Friday, September 02, 2016

Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter

I feel guilty about my reading pretty regularly. I'm not reading enough women; I'm not reading enough "good" books; I'm wasting time on frivolous silly things that I don't love that much and will forget immediately. (Well, that last one is demonstrably true.) I worry about other things, too, but those are the ones germane today.

Angela Carter was a deeply respectable literary writer despite spending most of her time mining fantasy tropes for short stories. (It's all in where you aim to publish, and how you talk about your work, and what other writers you hang out with.) When I was young, I used to confuse her with Tanith Lee, which is probably deeply ironic for both of them. I don't do that anymore, but I've read a lot more Lee than Carter at this point -- partially because I spent a decade-and-a-half in the SFF mines, where Lee also served, and partially just because Lee wrote more books.

Both of them are dead now -- Carter has been dead since 1992, which surprised me; she's been gone nearly as long as I've been an adult. And both are probably getting slowly forgotten the way the vast majority of dead authors do, with some academics keeping Carter's name alive and some SFF folks doing the same for Lee. (And, of course, vice versa, in what I expect to be somewhat lesser numbers.)

I didn't read a Lee book to compare here; I just always think of her when I think of Carter -- old habits die hard -- so she snuck into this review, even though I don't really have anything to say about her.

But how much do I have to say about Carter, or about this very slim story collection, Saints and Strangers? (The British among you may be confused -- the same book is called Black Venus on your side of the pond.) It was the third of the three collections Carter published during her life, published in 1986 and containing eight stories that originally came out in the decade previous -- two of them in Interzone, which tends to dent my claims a few paragraphs above.

And those stories are all about other things, all literary retellings of real lives or folktales or legend. It leads off with a story about Lizzie Borden, set at the moment of dawn on the day her father is killed. Other stories focus on a woman abducted by Indians in the early American wilderness (and captured back, worse luck), on the miserable blasted death of Edgar Allen Poe, on the events before A Midsummer Night's Dream, and on Baudelaire's muse. There is a retelling of "Peter and the Wolf," and another fable-story called "The Kitchen Child," which is probably an altered version of something else.

All of this is told in tightly keyed-up prose, besotted with its own long wonderful words, and all of the stories are much happier to wax rhapsodic on images and ideas than to actually move any kind of plot forward. They're mostly about moments than stories, about the frozen point before something happens. It's the kind of prose where some readers -- me, for example -- can only read one story at a time, and then need to do something else. It's very literary writing, full of effects and portents and emotion and tumult. They're tiring stories in several ways, and I wouldn't recommend them to most readers.

But if any of that sounds appealing to you -- particularly if you're the kind of person who thinks occasionally, as I do, that you need to read more difficult, gnarly books -- then take a look at Angela Carter if you haven't yet.

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