same one return again if I yank it up by the roots, or will it die?" "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."
"The prince would never be so miserly as to deny himself to any fellow citizen, whether he is living or dead, I am sure," the girl said, "for I could never love anyone who was not civic-minded, and I am very sure that I love him."
"That's all very good," her grandmother said, "but if he is to make his home here, you must make him promise to let us eat him when he is dead, as you and I will be eaten."
"I am sure that he can be persuaded," the girl said. "He was very persuadable, when I fell in love with him. You know he is the only prince they have at all up there; he has no sisters or colleagues to share his burden or offer him advice. It is a singular place, and everyone seems quite determinedly alone, and I think he will be grateful to learn there are more reciprocal ways of living."
"They are powerfully ungenerous," her grandmother agreed. "They do not think of the future, as we do; each one keeps a little soul all locked away for himself, and once their bodies are used up, their souls go off somewhere no one else can reach and continue along in perfect isolation forever and ever."
"But what a terrible waste that must be," cried the girl. "I can think of a dozen better things I could do with a soul."
"More's the pity that you haven't got one, for I have no doubt you could put a soul to a great deal of good use."
"I should like to get a soul," said the girl. "The prince has one already. I might have his. I have put my mouth on his mouth, and surely that counts for something, even among savages."
"Getting a soul takes suffering and solitude," said her grandmother. "We are much better off than they are, no matter how much they squander their birthright."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Merry Spinster"
Copyright © 2018 Daniel Mallory Ortberg.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Daughter Cells,
2. The Thankless Child,
3. Fear Not: An Incident Log,
4. The Six Boy-Coffins,
5. The Rabbit,
6. The Merry Spinster,
7. The Wedding Party,
8. Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,
9. Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters,
10. The Frog's Princess,
11. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,
Sources and Influences,
Also by Daniel Mallory Ortberg,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.