BOOK REVIEW / Demon-lovers and sticking-plaster: Shadow Dance - Angela Carter: Virago, pounds 9.99; Flesh and the mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter - ed Lorna Sage: Virago, pounds 8.99

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IN THE period after Angela Carter's death two years ago, there was some haggling over her ultimate position in the pecking order of writers. Salman Rushdie eulogised her as the 'benevolent witch-queen', John Bayley sneered about 'political correctness'. The extremes of reaction were part of the momentum surrounding a death, and have faded. Angela Carter has emerged as a fully-fledged literary subject, as is shown by this book of laudatory essays about her, and the republication of her first novel, a book which in her lifetime she tried to suppress.

Shadow Dance first appeared in 1966, and has been out of print ever since.

It is easy to identify its weaknesses: the plot - which seems to happen somewhere off the page - the surreal characters, the posing, the constant threat of melodrama, but the most likely reason - its obsolescence - has become the book's new pitch. Morris Grey, a failed painter and junk-shop man, is the character who guides the reader through a brilliantly evoked provincial urban landscape of the early 1960s (full of diverting 'period' detail), complete with a moribund newsagent's shop, a filthy laundry, a cafeteria of 'inescapable, undisguisable brownness', vomiting girls and peeing dogs. With his tormented face 'like an El Greco Christ', aching teeth and useless, end-stopped sensibilities, Morris is the passive collaborator in a series of disasters; a rape, a knifing, a suicide and possible murder, all perpetrated by his amoral, asexual, flamboyantly violent friend, Honeybuzzard.

Even the name of this character alerts us to the presence of a Carter demon-lover, blood-brother to Buzz in Love, Jewel in Heroes and Villains and Zero in The Passion of New Eve. All are essentially theatrical: Honeybuzzard himself wears dark glasses, false noses, military costume, psychedelic hats.

He has 'an inexpressibly carnivorous mouth' and wolf teeth, 'like wounding little chips of milk glass', but his face is also cherubic and appealing, 'a nectarine face, bruisable and somehow juicy'. The author adores him, but can find little for him to do in her realistic setting other than subvert its realism. His violence is meaningless, and therefore monstrous.

Mutability, 'goddess of the auction room' where Morris makes his killings, is the predominant theme. Seeing a set of garden gnomes for sale, Morris wonders 'what domestic catastrophe would make a man sell even the plaster gnomes from his garden', but the plot endlessly charts such catastrophes.

Content turns to despair overnight, beauty to hideous deformity, as in the case of Ghislaine, the girl Honeybuzzard tortures, rapes and eventually murders. With Carter's tremendous linguistic vitality underpinning the dismal story, Shadow Dance might well enjoy a new lease of life as a piece of Sixties Gothic.

On one of their nocturnal scavenging raids, Honeybuzzard and Morris find a bundle of old clothes, with a piece of sticking-plaster in one pocket.

'That's poignant, isn't it, a used bit of Elastoplast,' Morris says, but Honeybuzzard replies: 'It's too new to be poignant. It's disgusting.' Carter was on the side of the new, the disgusting and indigestible, the power to shock. Now that she is dead, poignancy is free to set in. In Flesh and the Mirror, a great deal is said about Carter's relation to de Sade, Rabelais, Poe, the Surrealists and so forth, but the tone is constrained and constraining. Some of the contributors were friends of Angela Carter, and may well have found it difficult to write in the 'double drag' of critic/friend. The results can sound almost patronising, as in Lorna Sage's strange formulation: '(Carter) was an intellectual of the vagrant self-appointed kind . . . as a result, there's a generous amount of 'metafictional' critical reflection built in (to her fiction).' In other words, Carter read books which academics also read. Nicole Ward Jouve, adopting an unimpressive conversational manner throughout her essay, 'Mother is a Figure of Speech', even manages to be 'poignant' about Carter's sadist fantasy of the daughter wishing her mother to be raped, impregnated, and then sewn up, concluding that this 'delivers the possibility of a new, cheerful, active, duty-free form of mothering'.

There are some surprising topics, such as 'Angela Carter and Science Fiction', and workmanlike papers from Elaine Jordan, Marc O'Day, Susan Roe, but the best is Marina Warner's essay, 'Bottle Blonde, Double Drag', which has an excellent section on laughter, and analyses Carter's comic virtuosity. Warner also acknowledges that Angela Carter 'would have been astonished by the praise in her obituaries (and) would certainly have had some caustic phrase for the general enthusiasm'. It is a tacit admission of what the whole book proves; that the transition from live writer to dead subject is a mutilating process.