I’M just going to say it — Margaret Atwood can’t really go wrong. With a career spanning 50-odd years and with over 50 books combined of fiction, short stories, poems and essays to her credit, she’s a mighty, mighty force to reckon with. And unlike some writers who end up being repetitive or self-indulgent after so many successful decades, Atwood is never less than in top form and she is never, ever boring. At her very worst she’s better than most writers will ever hope to be (does she even have a worst?) and at her best she’s just magnificent. No, her new collection of stories, Stone Mattress, isn’t another Cat’s Eye or The Handmaid’s Tale, but why would it be? It’s perfect just the way it is.
‘Nine tales’ reads the subtitle on the cover of Stone Mattress. In the acknowledgments, Atwood explains that “calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales,” and that these stories “owe a debt to tales through the ages”. Yet Atwood always ventures into new territory, never without her skilled storytelling and finesse, no matter how many different tones her narratives take. Her language is never dense, her prose flows smoothly, her characters are complex, intriguing and always so human, and her plots never flag. It’s hard to find fault with Atwood’s writing; it’s simply a matter of personal taste whether you’re a fan of her work or not, because there’s just no way to suggest she doesn’t always write excruciatingly well.
Of course, Atwood is always clever and funny too. Satire comes easily to her, just as deep, complicated emotions do. In Stone Mattress, Atwood is as razor-sharp and astute as she has always been. There’s also a certain acceptance of age in most of these stories — an acceptance of the changes that are inevitable, be they physical or otherwise. All but two of her lead characters in these stories are older, all but two of them very aware of their advancing years and of their albatrosses, their skeletons in the closet, their buried monsters. Stone Mattress is mainly about previous relationships and friendships both good and bad, some violent, some treacherous and some that just won’t die. “And the vampires,” writes Atwood in more than just a snide poke at contemporary vampire stories, “you used to know where you stood with them — smelly, evil, undead — but now there are virtuous vampires and disreputable vampires, and sexy vampires and glittery vampires, and none of the old rules about them are true any more. Once you could depend on garlic, and on the rising sun, and on crucifixes. You could get rid of the vampires once and for all. But not any more.”
The first three stories — ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’ and ‘Dark Lady’ — are interlinked, and focus on the lives of two women and the one man they had, at one point, had a relationship with. ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ is about an older writer who is attempting to re-negotiate a contract he entered into with his housemates decades before he became well-known for a nasty little horror novel. ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ is about quite literally a freeze-dried groom in a storage unit that encompasses an entire wedding frozen in time, in a creepy Miss Havisham way. ‘I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth’ cleverly, wonderfully visits the three protagonists of Atwood’s 1993 novel The Robber Bride and has them face up to the possibility that the woman who destroyed each of their lives may somehow have not meant them harm after all. “Maybe Zenia was, like, the secret alter ego of each of them, acting out stuff for them they didn’t have the strength to act by themselves,” writes Atwood, probably sending droves of students into a frenzy of re-analysis of The Robber Bride under this possible interpretation. That Atwood is so casual about letting go of certain things in these stories is what often makes them astonishing — there is sharpness but there is also understanding and with it sometimes forgiveness, particularly between women.
In the titular story, we learn that a stone mattress is a stromatolite: a fossilised cushion, “formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome” — the weapon of choice in this murder mystery in reverse. “At the outset Verma had not intended to kill anyone,” begins the story. We remain with Verma the entire time, as she recalls how she’s gently hurried her elderly husbands to their deaths; as she meets the man who raped her when she was 17; and as she works out how to murder him during an Arctic cruise and get away with it, to avenge a decades old crime that ultimately changed her life and turned her into the killer she became. Forgiveness is not easily given to dangerous men, it is clear.
The saddest and sharpest of the stories is ‘Torching the Dusties,’ in which a vigilante group calling themselves ‘Our Turn’ want to remove the entire elderly population of an ‘advanced living’ retirement community, insisting that it is now their turn to live, that the older generations have done nothing more than ruin the world. “Hurry up please, it’s time,” say the protesters’ signs as the story moves swiftly to Ballardian proportions of violence and urban horror. There’s much left to be thought about here, but this much is clear — Atwood isn’t afraid to make her readers face any demons, be they of ageing, dying or even (don’t even say it!) being obsolete.
One of the two stories not featuring an older lead character is ‘Lusus Naturae,’ an almost classic gothic horror about a terrible family secret that can not remain hidden forever. It is a story of a young girl made monstrous by a disease that causes her to have yellow eyes, pink teeth, red fingernails and long dark hair on her chest. She hears voices, she mews, she isn’t always entirely lucid but she learns to take care of herself and survive alone, until her independence and agency are simply too frightening for others. She is resigned, however, to whatever terrible fate lies in store for her, understanding that “when demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end.” Ultimately, it makes no difference what you understand yourself to be. “I am a human being,” she thinks, “But what proof do I have of that?”
To look at Atwood, many would think she seems like the classic fairy tale grandmother, with her twinkly eyes and wise words. And she is. But she’s also much more. She’s also the wolf, ready to swallow you whole, the one with the smooth stories about why it’s alright to stray from the path. My, Ms. Atwood, what sharp teeth you have.
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
By Margaret Atwood