I include this because it’s a story that gave me one of those heart-stopping moments, falling in love, aching with envy, resolving to try and keep trying to write. I also once used it in an exercise on a writing course, where I had to compare the qualities – literal and metaphorical – of a story I admired with one of my own. Depressing, but instructive. The Erl-King is the bad-boy type you’re not supposed to fall for, and are therefore seduced by – after all, he does have goat’s cheese, wild mushrooms and rabbit stew in his one-room woodland hut. He also has cages full of birds, a metaphor too heavy for most writers to handle but one Carter whisks into this plum pudding of a story with ease, probably with a cigarette in the other hand. Reading this is a feast, of a kind that nobody can now reproduce. Carter’s brew transcends fashions in fiction, and thank goodness; this is an antidote to minimalism should you ever need one, but most glorious when read on its own luscious terms.
In Burning Your Boats, Vintage, 1996; first published in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979
The Bloody Chamber is one of my favourite collections, and plays a key part in what I hope will be my next published novel. All the stories are deliciously rich in symbolism, sensual language and allusions to fairy tales. ‘The Erl-King’, a retelling of a Scandinavian legend about a sinister forest spirit who lures a young woman into his woodland dwelling, is my favourite. Carter’s descriptions are as lush and detailed as mediaeval tapestries: “There was a little tangled mist in the thickets, mimicking the tufts of old man’s beard that flossed the lower branches of the trees and bushes, heavy branches of red berries as ripe and delicious as goblin or enchanted fruit hung on the hawthorns… One by one, the ferns have curled up their hundred eyes and curled back into the earth. The trees threaded a cat’s cradle of half-stripped branches over me…”
The Erl-King is both frightening and alluring, and there are some wonderfully spooky passages, including this, which has, for me, the chill of infinity: ‘I walked through the wood until all its perspectives converged upon a darkening clearing; as soon as I saw them, I knew at once that all its occupants had been waiting for me from the moment I first stepped into the wood, with the endless patience of wild things, who have all the time in the world’. That ‘endless patience’ is so sinister.
(from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories,Vintage Books, 2006, first published 1979)
Surely the greatest ‘Fuck yeah!’ moment in all short fiction, I cannot read this story without getting totally and breathlessly sucked in, turning the pages in horror even though I have read it so many times, getting to my feet as the gallant mother gallops across the surging waves, her white hair wild behind her. At the climax of the story, she describes everything stopping ‘like a clockwork tableaux in a glass case’ before action recommences, ‘as though a curious child pushed his centime into the slot and set it all in motion’. Carter herself is the curious child with the centime in the slot and this story is her at her indomitable best. In redefining our bloodiest myths, she inadvertently creates new myths for the psychotherapy generation: that your happiness, like that of the young protagonist, depends on a lover that unconditionally ‘sees’ you and a mother who telepathically ‘knows’ you.
In The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz, 1979)
‘It seemed December still possessed his garden. The ground was hard as iron, the skirts of the dark cypress moved on the chill wind with a mournful rustle and there were no green shoots on the roses as if, this year, they would not bloom. And not one light in any of the windows, only, in the topmost attic, the faintest smear of radiance on a pane, the thin ghost of a light on the verge of extinction’.
Not strictly a Christmas story, but for some reason fairy tales seem to have more resonance at this time of year. Angela Carter’s clever, sensual update of 18th-century French classic ‘La Belle et La Bête’ from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber owes more to its (female) originators and popularisers than to any Disney adaptation. The story of the merchant (in Carter’s version, a debt-laden lawyer with a broken-down car) who steals the single white rose he promised his daughter from a mysterious wintry garden, incurring the wrath of its leonine owner, and a forfeit – a reluctant agreement that Beauty will become the companion of the Beast – has several troubling interpretations. In Carter’s hands, Beauty, rather than simply being a chattel of her father, responds to the strange, enchanted world of the dignified and passionate Beast and discovers her own emotional and sexual awakening in the process.
First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Vintage Chatto & Windus, 1995. Chosen by Catherine Taylor.
Is a feminist list of short stories even a feminist list of short stories without the inclusion of Angela Carter?
I was late to Carter. I didn’t study her at school, I didn’t study her at university. A friend who read her for A Level recommended Wise Children to me. I read it not having a bloody clue what was going on. In 2010, I had to teach The Bloody Chamber to my own A Level students. It was a revelation.
In ‘The Company of Wolves’ Carter revisits Little Red Riding Hood. All the men/wolves are abusive in some way, Little Red Riding Hood has to work out how to survive in a patriarchal society. It’s not pleasant but it’s effective.
From The Bloody Chamber
The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on Carter’s stories, had a big effect on me as teenager and led me to her writing. The opening salvo from her first short-story collection, published in 1979, is typical of her baroque, joyous subversion of the fairy tale – while also making significant points about the shifting balance of sexual power, desire, disgust and how the two often disturbingly collide. In this interpretation of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, a young ingenue is married off to a rich Maquis, who, after their wedding night, leaves her alone in his isolated castle on France’s bleak Atlantic coast with a set of golden keys and one proviso – do not open THAT door. The prose is gorgeous, full of a perverse longing and indefinable sorrow: ‘Time was his servant, too; it would trap me here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a winter morning’. This being Carter, the ingenue is not so innocent of course, and has a gun-toting vengeful mother to boot. All the better to eat you with, my dear…
(From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Vintage Classics, 1995)