Author: John C Adams

Epeolatry Book Review: Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite

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Title: Lost Souls
Author: Poppy Z. Brite
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Dell
Release Date: 1992

Synopsis: At a club in Missing Mile, N.C., the children of the night gather, dressed in black, look for acceptance. Among them are Ghost, who sees what others do not; Ann, longing for love; and Jason, whose real name is Nothing, newly awakened to an ancient, deathless truth about his father, and himself.

Others are coming to Missing Mile tonight. Three beautiful, hip vagabonds—Molochai, Twig, and the seductive Zillah, whose eyes are as green as limes—are on their own lost journey, slaking their ancient thirst for blood, looking for supple young flesh.

They find it in Nothing and Ann, leading them on a mad, illicit road trip south to New Orleans. Over miles of dark highway, Ghost pursues, his powers guiding him on a journey to reach his destiny, to save Ann from her new companions, to save Nothing from himself. . . . 

The runaway success of a debut novel always interests writers who are looking to make a similar breakthrough in their own careers. In the case of Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite, it became a cult classic and launched a career that, so far, comprises eight novels and four short-story collections. 

 The main character, Nothing, is fifteen. He’s bored with his hometown, frustrated with his adopted parents (who seem uniquely unable to understand him) and is eager to skip town to find his real parents. Courtesy of a note pinned to his basket the night he was left on their doorstep, he at least knows his real name. He begins with a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to Missing Mile, North Carolina, the home of his favourite indie rock band Lost Souls?, which is fronted by Steve Finn and Ghost. On the way, he is picked up by a group of three vampires travelling in an anonymous black van, including (unknown to him) his natural father Zillah. 

 The need to feed emerged within Nothing as he grew up, and he takes easily to life on the road, snatching the vulnerable and draining their blood. Zillah is the group’s leader, violent and dangerous. Nothing is determined to find out more about his birth mother, and the arrival of a fourth member of the group, Christian, makes this possible. Meanwhile, Zillah’s sexual charisma seduces another young woman, Ann, and she falls pregnant with his child. Tough choices lie ahead, as carrying a half-vampire child is always fatal to the mother. 

 By 1992, the market was ready for a searingly honest portrait of a gritty, drug-addled vampire novel set against the popular fare of ‘vampires as glamorous, sophisticated and elegant’ we’d grown used to. It was the moment for grunge, so it probably wasn’t an accident that this novel centres in part upon a rubbishy rock band fronted by two stoners adored by their local following. Re-reading this book after many decades for the purpose of this review, it struck me how much the book reflected its time, and I realised all over again that this potential was what Penguin must have seen when they picked it up. It stood the test of time every bit as well as the bands and culture it drew upon, and it took me back to my college years in the early Nineties, going to dive bars to see indie bands of precisely that ilk. 

 The locations are one of the best parts of this novel. New Orleans is Brite’s stamping ground, and you can tell that the author is entirely at home there. No part of the Latin Quarter is left out. Likewise, the small North Carolina town of Missing Mile, which is incidentally the location for Brite’s second novel, a haunted house tale, is central to the action. She captures the ‘nothing ever happens’ nature of small-town America perfectly, and it offers the right contrast to the seedy violence of New Orleans. 

 Technically speaking, it was interesting to see the omniscient point of view utilised in the overarching introduction. Brite established a feel of group identity, essential in the environments presented here where there is so much pressure to fit in that everyone ends up thinking alike and no one wants to stand out from the crowd. Courtesy of Ghost’s ability to read other people’s thoughts and enter into their feelings directly, there were frequent journeys from one character’s point of view to another within a scene. At other times, the point of view spontaneously shifted mid-scene from one character to another to reflect the group identity that kept the protagonists pushing forward through their bloodthirsty nocturnal activities, murdering youngsters to drink their blood, without anyone turning a hair. 

 This is an unforgivingly bleak and grimy portrait of the underworld in which vampirism can flourish: runaway children vulnerable and exposed, young people experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol, and of course the indie rock scene and small bars that play host to their performances. There are flashes of optimism, not least of all in Ghost, whose humanity is grounded in his magical ability to see into other people’s feelings and thoughts. However, precious few happy endings occur in such an unremitting environment, and this novel reflects that truth perfectly. I loved every moment of it. 

 Review the reviewers! If you’ve read this novel, or just have some thoughts on any point made in this review, tag me at @JohnCAdamsSF on Twitter to share them. 

 Enjoy! 

out of 5 ravens.

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

Epeolatry Book Review: The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

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Title: The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft
Author: H.P. Lovecraft
Genre: Horror/Sci-fi
Publisher: Chartwell Books
Release Date: 1st July, 2016 (this edition)

Synopsis:The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft collects the great horror author’s novel, four novellas, and fifty-three short stories.

Written between the years 1917 and 1935, this collection features Lovecraft’s trademark fantastical creatures and supernatural thrills, as well as many horrific and cautionary science-fiction themes, that have influenced some of today’s important writers and filmmakers, including Stephen King, Alan Moore, F. Paul Wilson, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman.

Included in this volume are The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Color Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and many more hair-raising tales.

As an author who has acted as inspiration to the (now several) generations of horror writers who’ve followed him, and who in many ways is just starting to earn the critical attention he deserves in the realm of literature in general, HP Lovecraft’s works bear frequent re-reading. For those discovering his work for the first time, I offer a mixture of, ‘There’s something special ahead’ and an uncomprehending, ‘Where’ve you been, and why are you so late arriving at the party?’ 

The Cthulhu Mythos was laid out in the world Lovecraft developed in “Dagon”, “The Call of Cthulhu” and other stories. It has been developed by countless other writers since, and adapted into films, roleplaying games, and computer games. 

Authors such as English horror writer Ramsey Campbell have worked within the mythos extensively, in addition to creating their own universes. There appears to be no limit to the fecundity of this fictional world a century after its invention. In the last decade, Campbell’s Great Old Ones Mythos, itself derived from the Cthulhu Mythos, has in turn received homage from a new generation of writers. A mythos that spawns a mythos, which then takes on a weird identity all its own, is something very Lovecraftian in essence, reminding us of the insignificance of one person in the span of cosmic literature in a way that I’m sure would have delighted him. 

Independent publishing houses continue to produce novels, novellas, short story anthologies, and collections of flash fiction set directly in Lovecraft’s world (although copyright restrictions vary across different legal jurisdictions). They also offer open submission calls in related universes and writing opportunities inspired by Lovecraft in a wider sense (perhaps set not within his settings but still utilizing the key features of weird and cosmic horror he honed to perfection). 

This volume is a great place to start with Lovecraft’s work. It features key longer pieces such as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Shadow Out of Time” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (to name but a few), and includes shorter stories such as “The Cats of Ulthar”, “The Terrible Old Man” and “Polaris”. The Necronomicon, an invented book on forbidden magic, has entered the lexicon of popular culture. It is referred to throughout this volume, and it has its own “History” here, too. 

Lovecraft’s influence on horror fiction is so pervasive that it is easy for readers and writers to absorb his style and tone via other authors, but there is simply no substitute for reading his works directly. Indeed, to do otherwise is to miss the very best of weird fiction. The shortest stories are bursting with discomfort and oddity, and Lovecraft’s breadth of the universe’s capacity for evil (and how far it is prepared to travel to subject mankind to it) is perpetually unsettling. 

The longer fiction immerses the reader in weird events, gradually ratcheting up the tension until insanity represents a welcome release from the terrible truth about to be uncovered, or a gruesome death acts as merely the beginning of the narrator’s suffering. 

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

Epeolatry Book Review: The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories by J.A. Cuddon

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Title: The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories
Author: J.A. Cuddon
Genre: Ghost/Horror
Publisher: Godfrey Cave Associates Ltd
Release Date: January 1, 1984

Synopsis: Short stories by authors such as Alexander Pushkin, Henry James, M.R. James, Ray Bradbury, and Joan Aiken portray strange supernatural occurrences.

In the arena of genre fiction, ‘Penguin Books of’ have a tendency to be quite historical, almost academic, in their choice of authors and stories, with a strong focus on how the (sub)genre began and precisely how it became established in its early years. For the writer of genre fiction this can be enormously helpful, since many subgenres (for example the ghost or vampire story) operate within well-understood parameters. 

In deference to this tradition, The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories begins with “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” by Heinrich von Kleist and “The Entail” by ETA Hoffman. The rest of the nineteenth century is then represented by a plethora of household literary names. Writing ghost stories was a popular addition to Victorian writers’ portfolios, and authors such as Henry James and Alexander Pushkin (better known for their literary novels and poetry) could easily expand their repertoire to include them. The importance of the inner life to the ghost story means that writers such as these have done a great deal to the shape the subgenre. 

Some of horror’s best-known names are included here, such as Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood. Naturally, no volume of ghost stories is complete without a piece from MR James (the master of the subgenre), but perhaps more of his work could have been included. If any writer of ghost stories deserves the rule of ‘one author, one story’ to be relaxed then it is James. Unexpected voices from elsewhere in genre fiction such as HG Wells are included, together with contemporary masters like Ray Bradbury. The individual choice of pieces for each writer was impeccable, for instance “The Return of Imray” by Rudyard Kipling, “Mr Justice Harbottle” by Sheridan Le Fanu and “Afterward” by Edith Wharton. 

For my taste, the modern section was a trifle weak. There just weren’t enough stories from writers who specialise in ghost stories, or even just in horror writing. The career path for horror writers, including those who write almost entirely ghost stories, is very different in the modern world to that of the nineteenth century and very early twentieth century. However, this shift in the literary dynamic in genre fiction was not reflected here. 

In this regard, this volume was notably less impressive than its sister volume the Penguin Book of Vampire Stories edited by Alan Ryan. He didn’t miss a beat right up to the cut-off point, and he deftly selected even the most modern vampire fiction with the loving care and confidence of the true genre fan.

The strengths of this book lie in its earlier sections and in the turn-of-the-century writers such as Blackwood and Bierce. For these alone, it is well worth reading and will provide the reader with considerable enjoyment.

4 out of 5 stars.

Available from  Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: The Talisman by Stephen King & Peter Straub

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Title: The Talisman
Author: Stephen King and Peter Straub
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Various – this cover, Ballantine Books, 
Release Date: 1984

Synopsis: The iconic, “extraordinary” (The Washington Post) collaboration between bestselling authors Stephen King and Peter Straub—an epic thriller about a young boy’s quest to save his mother’s life.

Jack Sawyer, twelve years old, is about to begin a most fantastic journey, an exalting, terrifying quest for the mystical Talisman—the only thing that can save Jack’s dying mother. But to reach his goal, Jack must make his way not only across the breadth of the United States but also through the wondrous and menacing parallel world of the Territories.

In the Territories, Jack finds another realm, where the air is so sweet and clear a man can smell a radish being pulled from the ground a mile away—and a life can be snuffed out instantly in the continuing struggle between good and evil. Here Jack discovers “Twinners,” reflections of the people he knows on earth—most notably Queen Laura, the Twinner of Jack’s own imperiled mother. As Jack “flips” between worlds, making his way westward toward the redemptive Talisman, a sequence of heart-stopping encounters challenges him at every step.

An unforgettable epic of adventure and resounding triumph, The Talisman is one of the most influential and highly praised works of fantasy ever written.

Stephen King is quite simply a publishing phenomenon. I’ve never known him to disappoint, and his sheer versatility lies at the heart of his ability to satisfy readers nearly half a century after publishing his first novel. Peter Straub is one of the twentieth century’s best-loved horror writers. Unsurprisingly, given that mutual success and longevity, these two urbane men are very good friends. 

Fear is grounded in the unknown, which can be at its most powerful when it involves having everything you’ve known snatched away, leaving you to step into a bleak landscape: the world you’ve always taken for granted is now entirely different and altered. In this most emotionally engaging horror tale, the crushing change that engenders terror in the principal characters is that 12-year-old Jack’s mother is dying of cancer. His father has already gone, and he’s left to fend for himself in a deserted coastal town. 

Jack then begins his quest to find The Talisman so that it can cure his mother, doing so in the company of a complete stranger. They journey across The Territories, so the novel (while clearly horror) is also easily capable of being classed as a work of dark fantasy. Like much of King’s recent fiction, it straddles a number of genres to produce something new and distinctive. 

I’m a fan of both King and Straub even though their writing styles are quite different. The technical genius of this book lies in its melding of two distinct authorial voices into one seamless unity. Writers are quite an individualistic bunch on the whole, so it is rare for a collaboration to achieve such a perfect blend. 

The Talisman is a very distinctive book by reason of its sincerity. Both authors gave of themselves and their lives in a way that is simply unforgettable. The pain of doing so, its cathartic nature and the emotional openness of the writing made reading the novel a powerfully moving experience. The fact that two authors were working together impressed me even more than if a single writer had achieved it, and it speaks of the strong trust they placed in each other. 

I found the story touchingly life affirming. Its strength lay in its honesty. By the end, I’d glimpsed a little more of the inner lives of two of my favourite writers and come to appreciate them both even more. 

Available from Bookshop.org and  Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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Title: My Soul to Keep
Author: Tananarive Due
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Horror
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: 8th April, 1998

Synopsis: When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami. Instead, David vows to invoke a forbidden ritual to keep Jessica and his daughter with him forever.

Harrowing, engrossing and skillfully rendered, My Soul to Keep traps Jessica between the desperation of immortals who want to rob her of her life and a husband who wants to rob her of her soul. With deft plotting and an unforgettable climax, this tour de force that Stephen King called ‘An eerie epic’ is sure to win Due a legion of new fans.

A most welcome development in the vampire subgenre—the increase in the number of writers of colour. In My Soul to Keep, Bram Stoker Award finalist and Miami Herald columnist Tananarive Due draws upon her Ethiopian heritage to craft vivid vampire characters within this new tradition. 

Jessica is a journalist in Florida keen to advance her career, raise her daughter Kira, and maintain her marriage to David; not an easy balance to strike, especially when David’s behaviour becomes increasingly challenging and concerning. They met when he was her Spanish tutor at university. Jessica was bowled over by the sophisticated man who seemed to know everything. It’s a familiar idea, but David has kept from his wife that he’s a vampire—so, ‘older man’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

David’s work provides an opportunity to pursue his second life. This includes sneaking over to the nursing home where his other daughter is drawing her last breath, decades after she last saw him, to be with her at the end. Courtesy of his longevity, most of the women he’s loved in the past are long dead, though he hasn’t forgotten them and has barely changed since. Centuries ago, David abandoned the vampire order home in Ethiopia. Since then, he’s been cast into slavery and transported to America, freed himself, and made a new life. However, he is still pursued by members of his order determined to remind him of his pledge and punish him for breaking it. 

Much of this novel’s tension comes from David’s physical violence. It can be very gruesome but never gratuitous. Some rationale for killing—the urgent need to conceal his identity, and to silence those who have (accidentally or otherwise) uncovered the truth. Gradually, the killing circle engulfs their close family; the price of David’s vampire condition is laid bare. Bloodlust supplies the remainder of his motivation. 

As vampire stories go, this is toward the literary end of the spectrum. The writing is excellent. Much of the reader’s time is spent with David as the point-of-view character, which means we experience both his ruthless love of killing and his yearning for those he has loved and lost. Jessica is the other main point-of-view character, and through her the more affirmatory story aspects are told: the bravery of standing up to David, her care and love for Kira, and her determination to establish a truth ever closer to home, and to face the consequences head on supported by the strong women in her family. 

The story’s vibrancy is partly due to superb characterization. I mostly enjoyed the development of a full and impressive backstory based upon David’s Ethiopian heritage, and his personal experiences since leaving his vampire order to go it alone. Vampire traditions exist all over the world, and writers of colour are only getting started in sharing their cultural richness within the subgenre. There is much for them yet to draw upon and this bodes well for one of horror’s best loved subgenres.

5/5 stars

Available from Bookshop and Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Author: Ray Bradbury
Genre: Horror Fantasy
Publisher: Gollancz
Release Date: 8th Oct, 2015 (1st published 1962)

Synopsis: It’s the week before Hallowe’en, and Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois. The siren song of the calliope entices all with promises of youth regained and dreams fulfilled . . .

And as two boys trembling on the brink of manhood set out to explore the mysteries of the dark carnival’s smoke, mazes and mirrors, they will also discover the true price of innermost wishes . . .

Ray Bradbury is an unusual author; he straddles multiple genres with ease and is as likely to be acclaimed for his SF novel Fahrenheit 451 as for his horror narrative Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Stephen King said in Danse Macabre that ‘the carnival is chaos’. I’m still recovering from the shock of reading Thomas Ligotti’s short story “Gas Station Carnivals”. Did these bizarre places really exist when I was a child? It is scarcely surprising that with their identification with the subversive, carnivals are a regular setting for horror stories. 

There’s no better time of year to stage a horror story than Halloween, and no better time to stage the arrival of “Coogar and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show” as it rumbles into Green Town, Illinois upping the ante for protagonists Jim and Will. The lads are busy taking their first steps into adolescence and embracing independence as they turn fourteen. They’re ready to tackle danger and evil unaided. The pair proves to be impressively adept at doing so without alerting their families to the odd happenings that are engulfing their small town ever since the carnival’s arrival. 

This is quite an action-filled novel, but it is also an emotional profile in growing up. Like many horror stories, it fulfills a rite of passage function. 

There’s nothing scarier than growing up and leaving childhood behind, something Bradbury understood since it was at precisely this age that he moved from small town Illinois to LA. Something Wicked This Way Comes is therefore partly autobiographical; it represents the snatching away of innocence by a cruel world where you either grow up and toughen up or get dragged under the surface forever. 

The library that features so heavily in the story is based upon the real Carnegie Library in Waukegan where Bradbury spent much of his youth. It all feels as real as yesterday. The creation of Green Town is an act of homage to his boyhood years. 

There’s a pervasive sadness to this novel, a sense of childhood slipping away. Perhaps that sadness arose from a forced move during a vulnerable time for a lad. He moved away from everything he had known

Horror narratives that utilise the trauma of an author’s real life offer something profound in addition to their action and characterisation; they tend to earn a well-deserved place in the horror pantheon. This was absolutely the case with Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Review the reviewers! If you’ve read this novel, or just have some thoughts on any point made in this review, tag me at @JohnCAdamsSF on Twitter to share them.

Enjoy! 

5/5 stars

Available from Gollancz, Bookshop, Banana Books, and Amazon.

Epeolatry Book Review: Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell

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Title: Cold Print
Author: Ramsey Campbell
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Grafton
Release Date: 25th June, 1987

Synopsis: Horror lurks in the abyss beneath the cold stone flooring of the church on High Street, in the unseen depths of the lake, and deep within the dark hillside under the summoning moon in a nightmarish collection of stories

Ramsey Campbell is one of (if not the) best practitioners of horror in Britain today, so his work creates endless enjoyment for readers and writers alike. He’s spent much of his professional life in good company, and it shows. 

When he was fifteen, Campbell submitted a short story to August Derleth at Arkham House. Derleth had brought HP Lovecraft’s work to (long overdue) worldwide attention, and was now expanding the Cthulhu Mythos to include newer voices. Arkham House went on to publish an anthology of Campbell’s early work not long afterwards, establishing a direct link between the master of weird and cosmic horror and a new generation. Some of the tales from that book (The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants) are included here. 

This anthology of short fiction is set within what is recognisably the Cthulhu Mythos, but located in a fictional universe that draws upon the Cotswolds/Herefordshire/Midlands area of the UK. It is as drenched in bizarre detail as Lovecraft’s portrayal of New England, and it represents an interesting choice of locale, given that Campbell is from Merseyside. 

Each story is a stand-alone narrative, which makes it easy to dip into here and there. I often return to this volume on that basis for an occasional read when I have half an hour to spare. The unity of setting in one vibrant fictional universe gives it an overall coherence that enhances dramatic tension. It’s been so popular that it has spawned enormous amounts of fan fiction. 

As a writer, Campbell has his finger on the pulse of modern horror, as he has done ever since he became a full-time writer in 1973. As an emerging writer still developing, I’ve learnt an awful lot from the way he takes the best acknowledged features of the horror genre, and then continues to improve and develop them. He keeps producing stories that are original and intriguing. He does so by knowing his genre inside out, and by bringing his own powerful imagination and consummate English identity to bear upon the creative process. 

In a world where it simply isn’t getting any easier for fledgling authors to break through (even by tapping the pulse of ‘now’ and balancing it with the tried and tested features of the horror genre), there are lessons to be learnt from Campbell’s career. His work continues to reward careful study by the developing writer, as well as delighting the perennial horror fan. 

Campbell’s style is relaxed and pleasant to read. It is thoroughly modern and has effectively stood the passage of almost sixty years. I personally love Lovecraft’s style, but here is something entirely fresh. I’ve always admired Campbell’s role in bringing the Mythos out into the contemporary world and spreading it around the globe. 

5/5 stars.

Available from Amazon UK.

Epeolatry Book Review: The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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Title: The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror
Author: Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Corsair
Release Date: 13th March 2018

Synopsis: From Mallory Ortberg comes a collection of darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Adapted from the beloved “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series, “The Merry Spinster” takes up the trademark wit that endeared Ortberg to readers of both The Toast and the best-selling debut Texts From Jane Eyre. The feature has become among the most popular on the site, with each entry bringing in tens of thousands of views, as the stories proved a perfect vehicle for Ortberg’s eye for deconstruction and destabilization. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien all at the same time, The Merry Spinster updates traditional children’s stories and fairy tales with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminist mischief.

Readers of The Toast will instantly recognize Ortberg’s boisterous good humor and uber-nerd swagger: those new to Ortberg’s oeuvre will delight in this collection’s unique spin on fiction, where something a bit mischievous and unsettling is always at work just beneath the surface.

Unfalteringly faithful to its beloved source material, The Merry Spinster also illuminates the unsuspected, and frequently, alarming emotional complexities at play in the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, as we tuck ourselves in for the night.

Some authors seem destined to shake things up in the best way possible. Daniel Mallory Ortberg is a New York Times bestselling author. Courtesy of his debut work Texts from Jane Eyre, which was based upon his longstanding columns in “The Hairpin” and “The Toast”, it envisions famous literary characters exchanging anachronistic text messages. A trans man who transitioned in 2018 and took his wife’s surname when they married a year later, The Merry Spinster is his second work. 

The Merry Spinster is a slender anthology of short fiction. It retells classic fairy stories like “The Six Swans” by the Brothers Grimm, and folk legends such as the Orkney folktale “Johnny Croy and His Mermaid Bride”. 

“The Daughter Cells” is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, and it explores the soul of the natural world as a multifaceted entity reflecting Nature’s complex interconnectedness. The human desire to own and control, and of course our inherent selfishness, are set in stark contrast to the world below the waves. 

“The Merry Spinster” (recasting “Beauty and the Beast”) exhibits a profound ambivalence towards marriage as the sole narrative drive of the heroine, especially when the man concerned is so challenging. Toxic masculinity can be tamed by the love of a good woman, to be sure, but why is the woman having to do all the emotional work, Ortberg asks. 

Recasting fairy tales and folk legends for a modern audience, or simply retelling them in a way that is more empowering for women and other minorities, is fertile territory for horror writers. This is true at the literary end of the spectrum, as with this volume, and towards the more popular end of the fiction market. In a process brought to worldwide attention by Angela Carter in the early 1990s when Virago published two books of fairy tales which she edited, writers have been reclaiming fairy tales and folk legends as their own. They’ve wrestled them from the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney ever since. 

The best writers give something of themselves in their work, however discreetly this is achieved.  One of the things I love most about Ortberg is how true this is of his writing. Educated at the private Azusa Pacific University and raised by Evangelical Christian parents, it isn’t surprising that faith is explored extensively within these pages. The ‘Sources and Influences’ section at the page lists, among others, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by St John Climacus and “Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas. 

Gender issues were also in play, with a thoughtful and potentially personal retelling of “The Frog Prince” by the Brothers Grimm. Here the youngest daughter takes the role of princess in the title (“The Frog’s Princess”) but is referred to as ‘he’ throughout in a way that felt compellingly natural to this non-binary reviewer. 

This was an immensely subtle but thought-provoking anthology. After two slow reads through for the purpose of this review, I feel like I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of what it has to offer. 

Review the reviewers! If you’ve read this novel, or just have some thoughts on any point made in this review, tag me at @JohnCAdamsSF on Twitter to share them. 

5/5 stars

Available from Bookshop, Amazon, and Amazon UK.