“It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.” (Vincent Price)

Happy Hallowe’en Everyone! I’m not really one for scary fiction as I’m far too easily spooked, but I have managed to find two books in the TBR that were perfect Hallowe’en reading and not too much for my delicate sensibilities.

Firstly, I finished The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979), her collection of short stories which rework the classic tropes of fairytales into Carter’s own disturbing, sexual, feminist, Gothic stories. I’ve written about The Snow Child, The Werewolf and The Tiger’s Bride before, but somehow not got round to finishing the collection. This year of the book-buying ban (nearly finished!) is all about ploughing through the TBR pile so this was a good opportunity to get the collection dusted off and finished.

Angela Carter is a writer people have strong feelings about, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: I am firmly in the ‘for’ camp. I think she’s brilliantly inventive, political, funny and deeply unnerving. I never find her comfortable read, and I love that. So if you’re in the ‘agin’ camp you might want to skip through to my second choice of David Mitchell 😊

If you’re a fan like me, The Bloody Chamber will give you all you desire. The titular story is a heady mix of sexual awakening and mortal danger as a young woman marries an older French Marquis (natch):

“For the opera, I wore a sinuous shift of white muslin tied with a silk string under the breasts. And everyone stared at me. And at his wedding gift.

His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”

The story is a retelling of Bluebeard, but as the woman is a Carter heroine, she is not a naïve virgin wandering blindly into a danger but someone who understands more than she knows, and she knows that there is something very wrong with her husband:

“I felt a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love  and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.”

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say Bluebeard doesn’t quite have things work out for him the way he hoped. Carter uses the retelling of familiar tales to give women agency: they are not there to be eaten by wolves, seduced by royalty when unconscious, or rescued by a heterosexual love interest. Neither are they the pure-as-snow heroines who survive to enter marriage; when they survive it is as women with complex motives and strategic means of never relinquishing control. They are to be reckoned with.

If this sounds didactic, it really isn’t. Carter never loses sight of spinning a good yarn, and she does so with humour. This is most apparent in Puss in Boots, a first person narrative voiced by the eponymous feline, a cheeky servant who does his master’s bidding while never losing sight of his own ends:

“So Puss got his post at the same time as his boots and I dare say the Master and I have much in common for he’s proud as the devil, touchy as tin-tacks, lecherous as liquorice and, though I say it as loves him, as quick-witted a rascal as ever put on clean linen.”

Puss also recalls The Barber of Seville, in comic exuberance, machinations, and names:

“Figaro here; Figaro, there, I tell you! Figaro upstairs, Figaro downstairs and–oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro can slip into my lady’s chamber smart as you like at any time whatsoever that he takes the fancy for, don’t you know, he’s a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated; he can tell when a furry friend is the Missus’ best company. For what lady in all the world could say ‘no’ to the passionate yet toujours discret advances of a fine marmalade cat?”

While she’s undoubtedly burlesque, Carter is a writer with serious concerns, and plenty to say about the position of women, both in the fairytale tradition and society as a whole. It’s far from all she has to say, but for me at this time, it was the main message I took away. For this reason I’ll finish with a quote from The Erl-King:

 “When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and I did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately, gave them fresh water every day and fed them well. His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven.

Secondly, Slade House by David Mitchell (2015); it was Cathy’s recent review which prompted me to get my copy down from the shelf. Like Carter, Mitchell is clearly having fun with this work. It’s not typical of him – for one thing, at 233 pages its about a third the size of his usual tomes – but it does still have many of his trademarks: references to his other works, interconnected stories, time shifts. It’s a companion piece to The Bone Clocks; that novel remains buried in my TBR somewhere but I didn’t find that not having read it affected my enjoyment of Slade House at all. You’ll be pleased to hear this is a short review as I desperately try and avoid spoilers…

The first story, The Right Sort (which began life as a Twitter story, which you can read here) is set in 1979 and is told by Nathan Bishop, who is accompanying his mother to Slade House. Nathan is lonely and isolated: his father has left and he doesn’t really have friends. He may be on the autistic spectrum:

“Mum lets go of my wrist. That’s better.

I don’t know what her face is saying.”

Once they arrive at Slade House, Nathan’s mum goes into the vast pile with Lady Grayer, while Nathan spends time with her son Jonah. The experience has a blurry, unreal quality, possibly due to the fact that Nathan has taken one of his mother’s Valium:

“A dragonfly settles on a bulrush an inch from my nose. It’s wings are like cellophane and Jonah says ‘Its wings are like cellophane’ and I say, ‘I was just thinking that,’ but Jonah says ‘Just thinking what?’ so maybe I just thought he’d said it. Valium rubs out speech marks and pops thought-bubbles. I’ve noticed it before.”

In the following story, Shining Armour, corrupt copper Gordon Edmonds is half-heartedly investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mum, as a man has awakened from a coma and was the last person to speak to them, nine years earlier. Another nine years later and a student paranormal society are interested in Slade House:

“Todd the mathematician works it out first. ‘Christ, I’ve got it. The Bishops vanished on the last Saturday in October 1979; fast-forward nine years and Gordon Edmonds vanishes on the last Saturday in October 1988; fast-forward another nine years and you get…’ He glances at Axel, who nods. ‘Today.’

I can’t help feeling things are not going to work out well for the curious students…

What is going on at Slade House? Why can’t it be found on maps? What happens every nine years? Who is responsible? And is anyone going to stop them?

“ ‘That’s the only prize worth hunting. And what we want, what we dream of. The stage props change down the ages, but the dream stays the same: philosophers’ stones, magic fountains in lost Tibetan valleys, lichens that slow the decay of our cells, tanks of liquid that’ll freeze us for a few centuries; computers that’ll store our personalities as ones and zeroes for the rest of time. To call a spade a spade: immortality.’”

The wackometer needle is stuck on 11. ‘I see.’”

Mitchell’s legions of fans might be a bit disappointed with Slade House; as I mentioned, it’s definitely not typical of him. I really enjoyed it though. As a quick, fun, slightly spooky read for autumn, it was spot-on.

To end, a song which I only found out this week was once banned by the BBC, who hilariously thought dancing monsters were ‘too morbid’ for impressionable young minds:

“Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” (Robert C. Gallagher)

Dear reader, it’s been so long.  Let’s just say working pretty much full-time while studying for my Masters as a full time student basically leaves time for oooh, nothing else at all. My brain is close to exploding with all I’m trying to cram into it. Put it this way: I’ve lost all capacity for nouns.  I can’t remember the name of anyone or anything.  Apparently this is a sign of dementia starting.  I’m trying to be positive and think it’s just a sign of my impending breakdown.

Anyhoo, it’s March now, and so I’ve decided that Spring has officially sprung.  I’m sick of winter, and although it’s cold and grey in old London town today, we’ve had at least 3 days where it’s been sunny & bright & I’ve had to remove my jacket as I’m too warm. There are daffodils, so it’s Spring, people!  Annoyingly, with this seasonal transformation comes exhortations from women’s magazines to transform your body into something called ‘bikini-ready’ or similar. Ugh. As a bibliophile I thought rather than attempting transformation, I would  read about instead.  Read about it seated in my favourite chair eating chocolate/cheese/chocolate topped with cheese while refusing to wear a bikini.

Firstly, possibly the most famous transformation story of all, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This is such a well-known story that I won’t bother outlining the plot.  Just in case you need a reminder though, here’s a visual summary from the 1931 film:

Dr Jekyll observes:

“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both” 

His potion suppresses his duality and lets forth the base Mr Hyde:

“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him.”

The novella is not the most accomplished piece of writing but there are some well crafted passages:

“It was a fine, clear, January day, wet under foot where the frost had melted, but cloudless overhead; and the Regent’s Park was full of winter chirrupings and sweet with spring odours. I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.” 

When originally published, this Victorian novella no doubt spoke to anxiety about sexual drives which may have faded somewhat, but the metaphor still lends itself to inner turmoil and guilt, when Hyde is figured as “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace”; or the personality change associated with drug/alcohol addiction, as Hyde has “the body of a self-destroyer”; or various dissociative/psychotic psychological disorders.  I think what makes this story so famous and enduring is that it captures an anxiety about who we are, and of what we are capable.  The terror of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not in Hyde himself, but in the unsettling notion that Hyde is not strange, but in fact common to us all.

Secondly, a chance for me to indulge my on-going obsession with Angela Carter, and discuss ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ from The Bloody Chamber.  This collection of stories saw Carter reworking fairytales; an obvious choice for this post as the genre is filled with transformations – beasts into princes, wolves into grandmothers, wicked step-mothers into witches.  In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ narrator’s father stakes her in a game of cards, only to lose.

“I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whom circumstances force mutely to witness folly, while my father, fired in his desperation by more and yet more draughts of the firewater they call ‘grappa’, rids himself of the last scraps of my inheritance. When we left Russia, we owned black earth, blue forest with bear and wild boar, serfs, cornfields, farmyards, my beloved horses, white nights of cool summer, the fireworks of the northern lights. What a burden all those possessions must have been to him, because he laughs as if with glee as he beggars himself; he is in such a passion to donate all to The Beast.”

The Beast is the name given to the Lord of the manor, a man who smells of:

“potent a reek of purplish civet at such close quarters in so small a room. He must bathe himself in scent, soak his shirts and underlinen in it; what can he smell of, that needs so much camouflage?”

The narrator moves into his lair:

“A profound sense of strangeness slowly began to possess me. I knew my two companions were not, in any way, as other men, the simian retainer and the master for whom he spoke, the one with clawed fore-paws who was in a plot with the witches who let the winds out of their knotted handkerchiefs up towards the Finnish border. I knew they lived according to a different logic than I had done until my father abandoned me to the wild beasts by his human carelessness…I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason.”

This Angela Carter, and so things do not play out as tradition would dictate: there is no helpless heroine surrendering herself to a man in this tale:

“I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.

Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.”

The transformation in the tale is two-sided and empowering. It is everything you would expect from Carter: weird, surprising, audacious, and above all skilfully written with beautiful, concise prose.

To end, a warning from The Librarians that you should never wish your life would transform to a fairytale:

 

 

“Let the little fairy in you fly!” (Rufus Wainwright)

December is a month of magic – at least, that’s how I choose to see it, rather than a month of biting winds, zero natural light, and weeping over the expanding credit card bills and waistlines that mark the holiday season.  No, it is a time of magic – fairies sit on top of trees, reindeer fly and strangers somehow shoot down chimneys and creep into kids bedrooms without being put on a register.  In honour of this time I thought I’d look at literature around fairies.

poppy

(Image from: https://flowerfairies.com/the-poppy-fairy/)

When I was growing up I loved the delicate drawings of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies; the Poppy Fairy was my favourite because she looked a bit naughty.  I’m not sure what that says about me as a child….

Firstly, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan (Salt Publishing, 2014).  I picked this up after reading Naomi’s review on her The Writes of Women blog. It was every bit as good as Naomi suggested. The twenty stories in this volume are united by fairytale themes, but also explorations of sexuality, gender, love and desire that demonstrate how the extraordinary can promote new ways of understanding the everyday.

9781907773754frcvr.indd

(Image from: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773754)

Logan plays with animating the inanimate and mechanising the organic to destabilise notions of identity.  So The Rental Heart sees a woman protect herself from heart-break, leasing mechanised versions of the muscle which she renews as needed. In Origami Rebecca constructs herself a paper lover; in Coin Operated Boys, Elodie rejects “Imperfect. Awkward. Repulsive…” human suitors for the titular machines, responding to their “calm, clean angles”, cool touch, and eyes “flat as a pond in summer”. In this way Logan shows how desire is manifold and defies easy categorisation, while exploring how we seek to control desire, and how denial of our humanity can lead to detachment from ourselves and others.

Extraordinarily, Logan’s startling use of images throughout her stories did not cause me to detach, but rather reveals new ways of perceiving that truly resonate. Choosing any page at random would give me a quote for this post, Logan is truly that good.

From Bibliophagy: “Standing pigeon-toed and bruise-kneed in the light from the fridge, his neck finally stops twitching. The words are waiting, cold as milk….He turns away so the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney.  He lifts the words.  He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus.  He swallows.”

From The Gracekeeper: “The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath.  Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it engulfed: her own secret totem”

In stories such as Witch, Logan challenges the heteronormativity and misogyny inherent in so many fairytales, when the young woman wandering in the forest decides to stay put:

“She was honey on my tongue. She was the poison apple, the kiss that would wake me.  When she finally slid inside me, I knew the end of my story.  I never wanted to leave my bitch goddess warrior queen.  I knew what happily ever after was, and I wanted to be a wicked witch too.”

I’m so excited about Kirsty Logan after reading this collection, and eagerly await her first novel, published next year.

Secondly, it’s impossible to write a post about fairytales without mentioning Angela Carter.  She edited two volumes of the Virago Press’ books of fairytales, as well as writing her own short story collection along this theme, The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz,1979).  Carter’s stories are creepy and unsettling re-tellings of well-known tales, pulling the dark undercurrents of the fables to the fore.  Snow White is rewritten in The Snow Child as an incestuous tale of necrophilia, played out between a battling couple:

“Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush.”

In The Werewolf Little Red Riding Hood is far from helpless victim: “The child had a scabby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.”

The Bloody Chamber prompts a reconsideration of familiar tales that we imbue from childhood.  Carter is an intellectual force, funny and challenging; I was left thinking about these stories long after I’d read them.