From The Doll’s Alphabet
The stories in Camilla Grudova’s startling and strange debut collection have been described (by her Canadian publisher) as a steampunk variation on Sheila Heti’s The Middle Stories. Many critics have noted the affinity Grudova shares with Angela Carter, most especially in the use and adaptation of fairy tale motifs and tactics. But another close spiritual ancestor is Leonora Carrington; there are strong resemblances between Carrington’s story “The Debutante” and Grudova’s “The Mouse Queen.”
The echoes are most prominent in the respective authors’ use of animals as disruptive elements. Carrington’s hyena kills the protagonist’s maid and eats her; the mother in “The Mouse Queen” inexplicably transforms into a wolf and devours her own twin children. Grudova’s highly allusive story invokes fairy tales and fables to situate this bizarre transformation: in order to roam the streets in lupine form, the mother dons a Red Riding Hood cape left over from a costume party. Her husband’s name – not accidentally – is Peter (think: Peter and the Wolf).
Hints and reverberations from other stories and myths abound throughout Grudova’s weird tale. The title is a reference to one of the key villains in The Nutcracker – itself a story about mysterious and fantastical transformation. Before being literalized by changing into an actual wolf, the narrator is repeatedly associated with images of transfiguration: she attends a costume party dressed as the Mouse Queen and on Sundays, while her husband is away attending mass at various Catholic churches, she remains at home reading “favourite passages from The Metamorphoses.”
When he finds out his wife is pregnant with twin boys, Peter determines to name them Romulus and Remus (he and the narrator meet as Latin students in university) but after he abandons her, she settles on the equally allusive names Aeneas and Arthur. Peter gets a job in a cemetery; he exhumes a coffin and brings home the mummified body of a dwarf woman, which contains faint reverberations of Enoch Emery’s theft of the New Jesus from the museum in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. More immediately, the woman’s diminutive stature is redolent of fairy tales, and the corpse is described as wearing “a black Welsh hat like Mother Goose.”
From the outset, Grudova strives to create an aura of the uncanny; though the setting is Canada in the indeterminate present, the details and descriptions invoke a bygone era that feels faintly Victorian (the steampunk influence, perhaps). The apartment that the narrator shares with her husband is lined with “red and green Loeb books in Greek and Latin” that make the rooms resemble Christmas and there is an old parlour organ of the kind Nero used to play (in which the corpse from the cemetery is secreted). The narrator initially finds work in a shop that sells dollhouses, but is fired after she gets pregnant because the store’s proprietor is afraid she will damage the merchandise by bumping into it with her distended belly. After giving birth, she leaves her twin sons in the care of her mother while she goes to work in a chocolate factory.
Both Peter and the narrator are associated with miniatures. A “little chair too rickety to sit on” is repurposed as an altar (yet another instance of transformation) on which the couple fashions “a collage of saints and Roman gods.” The store at which the narrator works sells tiny gewgaws to put in the dollhouses – “from lamps to Robert Louis Stevenson books with real, microscopic words in them.” (Later in the story, the narrator will express dismay with Peter for dressing as a street lamp to attend a costume party – an example, among many, of the way Grudova exploits internal chimes to heighten the meaning and integrity of her work.) Once she becomes pregnant, the narrator is explicitly connected to the dollhouse and its miniatures: “I felt like a doll’s house myself, with a little person inside me, and imagined swallowing tiny chairs and pans in order for it to be more comfortable.”
The other obvious miniatures are the dwarf woman and the twin boys, all of which are associated with the commingling of birth and death. “We buried a black coffin today,” says Peter upon returning home with the corpse. “I thought it was so terrible, the eternal pregnancy of death.” Even after the twins are born, the association with pregnancy persists: while babysitting, the narrator’s mother leaves the children “in strange places, under tables and in cupboards,” a kind of artificial return to the womb. The connection between pregnancy and death is once again made explicit at the story’s conclusion, when the narrator (we are given to understand) kills and eats her twin boys: “I had no memory of making a meal of my children. Yet my stomach was stretched, as if I had eaten something large.” (The focus on eating also recalls Carrington.)
Grudova’s tale, with all its oddness and extremity, exemplifies Poe’s doctrine of single effect as applied to the short story genre. Poe’s contention was that every element of a story – from its language to its incident to its mood – must be canted in one direction to achieve a single, unified effect. “In the whole composition,” Poe insisted, “there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” Grudova enacts this principle in her story, which earns its weirdness though a careful skein of language and reference, both internal and external, that prefigures the final, shocking turn.
On one level, “The Mouse Queen” can be read as an allegory about motherhood or psychologically abusive relationships. But on its surface it remains a dark fairy tale, a modern, nightmarish twist on the Brothers Grimm. Leonora Carrington would have approved.