BOOK REVIEW / Mandrakes in little linen nightgowns: 'American Ghosts and Old World Wonders' - Angela Carter: Chatto, 3.99 pounds

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WHEN Angela Carter died last year, she left behind a mixed bag of uncollected writings, including seven short stories which, she hoped, 'might make a slim combined volume'. Now published together for the first time, with the addition of two extra pieces found among Carter's papers, the stories offer more than a mere miscellany: they work together to form a coherent vision.

Angela Carter's originality lay in her capacity to visit the crazy outer reaches of the imagination and return with her humanity - and sense of humour - intact. Myths, dreams, fairy tales, and archetypal images dredged from the bottom of the unconscious provided constant food for her creativity. The stories in this posthumous collection offer a celebration of the creative imagination, its protean capacity for mixing reality with fantasy, and its ability - which Carter finds as readily in the unruly circus ring as in the high art of Donatello and Georges de la Tour - to transform the world.

The first four stories take their inspiration from America; the last four are rooted in Europe; and the central story, 'The Ghost Ship', with its playful exploration of the clash between pagan festivity and 17th-century New England Puritanism, functions as a pivot to balance the old and new worlds.

Throughout the book, the theme of metamorphosis resurfaces again and again in different guises. In the topsy-turvy world of pantomime, 'the carnival of the unacknowledged and the fiesta of the repressed', cross- dressing turns men into women and vice versa. In Hollywood, the magic of the silver screen changes a human mortal into a living legend. Renaissance alchemists work their magic; the outcast Cinderella is transformed into a beautiful princess; and Mary Magdalene undergoes transfiguration from whore to saint.

If the motif of transformation is written into many of Carter's plots, it is also implicit in the way she borrows from pre-existing literary and cultural traditions. What she takes is always recreated into something new. In 'John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore', John Ford, the Hollywood director of Westerns, and John Ford, the Jacobean dramatist, are fused in an American rewriting of the earlier Ford's revenge tragedy of incestuous passion.

But perhaps the best stories in the collection are the last two. In 'Alice in Prague or the Curious Room', Alice slips through the looking glass and winds up in a very different Wonderland: the Prague laboratory of Dr Dee, Elizabeth I's necromancer. Lewis Carroll's universe of logical deduction, where 'language shivers into abstractions', comes face to face with the world of alchemical magic, in which the doctor's servant (Ned Kelly, imported from Australia's outback) dresses the mandrakes up for bed in little linen nightgowns.

Carter's empathy is clearly with Dr Dee rather than with the Age of Reason that superseded him. The bizarre juxtapositions of her imagery call to mind his contemporaries, the metaphysical poets. And she becomes a literary alchemist, weaving fragments of allusion into brave new kaleidoscopic patterns, in which Dee's crystal ball becomes Marvell's drop of dew. Witty, exuberant and inventive, she makes both serious and sportive use of her literary heritage.

The last story, 'Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene', offers a tender, searching meditation on the iconography of Mary Magdalene, unpicking the cultural stereotypes of madonna and whore. Towards the end, as she contemplates De la Tour's famous image of the Magdalene sitting before a mirror in candlelight, a personal voice breaks in: 'When I was in labour, I thought of a candle flame.' In the context of Carter's subsequent death, this evocation of the pains of birth is particularly moving. Her stories reveal someone who loved life.

At one point in 'Alice in Prague', the narrative is halted by the appearance of an authorial voice: 'There's a theory, one I find persuasive, that the quest for knowledge is, at bottom, the search for the answer to the question: 'Where was I before I was born?' . . . Perhaps, in the beginning, there was a curious room . . . crammed with wonders; and now that room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it.'

In excavating the depths of the imagination, Angela Carter's art unlocked the door to that curious room. This last collection of stories is a testimony to the sense of wonder it inspired in her.