Women in Horror Week: Angela Carter

By KL Pereira

“She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.”
The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter (1940-1992)

I fell in love with Angela Carter when I was 21 years old. I had ferretted out a spot in the mythology and folklore section of my college library, a monstrosity of classic and neo-seventies architecture, and lay down between the stacks with The Bloody Chamber. The title was what caught me as I scanned the dusty spines. I did not know the author. When I asked around afterwards, few did, either (Even my professors thought her a bit obscure). This didn’t bother me at the time. After reading the first few lines, I wanted Carter all to myself.

The Bloody Chamber was shocking to me and still is: a work of fearless writing that contains both the sacred and the profane, and revels in the basest human desires while articulating a narrative with elegance and grace. The slim volume of fairy tales (a deceitful title, as the stories within are neither wispy nor fey but rather demonic and hungry) features familiar characters such as Bluebeard’s doomed bride, Snow White, and Little Red Cap. Rather than retelling stories we already know by heart, it relays what Carter called the “latent content” or perhaps the dark heart of what is untold in their “original versions” (finicky terms indeed when speaking of the oral tradition). The focus of these stories is not retelling but reclaiming what exists within the tales (and us). Carter highlights the female protagonist (and her history as object) in harsh, gothic spaces where female erotic power ,and subversive desires and hungers, are expressed and sought out. The slight heroines of my childhood were never like this – a Red Cap who kills the wolf-grandmother, another that hungers for the wolf himself.

I had never before been allowed to consider other heroines and players (and truths – especially those sexual truths) that had been missing from the telling. Carter’s stories engaged something else, something strong, something that portrayed women and deviant sexuality (sex with wolves, with captors, the interplay of danger and pleasure) as powerful, however sinister the needs and acts are portrayed by society (or even oneself).

It is shocking to me now that Carter remains so little-known. Few writers can claim such a widespread influence on the resurgence of fairy tales, the gothic, and the erotic in horror and dark fiction of the last thirtty years. Her influence is felt in writers like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Katherine Dunn, and a score of others. Her passions for the folktale have been taken up by scholars and writers such as Kate Bernheimer, editor and founder of Fairy Tale Review, who dedicated her newest anthology of terrifying and strange stories, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, to Carter herself.

While it remains difficult to find Carter’s work at times in the United States, her novels, essays, translations, poetry, nonfiction, short stories, and screenplays are celebrated in her home country, the United Kingdom. Carter was a well-known writer there during her lifetime and, if not commercially successful on the level of other British writers of her generation, certainly enjoyed some writing celebrity. In her nearly three decades of writing, she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the James Tate Black Memorial Prize (Britain’s oldest literary achievement), and the Cheltenham Festival of Literature Award (for The Bloody Chamber). On the tenth anniversary of her death, The Telegraph released a tribute piece. Just last year, Carter was named the best ever winner of the James Tate Black Memorial Prize. Carter has also been in ranked in The Times as one of the “50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945.”

Such honors make it doubly bewildering that Carter is such a ghost outside of her own country and genre, especially as the gothic and the mythic have been bursting at the seams of popular writing for the past ten years. But perhaps the reason that Carter is such a specter (and a beloved one, to those who know her) is that she and her work defy genre conventions, flout rules of high literature, and break with rigid taxonomies and classifications. With flowing narratives that obsess over marionettes, incest, performance, and bestiality, Carter’s prose is highly literary and deeply poetic and yet “rude,” as she called it, full of flatulent and bawdy and quite wicked characters. She lived and played (for her work, if it is anything, is certainly playful) in the subversive and horrific and cruel, building new spaces where the dark and perverse desires of woman, man and beast can thrive.

Carter took the bones of her forebears (Grimm and Perrault, Poe and Sade) and created a whole new canon that continues to terrify, taunt and tantalize.

Recommended reading:

Novels:

  • The Magic Toyshop (1967)
  • Nights at the Circus (1984)
  • Wise Children (1991)

Short Story Collections:

  • Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974)
  • The Bloody Chamber (1979)
  • Black Venus (1985)

Film:

The Company of Wolves (1984): screenplay written by Carter and Neil Jordan, based on her story of the same title.