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“Daughters are as good a thing as any…” begins The Merry Spinster by Danny Ortberg’s wild reimagining of the Little Mermaid that ends in such grim fashion as to make the reader nod solemnly and intone, “truly, these are the end of times.” And yet, what a romp of a dark timeline. Unlike Texts from Jane Eyre, his first book of imagined text conversations from literary characters, this reader at least felt prepared for these fables, stories, and tall-tales through study of European folklore. Even more, each story brought a sly smile to my face as I discovered the layers of joyful twisting of stories well and lesser-known.
“Fear Not: An Incident Log” tells of a heavenly bureaucrat who, they assure us, “(has) never once been reprimanded for how I comport myself under the sun.” We spend the story learning of the machinations of a certain kind of supernatural world, adjacent to the typical christian god, angels, and satan. As I read this story, I laughed out loud in public, and felt a welling of joy.
Another tale that wormed its soft, velveteen pages into my heart was “The Rabbit” — about a boy who gives his love to a toy that may or may not be sucking the life force of the child away. It’s devilish fun. Each story in this collection has a sparkle in its eye, and just a bit of dirt on its face, as if to say, “Who, me? I couldn’t have broken the window, Ms., as I studied all day.” This is a collection for rascals, miscreants, and students of folktale who smoked behind the liberal arts building, and threw rocks at their shadow.
As a reader, I tore through these tales quickly, but as with any fairytale, I plan to revisit these regularly, until their devilish stories take the place of better known tellings. Ortberg surely has a gift, revealed by his early work in frightening children’s tales on The Toast, but for his sophomore publication, I can see a writer hitting his stride, and stretching his legs. I can’t wait to see what further fictions he brings us. The Merry Spinster is a triumph.