A brief survey of the short story part 48:
By harnessing the peculiar power of fairytales, Carter invested her stories with a vibrant emotional and intellectual energyChris Power
Friday 22 March 2013 15.10 GMT
In an interview Angela Carter gave in 1991, not long before her death from lung cancer at the age of 51, she can be heard struggling with being called an "English writer". She was the least English of English writers, a postmodernist with no interest in social realism. Aside from Shakespeare, Defoe and Blake, her influences came from Europe and the new world: Poe and Melville, the symbolists and surrealists, Borges, Calvino and Joyce.
A writer of great range, she was perfectly capable of describing, as she did in The Quilt Maker (1981), "south London on a spring morning. Lorries fart and splutter along the Wandsworth Road. Capital Radio is braying from an upper window." But she preferred to delve into myth and legend, and the extreme psychic landscapes of "forsaken castles, haunted forests" and "forbidden sexual objects".
A fragment of fairytale glimmers in Carter's earliest work, The Man Who Loved a Double Bass (1962), where an inanimate object is treated as though alive, and helmets tucked beneath motorbikes gleam "whitely, like mushrooms or new laid eggs". In her first collection, Fireworks (1974), the seam thickens discernibly. The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter is a savage piece of incest-themed gothic; in the Ballardian Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest, a menacing magic begins to unfold after a girl is pricked (in fact, bitten) by a flower; in Reflections, a rambler arrives at "a short, crumbling flight of steps that led to a weathered front door, ajar like the door of a witch's house".
In 1979, two years after translating a selection of Perrault's fairytales, Carter published The Bloody Chamber, a series of "revisionings" of some of the best-known fairytales, including Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast. The book is a supremely well-achieved critique and reformulation of stories that have been shaped by our society, and which shape it in turn. In the 1970s, myth and folklore was coming under fresh scrutiny in numerous ways – Bruno Bettelheim's Freudian reading in The Uses of Enchantment, Ann Sexton's poetry cycle Transformations, the incisive critiques of Jack Zipes – but nowhere is the strange, warped power of the originals harnessed so strikingly as in Carter's work.
By retelling these tales, wrote Lorna Sage, Carter was "deliberately drawing them out of shape … The monsters and the princesses lose their places in the old script, and cross forbidden boundary lines." In The Tiger's Bride, the beauty sheds her skin to reveal "beautiful fur". In The Company of Wolves, Red Riding Hood uses sexual pleasure – hers and his – to tame the wolf.
Alongside these inversions are stories in which the hidden content of fairytales is made explicit. In the title story, a redaction of Bluebeard, the narrator realises by her husband's gaze – "the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh" – that his lust will consume her, while in The Erl-King the objectified beloved discovers that "[t]here are some eyes can eat you". Carter told an interviewer in 1985: "I was using the latent content of those traditional stories, and that latent content is violently sexual."
Light is shed on The Bloody Chamber by another book Carter published in 1979, The Sadeian Woman, which argues that the two versions of the feminine De Sade presents – Justine, the victim, and Juliette, the victimiser – are both wholly male constructs, "and neither pays any heed to a future in which might lie a synthesis of their modes of behaviour, neither submissive nor aggressive, capable of both thought and feeling".
As Margaret Atwood writes: "The Bloody Chamber can be understood much better as an exploration of the narrative possibilities of De Sade's lamb-and-tiger dichotomy than as a 'standard' work of early-70s to-the-barricades feminism." At the time, Carter's nuanced position – as well as her assertion that women could be simultaneously attracted to and revolted by the predatory male – left her isolated. The New York Times labelled her "a rigid ideologue, fervidly feminist" while Andrea Dworkin dismissed The Sadeian Woman as "a pseudofeminist literary essay". To journalist Amanda Sebestyen, she was no less than the "high priestess of postgraduate porn".
Alongside an abiding fascination with folklore, in her last two collections, Black Venus (1985) and American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993), Carter developed an interest in impressionistic biographies of historical figures, including Baudelaire's lover Jeanne Duval and Edgar Allan Poe. Most indelible of these is The Fall River Axe Murders (1987), her study of the allegedly murderous New England spinster Lizzie Borden. Here, the discord between Carter's forensic tone and fairytale details – a wicked stepmother who "oppressed her like a spell'; the detail that virginal Lizzie is menstruating on the day of the murders; talk of slaughtered pet pigeons baked in a pie – instils a heavy, malign tension. Carter, wickedly and perfectly, breaks off her account moments before chaos is unleashed, the story left like a blood blister about to burst.
Borden may be a dark expression of the empowered feminine, but for Carter that is preferable to what she called the "zomboid creatures in Joan Didion's novels", or the "dippy dames of Jean Rhys". Carter's ideal heroines possess sharp wits and "a certain cussedness, a bloodymindedness", as with the Moll Flanderseque protagonist of Our Lady of the Massacre (1979). In The Company of Wolves, just as the wolf is about to strike, his supposed victim "burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat". At the climax of The Bloody Chamber, it isn't the bride's brothers who come to the rescue, as in Bluebeard, but her resourceful mother, who guns down the sword-waving, Sadeian marquis with a shot from her dead husband's service revolver (try unpicking that symbolism, if you will).
Carter's methods are too chilly and removed for some; her characters, as one reviewer suggested, more "specimens for analysis". But thick as the stories are with theory, and ascetically opposed to the enveloping pleasures of what Carter dismissively called "bourgeois realism", they nevertheless pulse with energies that trigger an emotional as well as an intellectual response. The story that best embodies this ability to bridge theory and feeling is Ashputtle or the Mother's Ghost (1987), which first takes the form of a lecture before transforming into a profoundly powerful and mysterious vision of, in Marina Warner's phrase, "dark, archaic grief".
Carter thought of narrative as "an argument stated in fictional terms", and she certainly has, as AS Byatt said of Hans Christian Andersen, "designs on the reader". But any successful work of art must generate meanings beyond those it intends, and Carter's best work opens on to a territory that stretches far beyond her immediate aims. Even if we were living in a postfeminist utopia (and the recent Vida report on gender prejudice shows we're not, even in the liberal enclave of book pages and literary journals), these stories would remain as vivid as fresh blood on white snow.