Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales * Margaret Atwood

It’s been a while since I’ve picked up Margaret Atwood. After returning from the Caribbean holidays where I read the stories of seduction, deceit and infidelity from this wonderful Canadian writer, I decided to give Stone Mattress a go. Oh my goodness! The stories are interwoven but not even about growing up like Bluebeard’s egg but about people who were young together grew old apart – about the sadness left behind, about the pleasures of being a mistress to a poet, about the pains of being the provider for the same one.

The book is a sour read. It’s an insight into a life of an adulterer, the life of a victim of such a crime and the others. I think this would have been a better name: The life of others.

Atwood illuminates heavy themes with a lightness of touch, giving insight not only into the nature of stone but the trials and tribulations of flesh and blood (Anita Sethi Observer)

Stories in the collection include “The Dead Hand Loves You”, “Lusus Naturae”, “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth”, “The Freeze-Dried Groom”, “Alphinland”, “Revenant”, “Torching the Dusties”, “Stone Mattress” and “Dark Lady”. “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” is a sequel story to Atwood’s 1993 novel The Robber Bride.

“Alphinland,” the first of three loosely linked tales, introduces us to a fantasy writer who is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. In “Lusus Naturae,” a young woman, monstrously transformed by a genetic defect, is mistaken for a vampire. And in the title story, a woman who has killed four husbands discovers an opportunity to exact vengeance on the first man who ever wronged her.

“According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect.”

According to Tobias, women hang around longer because they’re less capable of indignation and better at being humiliated, for what is old age but one long string of indignities? What person of integrity would put up with it?

That distant past, in the three linked stories that open the collection, is boho Toronto in the early 60s, when hungry young poets wrote gems such as “My Lady’s Ass is Nothing Like the Moon” and women queued up to minister to their genius and be written about. Constance Starr is an elderly muse-turned-author, whose swords-and-sorcery fantasy world Alphinland was mocked by the poets she outsold, but who has gained critical respectability now that academics study “the function of symbolism versus neo-representationalism in the process of world-building”. Her first love, back when she was “young enough to find poverty glamorous”, was womanising, self-aggrandising Gavin, whom we revisit as a sulky elder statesman of literature, cosseted by a younger third wife who berates him for his unreconstructed ways: “You can’t talk to women like that anymore!” Gavin may be furiously sentimental about the past – watching a grainy video of a 60s poetry reading, he wants to weep – but nostalgia, Atwood suggests, is just another form of male privilege.

Atwood pokes gentle fun at Constance’s Alphinland: the silly names, the cod-medieval lack of cutlery, the fans dressing up as Milzreth of the Red Hand and arguing about subspecies of dragons. But in a collection full of would-be storytellers, Constance is the real thing; Alphinland is real to her, whereas Gavin’s poems were only ever literary effects, and this gives it a charge that’s all the more powerful for being ambiguous. There’s an extraordinary moment at a funeral where Constance meets the woman Gavin betrayed her with, a hurt both have been carrying for 50 years and which has been threaded into the very fabric of Alphinland. They embrace, and the other woman’s over-the-top glitter makeup, applied with dimming eyes and a shaky hand, leaves golden scales on Constance’s “parchment skin”: they become fabulous beasts as well as mourning elderly women.

“You believed you could transcend the body as you aged, she tells herself. You believed you could rise above it, to a serene, nonphysical realm. But it’s only through ecstasy you can do that, and ecstasy is achieved through the body itself. Without the bone and sinew of wings, no flight. Without that ecstasy you can only be dragged further down by the body, into its machinery. Its rusting, creaking, vengeful, brute machinery.”

The same blurring of the bounds of reality is found in “The Freeze-Dried Groom”, where a con artist who constantly tells himself stories of his own demise is drawn into danger with a kind of reckless delight. “The Dead Hand Loves You”, meanwhile, combines the horror-story convention of the contract signed in blood with a gloriously silly tale of a disembodied hand menacing the woman who jilted its previous owner. The inspiration of “some tawdry, pulp-hearted, flea-bitten muse” seized upon by a 60s student struggling to pay his rent, it’s nevertheless spawned decades of Jungian and Freudian analysis, two films and a whole critical industry. As in the other stories, realism and ridiculousness, play and deadly seriousness, are held in fine balance throughout.

“He drowned his sorrows, though like other drowned things they had a habit of floating to the surface when least expected.”

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