It is difficult to describe the works of the late English author Angela Carter, who plumbed fairy tales, gothic horror, and the magic realist literary tradition to create a style all her own: one that enveloped all of these, but was limited to none. Perhaps the best way to understand her work is to experience it for yourself. With that in mind, here’s a list of some of our favorite books by Carter, three of which — The Blood Chamber, Wise Children, and Fireworks — will be released this week as an omnibus edition from the Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics series.
Angela Carter; Introduction by Joan Acocella
The Bloody Chamber:
Using terms like “best known” or “most popular” is inherently tricky when you’re discussing the works of a writer who never really broke into the mainstream, but if one of Carter’s books deserves those descriptions, it has to be The Bloody Chamber. The short stories featured in this collection are based on fairy tales, but are not strictly retellings of the material. These harrowing interpretations are boldly erotic, horrifying, and certainly not for children.
Wise Children is the circuitous but entertaining story of a fractious family of entertainers, as told by identical twins Dora and Nora Chance. Now in their twilight years, the women look back on their lives on and off stage: vaudeville, dance halls, even a bit of Shakespeare courtesy of their troubled actor father, Melchior. The Chance family has a penchant for drama — the kind that doesn’t just contain itself to the theater: Scandals, long-lost relatives, and the hint of a crime or two pepper this flavorful tale.
Carter wrote this short story collection after trading life in an unhappy marriage for two years living alone in Japan: an experience she later credited with “radicalizing” her understanding of what it means to be a woman. Although all of the selections in Fireworks are inspired by her experiences, only a handful of them are actually set in the country. Sexually explicit and surreal, the stories of Fireworks skew toward a sketchier, more abstract tone than, say, the contents of The Bloody Chamber.
Carter’s friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie, once remarked that she was at her best when writing short fiction. While that is certainly debatable, Saints and Strangers (published in the UK as Black Venus) amply demonstrates that her talent with the form is not. In this collection of short tales, Carter envisions the lives of famous authors and other notable personages through her own magic realist-colored lenses, the poet Baudelaire, and writer Edgar Allen Poe, among them. A provocative work, Saints and Strangers deconstructs the comfortable contrivances masking the not always favorable truths about artists and their muses.
A city administrator sets out to defeat the maniacal Doctor Hoffman, who has invented a reality-warping device powered by sexual energy. Unless Hoffman is stopped, the humanity will devolve to its basest instincts, and what we consider the real world will be no more than a passing notion. No less than master fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer describes The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman as “the finest surrealist novel of the past 30 years.”
This post-apocalyptic fairy tale is the story of a romance between a young woman and man from two warring societies: the cerebral “Professors” and the fierce “Barbarians.” As they struggle to survive the hazards of a savage world, their mutual attraction awakens the understanding that each has the capacity for what they see in the other: intellectualism or instinct, peace or war, preservation or destruction.
Collected Journalism and Writings
While our list has focused on Carter’s fiction, she was a gifted writer of nonfiction as well. Shaking a Leg collects works on a variety of topics: food, travel, literary criticism, reflections on popular culture, and much more. Through these musings, a portrait of the real Carter emerges: a person of myriad passions and great wit.