Romantic & Scary

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

In her acknowledgments at the end of Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood distinguishes between stories and tales, and explains that—as the collection’s subtitle suggests—the short fictions we have just read belong in the second category:

These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. 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. We may safely assume that all tales are fiction, whereas a “story” might well be a true story about what we usually agree to call “real life,” as well as a short story that keeps within the boundaries of social realism. The Ancient Mariner tells a tale.

In fact Atwood’s description of her book seems only half accurate. The first three of these “tales” could easily pass for what she calls “stories”—and rather good ones. Moving from “Alphinland” to “Revenant” to “Dark Lady,” we remain firmly in “the realm of mundane works and days,” among a group of elderly and somewhat dithery Canadians who have inflicted considerable romantic suffering on one other in the distant past.

At the center of “Alphinland” is wispy Constance Starr, much diminished by mourning and age, whose newly dead husband’s voice, “slightly mocking…teasing, making light,” guides her through the simple but critical steps necessary to survive a treacherous ice storm. But Constance is not merely a disoriented widow. She is also the author of a successful, long-established fantasy series, “Alphinland”:

As a child she’d had fairytale books with pictures by Arthur Rackham and his peers—gnarled trees, trolls, mystic maidens with flowing robes, swords, baldrics, golden apples of the sun. So Alphinland was just a matter of expanding that landscape, altering the costumes, and making up the names.

Though Constance’s writing has earned her a lot of money, though she is studied by doctoral candidates and interviewed onstage at conventions whose attendees come dressed as characters from Star Trek, she has never been taken seriously by the artsy Toronto snobs among whom she spent her wild and passionate youth:

The poets and folksingers made fun of her Alphinland stories, naturally. Why not? She made fun of them herself. The subliterary fiction she was churning out was many decades away from being in any way respectable. There was a small group that confessed to reading The Lord of the Rings, though you had to justify it through an interest in Old Norse. But the poets considered Constance’s productions to be far below the Tolkien standard, which—to be fair—they were. They’d tease her by saying she was writing about garden gnomes, and she’d laugh and say yes, but today the gnomes had dug up their crock of golden coins and would buy them all…

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