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Bloody good bits of low life

Shorter courses from the late English outsider fare best. By Michele Roberts
Burning Your Boats

Collected Short Stories

by Angela Carter

Chatto, pounds 20

Now Angela Carter is dead, we can begin to measure the extent of our loss as all her work is resurrected into print. While we mourn the person, we can celebrate the books that prove her to be very much alive in the realm of language, her true and lasting home.This first volume of the Collected Edition displays the short stories which were her best work. It draws together the early, experimental pieces, the subsequent four collections Fireworks, The Bloody Chamber, Black Venus, and American Ghosts, and some uncollected stories published between 1970 and 1981.

While the early novels dazzle with intellect, sometimes their wit can be too coolly Grimm, their verbal tricks and games too lacking in feeling. The later novels occasionally go to the other extreme, apeing a panto jollity over-rich with thigh-slapping high camp. Only the short stories reach perfection, as she subjected her talent for wild, baroque improvisation to the discipline of the story form, its hard balletic grace. I've never managed to finish a single novel by Angela Carter, but I re-read The Bloody Chamber and Black Venus with deep pleasure.

It's exhilarating to read her afterword to Fireworks, appended here, and see her as a young writer pitting herself against the literary tradition and starting to map her territory: "Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious - the tale has relations with subliterary forms of pornography, ballad and dream, and it has not been dealt with kindly by literati.'' For some years, Angela Carter was not dealt with kindly by literati either, and one reason must be her enjoyment, visible in all her work, of "low'' forms and "low'' life.Carter stands outside normal English notions of class, just as she is unable to write anything cosy or naturalistic, just as she feels obliged to mock all female pieties, feminine or feminist. From the outset, she struck an outsider's pose and relished it.

The early pieces show her learning her craft, whether juggling with Victorian slang or writing journalistic prose on encounters in Japan. There are some fine comic moments of unconscious or deliberate pastiche - Cold Comfort Farm crossed with Nightwood. But she steadies herself, refines her movements and gestures, and gives us The Bloody Chamber.

Carter was one of a group of female writers, among them Sara Maitland and Emma Tennant, who were re-working the short story to encompass the re-telling of Greek and Christian myth, but she made the fairytale her own. The fact that a subsequent generation of writers and readers can take for granted that Little Red Riding Hood fancied the wolf, or that buried inside a male Beast is a tender Beauty, is a measure of her originality.

My favourite among these topsy-turvy revelations of modern desires and anxieties is the title story. "The Bloody Chamber" exposes the lure that Bluebeard has for a certain sort of girl, whisking her into sex-as-danger, fin-de-siecle decadence, and all the horror of the denouement of the original. Carter thoroughly chills your bones with terror, then releases you into the modern twist of a happy ending. The stories in Black Venus widen out the range, to take in a final wolf tale, an avenging look at Baudelaire's black muse and mistress Jeanne Duval, a jolly backstairs romp celebrating good sex and good cooking, an exquisite portrait of a modern flower market in Samarkand haunted by the wife of Tamburlaine. An additional treat is provided by Salman Rushdie's sharply loving, perceptive introduction to the volume, which works as an elegy as well as a fine, graceful piece of criticism.