The best horror writer of the 20th century you've probably never heard of was a British woman who looked like a benign but mildly dotty Hogwarts teacher. But do not miss the occult mischief behind those 1980s mom-glasses; in a fairly standard Angela Carter story, Harry Potter would be mauled to death by a werewolf before a pan-species initiation of Hermione’s pubescent sexual power. She made things weird like that, which is why she was great. Carter, however, was not a horror writer in the same sense as Anne Rice or Stephen King; the bulk of her work is classified as magical realism (a made-up, jerk-off genre that permits English departments to acknowledge the existence of the human imagination), but her most celebrated book is a high gothic collection of short stories called The Bloody Chamber that you should read immediately if the genre holds any appeal for you. Or even if it doesn’t — though Carter never broke into the mainstream, an incomplete list of her devotees includes Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Jeannette Winterson, Tea Obreht, Rick Moody, and Ian McEwan. Personally, to say I was influenced by this book would be an incalculable understatement; it could more accurately be stated that my novel Hemlock Grove was one extended piece of Angela Carter fan-fiction.
On the surface, the conceit of The Bloody Chamber is simple: Carter takes familiar fairy-tales and folkloric tropes and “reformulates” them — her wording – into stylistically distinct word fugues that make the erotic subtext of the source material into hot-ass text. Or, as she has said: “I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the new wine makes the old bottles explode.” And I do not use the term fugue loosely — both in consideration of her intentional repetition of theme (there are two back-to-back Beauty and the Beast variations, and three successive werewolf stories), and the dissociative state her work can induce in the reader. Her prose is simultaneously ornate and energetic to the point of recklessness, like a cathedral on roller-skates going downhill, and as sensual as fiction can be without getting your fingers sticky. Favored motifs include: virgins, snow, mirrors, blood (especially menstruation), white negligees (especially blood-stained), girls raised by wolves, female nudity, comparisons of female nudity to immolation, exposed genitals (male, female, and animal), exotic smells, less-than-exotic smells (a fish market is compared to “a brothel after a busy night”), necrotic aristocrats with unspeakable appetites, and roses (“their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorled, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications”). Capturing “real life” held no interest for Carter; in fact she believed the intentional artifice of fiction was not a slave to reality but had the power to change it.
As is commonly the case for writing in the mythic dimension, the central theme of The Bloody Chamber is metamorphosis, and no metaphor served her better to explore this than female sexual awakening. Carter was an avowed feminist, but also a polarizing one, in ways prefiguring Camille Paglia in her zookeeper’s fascination with the biological differences between women and men, as well as a professed admiration of the Marquis de Sade. “I really can’t see what’s wrong with finding out what the great male fantasies about women are,” she said in her own defense. In the title novelette from the collection, which transplants the story of Bluebeard to fin de siècle France, de Sade is paid homage in the otherwise unnamed character of the Marquis, who presents his of course virginal young bride with “a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” He then deflowers her on an ancestral feather bed surrounded by mirrors; afterward, she clings to him “as though only the one who had inflicted the pain could comfort me for suffering it.” Carter truly excelled at the repulsion fantasy; echoes of The Bloody Chamber can be found from Fifty Shades of Grey to Hostel; later the heroine reflects “he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption.”
Aristocratic man-beasts take center stage in the next two stories, now of the literal variety. The first, leonine with agate eyes, is turned back into a human by Beauty’s love: “when her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers.” But the second, his tiger doppelgänger, has a different resolution (one suspects truer to Carter’s heart): “… I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper … And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs.” These stories round out Carter’s general attitude towards men: their otherness (“she could not bring herself to touch him of her own free will, he was so different from herself”), their foolishness (“I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whose circumstances force mutely to witness folly”), their animal instinct to debase women running alongside their need to be redeemed by them.
But men are hardly the only hunters in this collection. “The Lady in the House of Love” concerns an isolated vampire Countess who wears her mother’s wedding dress and amuses herself by running her fingernails on the bars of her lark’s cage because “she likes to hear it announce how it cannot escape.” This, however, is not her only diversion: “The Countess wants fresh meat. When she was a little girl, she was like a fox and contented herself entirely with baby rabbits that squeaked piteously as she bit into their necks … But now she is a woman, she must have men.” What is interesting about the Countess is that unlike the manifest bestiality of her male counterparts, little separates her appearance from Carter’s virgins. To the soldier with whom she has a doomed romance, she seems to be 16 or 17; “her huge dark eyes almost broke his heart with their waiflike, lost look.” What does give her away is unmistakably pudendal: “yet he was disturbed, almost repelled, by her extraordinarily fleshy mouth, a mouth with wide, full, prominent lips of a vibrant purplish-crimson, a morbid mouth … a whore’s mouth.” In the Carterverse, do not mistake this for an insult.
Probably the best-known story in the collection is her lycanthropic interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, “The Company of Wolves.” This tone poem to “carnivore incarnate” takes place in a nameless, timeless mountain country, where in the always-wintry nights “the eyes of the wolf shine like candle flames” and their song is a forest canticle: “That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.” The peasant girl in a crimson hood who encounters a roguish huntsman in the woods is, unsurprisingly, a virgin: “She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane.” He bets her a kiss he can beat her to grandmother’s house; she dawdles to ensure he wins. At her grandmother’s, he strips naked — the hairiness of his legs and hugeness of his genitals are emphasized — and “the last thing the old lady saw was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed.” Soon enough the girl is trapped inside the house with Granny’s undigestible hair and bones in the fire and a blizzard raging outside along with a concert of howling wolves, but this is no damsel in distress: “she … took off her scarlet shawl, the colour of poppies, the colour of her menses, and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.” And when the beast avows his famed dentature is all the better to eat her with, her response is perfectly appropriate for when a man says something silly to impress you: “The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” Neil Jordan adapted this story into a bizarre but fascinating 1984 film of the same name (co-written by Carter), which included a line of dialogue that more or less sums up Carter’s work: “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too.”
To add a personal anecdote, a number of years ago I talked with a producer about potentially remaking The Company of Wolves; however, Red Riding Hood was in development at the time, so this conversation went nowhere. But what really stuck with me from the meeting was the gleam in the producer’s eye (she was wearing a white pantsuit with a crocheted gold shawl and brought her rich-lady lapdog to work) as she leaned forward and asked, So does she fuck the wolf?
Offscreen, I said.
The term “writer’s writer” has always made me want to punch myself repeatedly: all writers are readers’ writers, and if linguistic complexity is a deterrent to the marketplace, then please show me the demonic pact that got Cormac McCarthy on the best-seller list. Maybe Carter’s work is idiosyncratic and confrontationally female, and treats “genre” material with the same level of literary seriousness as Franzen does, I don’t know, birdwatching, but it is troubling that a writer with this level of influence on the generation proceeding her is this obscure to her logical audience. And in a sanitized, digital era when there is increasing dissonance between our NPR brains and our caveman brains with the attendant mass neurosis, Angela’s Carter’s celebration of the gross excellence of our animal selves is only becoming more relevant. So, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe onscreen.