Before opening Margaret Atwood’s new collection, ponder the subtitle. Tales, not stories, are what is on offer. As Atwood explains in the acknowledgements, short stories often work “within the boundaries of social realism” whereas “tale” evokes the wilder lineage of “the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.”
In the distinction between stories and tales, two radically different literary traditions are mapped out. Stone Mattress is not a story collection following in the path of Chekov, Joyce, and Munro – a gathering of vignettes that try to wrest wry epiphanic insights by constructing fictional microcosms mirroring our own world. Rather, Atwood is aligning herself with tale-tellers like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King – spinners of yarns who seek to make our hearts thump faster as we read about uncanny and otherworldly events. So it is not surprising that Stone Mattress is filled with monsters of various stripes: killers and ghosts, as well as dead bodies in distressing stages of posthumous disarray.
An ill-fated love affair between a poet and a pulp writer binds the first three interconnected tales. The poet is Gavin Putnam, a haughty bard surrounded by academic acolytes. In youth, Gavin lived in lustful bliss with a muse who, under the name of C.W. Starr, penned pseudo-Tolkien epics about a realm called Alphinland. The earliest Alphinland sagas appeared in “subcultural magazines” featuring “people with diaphanous wings on the covers, many-headed animals, bronze helmets and leather jerkins, bows and arrows.” (Writers of “subcultural” fiction are never far from Atwood’s mind. A churner of gruesome horror novels takes centre stage in another tale in this volume, and the 2000 novel The Blind Assassin featured a sci-fi writer as a prominent character.)
Atwood’s needling wit takes jabs at both the highbrow versifier and the lowbrow elf chronicler, yet mocked though they are, these two hapless figures represent the extreme poles of Atwood’s considerable range.
There was a Gothic strain in Atwood’s earliest fiction, but for her first two decades as a writer she spent her main energies mastering and exhausting the possibilities of realism. The Handmaid’s Tale was the turning point, her first extended foray into science fiction and a career-defining international hit. From that point on, realism would become a minor chord in Atwood’s work, as she became increasingly energized by schlocky genres that allowed her to indulge her narrative inventiveness and glee in melodramatically expressive characters.
Among genre fans, Atwood has been accused of slumming – a mainstream writer dabbling in modes that she secretly despises. This accusation is refuted not only by the sheer volume of Atwood’s genre output, but also by the way sensationalistic plots have manifestly invigorated her work.
In one story, a teenager is date-raped, a trauma that sets her on a life of crime. Here’s how Atwood describes the pivotal transformation: “The Verna of the day before had died, and a different Verna had solidified in her place: stunted, twisted, mangled. It was Bob who’d taught her only the strong can win, that weakness should be mercilessly exploited. It was Bob who’d turn her into – why not say the word? – a murderer.” There is nothing supernatural in this passage, yet simply by their declarative stridency, these sentences take us into a world far beyond realism. In this tale, as elsewhere in the book, we are in a stark, allegorical universe where one fateful experience can be life altering, rather in the way that Bruce Wayne seeing his parents murdered turned him into Batman.
In the story, Verna is an older woman looking back on a crucial moment, re-warming the embers of the past to allow her to plot revenge. Retribution is a persistent concern in this collection: when the male characters are not criminals they are often fecklessly irresponsible. Conversely, the women run the gamut from femme fatales to baffled victims.
More than a few characters in the book are close in age to Verna and, like her, retrospectively focused on past wrongs. The poet most often alluded to in these pages is Tennyson, with at least two stories quoting his “Ulysses” – that great poem about stock-taking near death and the late-life renewal of purpose. Misquoting the poem slightly, a character notes, “Though much is taken, much abides.”
If Atwood is reflecting on her own artistic prowess, she is worrying in vain. Now in her sixth decade as a writer, very little has been taken from her and almost all abides. Her storytelling skills remain at the level of a master. These are wonderfully gripping tales: they hold us tight from the first word to the last.