Slate's Daniel Mallory Ortberg takes twisted fairy tales to a new level in 'The Merry Spinster'

Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Many may know Daniel Mallory Ortberg from his Dear Prudence advice column at Slate or as co-founder of the now-defunct The Toast, a feminist website that ran from 2013 to 2016.

These days he’s exploring the cultural relevance of fairy tales in his latest book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, which he will be discussing and reading from tonight at the Loft Literary Center.

Ortberg, who came out as transgender earlier this year, specializes in humor writing.

“It's rare -- maybe impossible -- for me to write without looking for a joke... or at least the humor in a given situation,” he says.

Adapted from his Toast series Children’s Stories Made Horrific, The Merry Spinster takes 11 classic fairy tales and warps them into fables with Grimms-ian violence and pitch-black humor. This new work traffics surrealist wit, while also delving into scenes of dark -- yet still funny! -- despair.

Ortberg also revels in subverting expectations. The title story spins Beauty and the Beast into a creepy modernist fable of alienation and emptiness. Meanwhile, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” examines The Wind in the Willows in a style reminiscent of postmodern short fiction writer Donald Barthelme.

Ortberg takes several humorous asides in each piece: “She had kissed him, and she had kept his lungs from getting wet; this made him hers according to the laws of most commonsensical people,” he writes in a take on The Little Mermaid.

Still, the book’s overall mood is quite bleak and surreal. “Fear Not: An Incident Log” retells the Book of Genesis from the point of view of a confused and saddened angel.

“I can’t escape [my] religious upbringing,” he says. “[Having spent so much of my childhood] reading the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and theological fables… they just sort of trickled in there.”

A mournful and quite beautiful story, “Fear Not” is a departure from Ortberg’s earlier religious-themed humor pieces for The Toast in which he did things like take segments of scripture and replace words like “sinners” with “posers” or “behold” with “look, buddy.”

He'll be sharing his thoughts on this and more at the Loft tonight.


Daniel Mallory Ortberg
The Loft at Open Book
$15; $10 for members
7 p.m. Thursday, November 8