‘The Werewolf’ by Angela Carter

Chosen by Andrew McDonnell
 
Is there a more wintery book than The Bloody Chamber? You can almost feel the hot breath from the beasts that drip blood across the snow as you flick the pages. There are many stories to choose from: the toxic masculinity of Mr Lyon, or the wolves circling in the snow in ‘The Company of Wolves’. For me, the one I come back to again and again is ‘The Werewolf’.
 
It’s an unusual story: barely 2,000 words long, yet split into two parts of equal length. The first part tells of a Northern country where cold people have cold hearts, and then there’s a switch to a narrative in the second part. We hear of a child taking treats to Grandma’s house on the other side of the forest. On her way she meets a wolf, and in self-defence chops off one of the wolf’s paws using her father’s hunting knife. It flees back into the forest. When she reaches Grandma’s house, she finds the old woman feverish. She’s also missing a hand. When the child pulls the wolf’s paw out of her pocket it has become a human hand. The girl calls for the neighbours who chase the old woman out into the snow and beat her to death. The girl inherits Grandma’s house and lives happily ever after. 
 
Carter’s genius lies in her acute understanding of our complacency as readers. During the first part, the narrator addresses us in the second person, saying how these superstitious people are so unlike ‘you and I’, and distancing us from the storyworld. She draws a gross dichotomy between them and us. This is the clever part. When I have taught this story, students always transpose Little Red Riding Hood onto the second part. They never pause to think through the holes in the child’s story, nor to ask how come these ‘superstitious’ people essentially offer the child the keys to her grandmother’s house without question. The manner in which folk and fairy tales shape our consciousness is a currency Carter exploits hilariously. So, we are in the end, no different from the people in that Northern country. We are as superstitious and naive. Happy Christmas. 
 
First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, Gollancz, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Chatto & Windus, 1995. * Andrew McDonnell is a published writer of poetry and short fiction. His first collection of poems, The Somnambulist Cookbook, was published in by Salt in 2019.

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