BOOK REVIEW / Angels beneath a stuffed flying turtle: American Ghosts & Old World Wonders - Angela Carter: Chatto, pounds 13.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS volume contains seven stories which Angela Carter had completed before her death last year, one unfinished draft for a screenplay, and 'Ghostship', a defiant celebration of the ancient rituals of the Winter solstice and the 12 days of Christmas in the face of puritan New England.

Celebration is the keystone of the book - the 'carnival of the unacknowledged and the fiesta of the repressed'. Things are seldom as they seem, boundaries are there to be crossed, there shall be mirth and anarchy, experiment and excess. A winged pot of mustard traverses the wintery heavens. 'Imagine,' urges Carter, and her Circean presence haunts every page, dazzling and disturbing, bestowing an aftermath of lurid, kaleidoscopic dreams.

The four stories which make up the first part of the book are all set in America. In 'Lizzie's Tiger' the squat, square infant, Lizzie Borden, who will one day take an axe to her parents, slips out illicitly to the circus and is almost consumed by a tiger. Carter writes in the round, in three dimensions, so that we see the scene simultaneously through the eyes of the child, the tiger and the author:

I cannot tell you how much she loved the tiger . . . It was the power of her love that forced it to come to her on its knees, like a penitent. It dragged its pale belly across the dirty straw towards the bars where the little soft creature hung by its hooked fingers. Behind it followed the serpentine length of its ceaselessly twitching tail. The crowded darkness and rich detail of that circus evening is in stark contrast to the great empty prairie and windswept skies of the beautiful, elegiac 'John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore', a melding of Jacobean dramatist John and American filmmaker John, part story, part screenplay, all tragedy: 'The dusk bird went chink-chink-chink with the sound of a chisel on a gravestone.' Here the language is as spare and pruned as Hemingway, and there is only the faintest touch of irony, perfectly judged. 'Gun for the Devil' likewise reworks the stuff of legend, a Faustian drama set in the sleaze of Mexican borderland. But it is unfinished, at times confusing and the least satisfying of these stories. This section is rounded off by the wildly funny 'Merchant of Dreams', where a living Hollywood legend, attended by the ancient MGM lion, undergoes a strange metamorphosis, within sound of the Pacific's 'foamy peripheries'.

In the second part, Carter largely abandons straightforward narrative for a series of giddy, mind-blowing frolics. Here there are disquisitions on pantomime, mandrakes and asceticism, gender and motherhood, Cinderella and silence. The setting is Europe but a Europe of the past, a fairy-tale realm of forest and swamp, steep gabled houses and cobbled streets, where 'everything is excessive and gender is variable'. The breathtaking accumulation of images and objects is perhaps at its most spectacular in 'Alice in Prague, or the Curious Room', where Dr Dee sits beneath a stuffed flying turtle and tries to coax angels from his crystal sphere while the deranged Archduke Rudolf copulates with a fruit woman created by the painter Arcimboldo. 'Poor Tom's a-cold' calls the melancholy raven from its snowbound tower. Into this place comes Lewis Carroll's Alice, who is desperate to ask a question or two. No one can answer her: she has strayed from a world of logical deduction into an age 'in love with wonders'.

The wonders are there in every piece: a ship's mast becomes a laden cherry tree, another ship is a Christmas pie, Cinderella's mother becomes a cat, a cow, a bleeding bird, Mary Magdalene passes into sainthood in the trance of a candle flame. The Principal Boy and the Dame gleefully transcend their gender; nor will the principal boy be a New Man - 'she's gone to the bother of turning herself into a Principal Boy to get away from the washing-up in the first place.'

Mary Magdalene also transcends gender to reach 'the radiant, enlightened sinlessness of the animals . . . now she has no option but virtue'. For Angela Carter virtue is one thing, but penitence, mortification of the flesh, rejection of pleasure is another: 'penitence becomes sado-masochism. Self-punishment is its own reward.' Her essay on the 'Wrightsman Magdalene', Georges de la Tour's 17th-century painting of Mary Magdalene, is yet another wonderful piece of writing; she passes from image to image of this Mary, blackbrowed Palestinian, 'gaunt as famine, hairy as a dog', or young and adulterous, or withered and eremitic; she ends with the mirror and the candle flame and a profoundly moving account of birth.

Those who already know Angela Carter's work will need no encouragement to read these stories (she is the only late 20th-century writer I know who can use an exclamation mark and get away with it); for others they offer a joyous introduction. Susannah Clapp, editor of this volume, promises more to come.

(Photograph omitted)