Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood: The Dead Hand Loves You

Stone Mattress

Margaret Atwood is so cool! I already knew she is a terrific writer, but I never thought I would be laughing this hard reading ‘wicked’ stories! Jack – the protagonist of The Dead Hand Loves You short story – complains at one point of the “whole new vocabulary” youth these days have going, which makes him feel as if “he’s been buried underground for a hundred years,” but Atwood seems to be so much in tune with today’s lingo, which makes it more fun to read her short stories!

The Dead Hand Loves You starts with Jack, old and rancorous, trying to get out of a contract he signed back when he was twenty-two, which “had shackled his ankles” for years. Jack had lived with three housemates – Irena [his romantic interest at the time], Jaffrey, and Rod – when he was in college and entered into this contract when he was falling behind to pay his share of rent, agreeing to split the proceeds from his yet-to-be-completed-novel four-way, in return for four months rent. No one took the contract earnestly at first. For Jack’s friends, it was a way of showing that they believed in him, that he could finish his novel (or so they said later on), although none of them thought he would. However, to his own surprise, it worked miraculously! Not only Jack finished writing his book – the namesake of this short story – it became an International Horror Classic with not one, but two movies adaptations!

Now with the possibility of the book being made into a mini TV series, Jack is restless. Surely it is not fair that he only gets to enjoy a quarter of the proceeds it would bring, given his age. But fair or not, the lawyers – his and his former housemates’, for whom incidentally his money pays for – tell him the contract is ironclad with no getting rid of, “because there wasn’t any drop-dead date on it.” That is not a good enough answer for Jack, so he decides to meet the three of them and solve it one way or the other.

Despite the menacing turn of events at that point and its predictability, The Dead Hand Loves You had an unexpected ending. But then again, Jack’s pulp fiction – The Dead Hand Loves You (don’t you love it when you get a story inside a story, like a set of matryoshka dolls?) – too had a similar unforeseen ending. The way Jack puts it, “maybe 1964 was the last moment when you could get away with that: try such a thing now and people would only laugh”, although I believe Atwood got away with just fine!

Apart from having a spectacular plot, I think Atwood’s witty descriptions play a huge role in making The Dead Hand Loves You enjoyable to its readers. I will put an end this post with her depiction of the house Jack rented with his former housemates…

It was in the early ’60s, back when you could be a student and rent a house in that area, if only a narrow, pointy-roofed, three-storey, stifling in summer, freezing in winter, run-down, pee-flavored, peeling-wallpapered, warped-floored, clanking-radiatored, rodent-plagued, cockroach-riddled, red-brick Victorian row house.


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