When Mallory Ortberg wrote for The Toast, a web oasis of literary, feminist humour they oversaw with co-editor Nicole Cliffe from 2013 to its closure in 2016, they began playing with parody in an unsettling, reoccurring column entitled “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” The formula was goofy, grim, and addictive—readers relished the tantalizing way their favourite characters dissolved under the ruthless water torture of Ortberg’s pen, whether the tale focused on a traumatized Babar isolated from his elephant kin, or the helpless cast of The Magic School Bus cowering before a sadistic Ms. Frizzle.
Now, the 31-year-old’s web series has grown up, its signature “kids’ tales gone dark” approach informing the 11 short stories that together comprise Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror. “My trade secret is that these stories are already deeply upsetting and I’m just pulling some threads on what upsets me the most,” explains Ortberg of their subject material’s potential for parody. “The running gag was always: this story is already extremely bleak!”
“My trade secret is that these stories are already deeply upsetting and I’m just pulling some threads on what upsets me the most,” explains Ortberg.
Of course, fairy-tales and fables are frequent subjects of interpretation—their very nature, as products of longstanding oral tradition, is to be molded and reborn infinitely, whether by Hans Christian Anderson, Andrew Lang, Walt Disney, or any tired parent coaxing their kid to sleep. Ortberg picks up the mantle with references to European Christian theology and a generous dash of Shirley Jackson-esque Gothicism. “Theses are stories that have been told and retold countless times, and I wanted to be part of that tradition, and to bring to that tradition a sense of my own anxiety, fears, biases…” they say. For instance, Ortberg’s Little Mermaid character emphasizes the original’s muteness at critical moments: “The more she wants things the quieter she gets,” says Ortberg, “When the moment to act comes, she does nothing, she withdraws, she allows misunderstandings to go on. I recognize myself in that, some of the things I want the most I will kind of move heaven and earth to facilitate and when it seems they are finally close at hand or I have to open my mouth to name them, I’m absolutely struck dumb.”
Ortberg’s neurosis find their natural home in reprisals of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Frog Prince, and more. Often, the stories are twisted beyond immediate recognition, gaining focus as familiar elements appear amid ominous settings like ghosts. Ortberg’s sharp humour and knack for sensing exactly where fear and danger linger in our classic tales make The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror a deliciously macabre read for those ready to make their childhood memories squirm.
Never miss a story. Sign up for NUVO’s weekly newsletter.