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Holt Paperbacks

Dark and edgy retellings of classic fairytales have existed as long as fairytales themselves. So what makes Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s “The Merry Spinster and Other Stories” (published by Holt Paperbacks on March 13) a fresh and unique take on the tradition?

“The Merry Spinster and Other Stories” is a collection of short stories, inspired by sources ranging from the Bible to “Frog and Toad are Friends” by Arnold Lobel. The inside flap describes the book as horror, and it delivers a mix of anticipation and dread that keeps the reader thinking about the stories for days afterwards.

What makes “The Merry Spinster and Other Stories” feel new, as opposed to a tired remix, is that each story asks new questions of both the source material and its audience. Recurring themes in the collection include the concepts of family, gender, gender roles and the question: What do we owe to each other? The stories are layered with emotional complexity, and by looking inward to the heart of familiar narratives, Ortberg can explore well-trodded paths in a previously undiscovered direction. 

The stories feel horrifying not because they are fantastical fairytales, but because they are realistic. The story, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” reminds you of the childhood classic “Frog and Toad are Friends.” With its syntax and structure, it then subverts the kind friendship of the two characters by revealing a manipulative, unbalanced relationship between the Fisherman and his friend.

In “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margaery Williams, a stuffed rabbit becomes real through the love of his owner. In Ortberg’s retelling, “The Rabbit,” the velveteen rabbit also becomes real through his owner, but in a much more sinister manner. Ortberg writes, “’What I mean is,’ the Rabbit said carefully, and his voice was a crawling black thing across the floor, ‘if something else was already real, could you take it from them, and keep it for yourself?’”

Readers may be familiar with Ortberg’s previous work on the internet as co-founder of the now-defunct website The Toast, where some of these stories originally appeared in the series “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” The same sense of humor and feminist ideas that made The Toast so much fun to read come through in “The Merry Spinster and Other Stories.” Ortberg’s prose is meticulously crafted, each word selected with precision, and the result is a collection of stories that will leave readers feeling changed on a fundamental level.