Margaret Atwood's latest story collection, "Stone Mattress," is subtitled "Nine Tales" to signal its interest in the folkloric, the macabre and the supernatural. It includes bloodsucking, a severed but animate hand, a cruise-ship femme fatale and several victims of unusual violence, including an opportunistic suitor who may or may not get his comeuppance from an ex-girlfriend reincarnated as a mongrel dog.
Two of the book's characters are formerly dismissed, now (sometimes) lionized pioneers of genre fiction, and Atwood, directly or in play-within-a-play fashion, borrows tropes from horror and fantasy. Running throughout all of this is the fantastically dark comedy of old age.
The book starts with three interlaced stories about long-estranged lovers and rivals who met in Toronto's early '60s bohemian sector. Constance is now the eccentric, recently widowed author of a popular series of fantasy novels; Gavin, her first live-in boyfriend, is a famously priapic poet now living impotently and bitterly with his third, much younger wife ("polishing up her widow act," in Gavin's unsparing view); Marjorie is the vulnerably spiteful hanger-on credited with breaking up their relationship.
As in Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" or Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," these characters grow richer as we see them from different vantages, and although there are many droll zingers along the way (Marjorie, for instance, "could never make the jump to lesbianism because she didn't like other women much"), the triptych builds to a satisfyingly tender conclusion.
These opening stories are the book's best and most substantial, but the balance of tones and modes is sure throughout. The stories have the caustic wit, giddy deviance and propulsion of high-quality pulp, along with the probing interiority and flinty insights of Atwood's novels. The title story, for instance, is at once a comic portrait of a somehow likable seductress and, well, serial killer (she focuses on widowers of means) and a harrowing tale of date rape from a time before the term was coined or the concept taken seriously.
Not every story is a triumph, and a few pet words, phrases and jokes ought to have been iced on second appearance. The first time an older character quipped that a younger one looked "about twelve," I smiled; the second time I only thought of the first apparent 12-year-old. Quibbles! Truth is, Atwood was writing notable poetry when she was barely into her 20s, and now, in her mid-70s, she's still writing smart, funny, playful books such as this one. It could lead one of her characters to some entertaining act of envy-fueled brutality.
Dylan Hicks is a writer and musician and the author of the novel "Boarded Windows." He lives in Minneapolis.