Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales

Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales
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Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales

Margaret Atwood

A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire, and a crime committed long ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion-year-old stromatalite.

In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle - and also by herself, in her award-winning novel Alias Grace. In Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.


How remarkable it must have been to witness the time when genre slipped through the literary gates, from the two-bit pulp and horror heap towards the ensconced throne of the literati. With Margaret Atwood, the grand dame of Canadian gothic, she warns that these are not stories, but tales with a taste for the folklorish and magical. Her nine tales cast characters who are mostly elderly and writerly, authors of a fantasy series or international bestsellers.

In ‘I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth’ our narrator regrets how we once knew where we stood with vampires, their morality now blurred by contemporary TV. There is Sam, the protagonist of ‘The FreezeDried Groom’, who is caught in his own detective noir tale, unable to imagine life outside his own murder mystery, but ‘Stone Mattress’ is the most haunting of the bunch. Atwood reminds us that age collects our more vengeful and murderous inclinations with a dainty dollop of the grotesque. It’s hilarious. Yet the winning ingredients are the first three interwoven sagas. In ‘Alphinland’ a jilted lover retreats to write fantasy novels after she walks in on her earthy poet and his mistress, after which we visit the poet in ‘Revenant’ when fame has had its way with him, followed by the mistress in ‘Dark Lady’. All this swings between the 1960s and contemporary reminiscences of wizened bohemians, and it’s difficult to extricate the image of Atwood herself. But that is probably the point. She tells us that there are tales about tales in here, and this will niggle her adoring fans for many book clubs to come: Stone Mattress is a sage and devious telling of the adulterous longings buried deep within each of us.

Luke May is a freelance reviewer.

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