The Great Tales Never End: Cassie-la Rates the Stories in “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

Stone MattressStone Mattress by Margaret Atwood (Galley)
Release Date: September 16, 2014
Genre: Fiction, short stories, horror, vampires, literary, fantasy, further proof that Margaret Atwood can do no wrong
Rating: 4.89 out of 5 stars

Summary: Margaret Atwood returns to the short story form (at least anthology-wise) for the first time since her 2006 collection Moral Disorder. With nine tales centered around long dead authors, soon to be dead authors, old age and death and ranging from tales about severed hands and vampires, to long-dead grooms, tiny imagined people and death by stromatolite, this is Atwood at her darkly comedic best.

Despite the seemingly impossible feat I may have set for myself, I decided to go a different route with this short story collection and rate these nine stories (or rather tales) written by the perpetually fabulous Margaret Atwood and order them from best tale to worst tale. Worst being a relative term since really, I loved them all. Honestly, if I were rating them according to US academia none would receive lower than an A.

While only three of the tales are interconnected, the same themes run through all the stories. Specifically themes of aging and in turn death (through either murder or old age), revenge, change (the old making way for the new and the juxtaposition that comes with it) and acceptance.

Most of these ideas Atwood explores through classical poetry, literature, and more specifically, long dead poets and authors, always keeping in mind (to borrow a quote) that storytellers never die. They just disappear into their own stories.

Lusus NaturaeMy favorite story of the bunch – and where the majority of my highlighted quotes came from – was centered upon a woman who was outed by her family and dubbed a “freak of nature” after she is overcome with a disease that is akin to vampirism. Our “monster” passes the time by reading very expected vampire works by Byron, Keats and Pushkin, all while faking her death so her family can move on with their own lives and leave this terrible misfortune behind them – complete with an I Am Legend-esque ending.

The Dead Hand Loves YouMuch like The Blind Assassin, The Dead Hands Loves You is a story within a story. The frame story follows author Jack Dace, who created an international horror classic about a severed hand seeking revenge against the lover who scorned his body in life. While telling the tale of how the story came to be, Dace explores the story itself, how it was perceived in literary criticism circles by the Freudians and Jungians, and even how the book was adapted into film – the much-preferred original and the highly mocked remake.

Stone MattressThe title story is also a tale of revenge and follows black widow Verna, who goes man-hunting when she runs into the man that set her on her own dangerous path in life. A man named Bob who would have certainly been punished for his infraction if the past had occurred in the present. All I can say is thank nature for 1.9 billion year old stromatolites.

Torching the DustiesWilma suffers from Charles Bonnet syndrome, which causes her to see historically inaccurate tiny people whom she dubs Chuckies, but that’s not the worst of her problems. Thanks to her generation’s destruction of the planet, the younger generation is seeking revenge on the old and proclaiming that it’s their turn to run things. Unfortunately for Wilma, a terrorist group is expressing their dissatisfaction by setting old age homes on fire, and the government seems to be completely or purposefully powerless to stop it.

Alphinland – The first of three interconnected stories is Alphinland, which follows the story of renowned fantasy author Constance Starr, who is currently dealing with the passing of her husband Ewan, who she claims “ceased to be present in visible form.” Constance has fame levels equivalent to that of J.K. Rowling, but is haunted by her past love, poet Gavin who she has secretly written into her story to keep him safe from the real world at large.

Revenant – Gavin, Constance’s former lover and author of the Shakespearean tribute, My Lady’s Ass is Nothing Like the Moon is an old man with a love for old dead poets and an aging poet himself. Despite his age, he has a preference for young wives thanks to thoughts put in his head by deceased sex-obsessed authors like Mailer, Updike and Roth. With most of his rivals dead, Gavin prefers to surround himself with no longer living authors and “monuments to his own decaying magnificence,” perfectly portraying the themes that run throughout the short story collection.

The Freeze-Dried GroomSam is not the most moral person, which is perhaps why Gwyneth ends her marriage to the suave antique salesman. But Sam’s life takes an interesting turn on the day Gwyneth announces she is leaving him and he wins a storage unit at auction that houses much more than he expected.

Dark LadyConnected to the previous stories Alphinland and Revenant, Dark Lady (yet another Shakespeare reference) is about the woman who inspired Gavin’s Dark Lady series of sonnets that are not exactly sonnets, Jorrie (Marjorie) and her twin brother Tin (Martin). Even though she stole Gavin from Constance long, long ago, Jorrie is currently obsessed with clinging to her lost youth while Tin is also stuck in the past, clinging to supposedly dying studies like classic literature and the ancient language of Latin.

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red TeethFinally, we have the sequel to the Atwood novel The Robber Bride, which follows Tony, Roz, Charis and a dog named Ouida, who may or may not be housing the re-incarnated version of the women’s antagonist Zenia. I wasn’t a fan of The Robber Bride when I first read it, so this short did not speak to me as much as the others, but it was still a fun read nonetheless.

THE GOOD:
-A vast collection of stories with Atwood’s fantastical touch
-Laugh out loud funny and darkly intriguing
-Luxurious prose with numerous literary nods

THE BAD:
-I was never much of a fan of The Robber Bride
-Before I knew it my journey was over

THE QUOTES:
“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end.”
“There’s only so long you can feel sorry for a person before you come to feel that their affliction is an act of malice committed by them against you.”
“They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that something was not myself: it looked nothing like the innocent, pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.”
“I’ll fall from the burning roof like a comet, I’ll blaze like a bonfire … my finger bones will be sold as dark relics. I’ll be a legend, by then.”
Fun is not knowing how it will end.”
“Everything will be swept away, those signs declare, and a lot sooner than you think.”

Unfortunately, as much as I love Atwood, I have to express my intense regret that her next offering to the literary world won’t be available until 100 years from now. At which point (unless my sweet robot body comes through) I will probably have long ago shuffled off my mortal coil.

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