I’ve never been very drawn to reading short story collections, as I mentioned in my review for American Housewife, but after really enjoying Helen Ellis’s book, I resolved to read more of them. My partner clearly felt compelled to assist me in this endeavour – for Christmas, although I had asked for The Heart Comes Last, he bought me Stone Mattress, to make it ‘more of a surprise’. Besides, he pointed out reasonably, had I not said repeatedly just a couple of weeks previously that I really needed to read more short stories? And so this week, whilst I was waiting to receive some manuscripts to read for work, I decided to dip into Margaret Atwood’s short stories rather than commit to anything longer – and read the whole thing in a matter of two days.
From the very start, the boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred. As Atwood explains in her afterword, calling the collection ‘Nine Wicked Tales’ was a deliberate decision: ‘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. We may safely assume that all tales are fiction, whereas a “story” might well be a true story about what we usually agree to call “real life”…’ And these stories certainly do verge on the fantastical. Though some are more so than others, the ridiculous and the normal are only ever a hair’s breadth away in these tales.
Though short, the tales pull no punches. Writers in particular come in for plenty of ridicule. In ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’, an impoverished student pens an intense, bloody and suitably misogynistic pulp horror novel, which becomes wildly successful, spawning two films, a TV series, attracting groupies and literary criticism in equal measure. Gavin, the self-absorbed poet and womaniser gets his comeuppance in ‘Revenant’ – cosseted and controlled by his much younger third wife, whilst Constance Starr, his former ‘Lady’, is a successful fantasy writer (and again has also attracted her fair share of breathless scholars). Though her ‘Alphinland’ series, and its legions of intense fans, is gently ribbed by Atwood (Mal Peet would have had a field day), the world Constance has created is deeply real to her. Gavin’s poems (‘My Lady’s Ass is nothing like the moon’) are pure effect, as much as he claims to be referencing Shakespeare and cleverly calling his poems ‘sonnets’ even though they aren’t. Marjorie, the woman who unwittingly came between Gavin and Constance is years later still deeply damaged by the whole affair, and her coming to terms with it in ‘Dark Lady’ is deeply touching. I found this trio of stories really enjoyable – though Constance’s tale, in which the voice of her dead husband helps her through a storm, was the most enjoyable and heartfelt for me. Because sharp, witty and mischievous as it are, there is plenty of heart and emotional depth to be found in this collection.
The characters are fully fleshed out immediately, with another highlight for me being Verna, the murderous serial wife in title story ‘Stone Mattress’. As Atwood notes in the afterword, it started out as a story about how someone might get away with murder on a Canadian Arctic trip, but in one of the least ‘knowing’ stories of the collection, it is a passionate and hard-hitting revenge story.
Ageing, the nearby spectre of death and the act of looking back plays a large part in these nine wicked tales, though the nostalgia is rarely rose-tinted and the past is often an unpleasant place to be, especially for the women. The often perceived battlelines between young and old come to a head in ‘Torch the Dusties’, in which the elderly Wilma comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing as part of her Charles Bonnet syndrome hallucinations, whilst an activist group called ‘Our Turn’ plan to burn down her retirement home.
One story I shall certainly need to read again is ‘I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth’. I hadn’t realised on first reading that is a revisiting of The Robber Bride, which I haven’t read, but I look forward to the pleasure.
Stone Mattress is pure Atwood – gleeful, funny, sharp and yet poignant. This is a collection that should be read and revisited again…and again and again.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood is published by Virago, price £8.99 in paperback.