Here’s an interesting thing I noticed: on the cover photo that I found for this review, the full title is Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. But my copy (the paperback version, with the bright yellow cover) reads Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales. I’m not sure why there’s a difference in the titles, but I’m glad I have the wicked version.
Fuck, I love Atwood. She just gets better and better as the years go on, and I’m especially in the love with the way she’s happily embracing her love of pulpy, B-movie tropes and plots that Serious Authors are supposed to shun. First she wrote a nonfiction anthology of science fiction, then she wrote a post-apocalyptic future series, and now we have Nine Tales.
It’s not all fantasy and sci-fi, but the influences are clear. The first three stories revolve around an aging author named Constance, who wrote a sprawling high-fantasy series about a magical world called Alphinland, and words cannot describe how badly I want Atwood to write a good old fashioned swords-and-dragons epic, for real. Just the little glimpses she gives us of Alphinland made me wish that it was a real series. Like this description, where we see Constance inserting people from her real life into her fantasy world, and doling out the appropriate punishments and rewards:
“[Alphinland] was a dangerous place, and – granted – preposterous in some ways, but it was not sordid. The denizens of it had standards. They understood gallantry, and courage, and also revenge.
Therefore Marjorie is not stored in the deserted winery where Gavin has been parked. Instead she’s immobilized by runic spells inside a stone beehive belonging to Frenosia of the Fragrant Antennae. This demigoddess is eight feet tall and covered with tiny golden hairs, and has compound eyes. Luckily she’s a close friend of Constance and is thus happy to assist in her plans and devices in return for the insect-related charms that Constance has the ability to bestow. So every day at twelve noon sharp, Marjorie is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating.”
Gavin and Marjorie are people from Constance’s past – Gavin is her old boyfriend, and Marjorie is the woman he left Constance for. They each get their own sections after Constance, so you can see the relationship from three difference perspectives, and honestly I could have read an entire book about just those three characters.
But Atwood promised us nine wicked tales, and she delivers. I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits the characters from The Robber Bride, The Dead Hand Loves You is a delightfully meta story of a horror writer striking an unfortunate deal, and in The Freeze-Dried Groom, a man purchases a storage unit at an auction and discovers it filled with the remnants of a wedding – including the groom. But my favorite (after Constance & Co) was Stone Mattress. In this story, a woman traveling solo on an Alaskan cruise realizes that one of her fellow passengers is the man who raped her in high school, and she decides to murder him. And now, in addition to a high-fantasy series (ten books minimum, please) I also want Atwood to write a murder mystery novel.
It’s brief, and you can get through the whole book in a couple of days, but every page is gold. Or, more accurately, every page is Atwood.
Verdict: five out of five stars