Angela Carter

By: David Smay
May 7, 2012

I test used bookstores by seeing what they’ve got by ANGELA CARTER (1940-92); it’s disappointing when I can only find recent US editions of Wise Children (1991) or Nights at the Circus (1984). They’re fine novels, but Carter’s legacy is much more than a magical realist pass at theatrical Victoriana. If we were in an Ideal Used Bookstore, I’d stack a few other Carter titles into your arms, including British editions of The Passion of New Eve (1977) and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), surrealist works that rewrite feminist and post-structuralist theory as delicious, comic, playful, appalling, delightful pornography. You must also read Carter’s non-fiction, including Shaking a Leg (1997), for her late sixties fashion reports and early advocacy of Los Bros Hernandez. You haven’t read 1967’s The Magic Toyshop? It is a perfect novel, a slim gothic gem. The short story collection Fireworks (1974) is distinctly personal work from Carter’s time in Japan after her first marriage ended; she comes into her mature voice here, and half the stories are outright masterpieces. And with fairy tale re-tellings ubiquitous on TV and film this year, it’s hard to recall how radical and unlikely Carter’s sinister story collection The Bloody Chamber was in 1979. Her books abrade the British literary canon, and — like Medusa’s blood — they’ve spawned a lineage of strange monsters.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Traci Lords and Darren McGavin.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian (1934-43) Generation.

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HiLo Heroes, Literature

What do you think?

  1. Thanks so much for this, David. I’m one of the ignorant bookshop browsers who didn’t know the skanky, porny 1970s editions of Carter’s novels. Now I want to collect them all.

    Carter seems sui generis — how does she fit into the Anti-Anti-Utopian generation? Does she have any like-minded peers, or only followers?

  2. You know, Josh, she doesn’t fit neatly into British literary history, and that’s as much her choice as anything. When I think of her peer group, I tend to associate her with people like the rock critic and feminist writer Ellen Willis. There’s such a bad, cartoony image of 2nd wave feminism, but Carter and Willis have a common interest in theory and desire that’s riveting. It’s intellectually vivid.

    Her closest literary friend was Michael Moorcock, and that’s where you start to find a like-minded writer. Especially in his late sixties/early seventies work like the Jerry Cornelius books, there’s that same overturning/toying with genre mixed with politics, sexual identity.

    Though it’s formed in the sixties, I strongly associate her sensibility with the early seventies – writers like Joanna Russ or Margaret Atwood were formed by the same social pressures. I even see a lot of common ground with Monty Python – that complete freedom and anarchy, the playfulness with structure, the strains of anger but not bitterness.

    As for her legacy, I see a lot of Angela Carter in the British comic book writers associated with Vertigo: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison. Jeanette Winterson and Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) would be more obvious literary heirs.

  3. One can’t forget to mention Carter’s literary criticism, especially “The Sadeian Woman,” her incendiary analysis of the greatest of French monsters and his monstrous heroines and victims (Juliette and Justine).

  4. Absolutely, Karl. In fact, I’d probably recommend that one read The Sadeian Woman before attempting The Passion of New Eve or The Infernal Desire Machine of Doctor Hoffman. Those books in particular are extensions of her criticism.

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