"A good writer can make you believe time stands still. Yet the end of all stories, even if the writer forbears to mention it, is death," wrote the English writer Angela Carter, who died 16 years ago this month. At the time Carter was only 51, and her career was in a strange place; she'd won smaller literary prizes while still in her 20s, notably for her gorgeous coming-of-age novel "The Magic Toyshop" (Penguin: 208 pp., $15 paper), but her triumphant and carnivalesque later novels, "Nights at the Circus" (Penguin: out of print) and "Wise Children" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 240 pp., $14 paper), were marginalized in England, failing even to make the Booker Prize shortlist.
Times have changed. Since Carter's premature death, her reputation has soared. Most of her work is in print, and she features on so many university syllabuses it sometimes seems she's swamped by feminist theory. More important, perhaps, her brash brilliance helped crack open the middle-class conventions that had dominated the British novel. She played fairy godmother to younger generations of talent. Without her, Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson wouldn't be the writers they are; likewise David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. Carter had a hand in changing the direction of fiction. She was an immensely generous person and a dangerous and inspiring writer, always throwing off sparks.
Carter was born in the south of England but spent her childhood in Yorkshire, growing up among the coal-mining communities around Doncaster. She felt an affinity, perhaps surprisingly, with D.H. Lawrence, a writer whose background and sexual oddities she understood. "Lawrence," she announced in her mischievous way, "was a stocking fetishist." Time spent in Japan gave her a cool eye that she applied to British and American culture, while commitment to feminism provided the tools to play with, and explode, the literary conventions that she inherited.
Central to her achievement is the amazing 1979 book "The Bloody Chamber" (Penguin: 128 pp., $13 paper) in which she mines the content of traditional fairy stories to create something new and exotic, hybrid tales of the voluptuous and the snarling, glittering portraits of desire and perverse sexuality. "His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat," says the narrator of the long title story, which is Carter's riff on the tale of Bluebeard. "I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab." The lush and ornate style owes more to Isak Dinesen's "Seven Gothic Tales" and the fin de siècle decadence of Baudelaire than to Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen. The writing tingles with violence and intensity as Carter takes us deep inside these familiar but utterly re-imagined fantasy worlds, examining and subverting ideas of sexual power. She deconstructs masculine evil and is intrigued, inevitably, by the figure of the femme fatale. In the story "The Lady of the House of Love," she spins a fierce and erotic version of the vampire myth:
"The Countess herself is indifferent to her own weird authority, as if she were dreaming it. In her dream, she would like to be human, but she does not know if that is possible," Carter writes. "The Countess wants fresh meat. When she was a little girl, she was like a fox and contented herself with baby rabbits that squeaked piteously as she bit into their necks with a nauseated voluptuousness, with voles and field mice that palpitated for a bare moment between her embroideress's fingers. But now she is a woman, she must have men. If you stop too long beside the giggling fountain, you will be led by the hand to the Countess's larder."
The prose here seems turbo-charged, and the best of these stories ("Company of Wolves," filmed by Neil Jordan from a script that Carter co-wrote) sizzle with an intensity that both shocks and excites: "She sinks her teeth into the neck where an artery throbs with fear." Such writing does indeed make time stand still.
Carter was an exuberant dandy, but she was in the business of revealing women, and men, to themselves. Even great writers can't be good all the time, and she's more uneven than most. The nature of her high-wire enterprise risks being over-elaborate and precious on the one hand and cute and twee on the other. As Rushdie, her friend and one of her greatest champions, has observed, words like "eldritch" pop up in her work a little too often.
But when Carter does descend into whimsy, it's never for long. She dealt in the concrete and was a wonderful nonfiction writer. Her aphoristic study of the marquis de Sade, "The Sadeian Woman" (Penguin: out of print), in some ways a companion piece to "The Bloody Chamber," was also published in 1979. "Sade remains a monstrous and daunting cultural edifice; yet I would like to think that he put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women," she writes. Small wonder that some attacked her, though she countered: "I really can't see what's wrong with finding out about what the great male fantasies about women are."
Her journalism, collected in "Shaking a Leg" (Penguin: out of print), is similarly forthright. Viewing a portrait of Elizabeth I, Carter sees a woman "stiff as an ironing board and stuck with pearls like lice." She wonders why Simone de Beauvoir "wasted time sucking up to boring old Jean-Paul Sartre." On Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," she muses on "his ears rampant, as if ears were secondary sexual characteristics."
Readers new to her work might want to start with "The Bloody Chamber" or "Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories" (Penguin: 480 pp., $17 paper), or the Shakespearean romp that is "Wise Children," or that haunting early novel, "The Magic Toyshop." Great wonders await. Carter had a poet's flair for language combined with irreverent humor and a wild sensuality; she enchants.
Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly.
THE SHORT LIST: ALSO NEW IN PAPERBACK
"The Kreutzer Sonata" by Leo Tolstoy (Penguin)
This tale of sexual frustration leading to murder was banned by the U.S. Post Office in 1890 and caused President Theodore Roosevelt to call its author "a sexual and moral pervert." Tolstoy suggested that the most poignant tragedies of all are tragedies of the bedroom. Better at taking us inside the skin of his characters than maybe any writer ever has been, he does this in a way that has piercing force, even when, through the voice of a half-mad narrator, he appears to be advocating abstinence. "The Kreutzer Sonata" is one of a series called "Great Loves," neat little books from Penguin that are beautifully designed and so small they fit in the palm of your hand. Virgil, Casanova, Stendhal, Thomas Hardy, Turgenev and Kierkegaard are among the other writers featured: We get stories of first love, doomed love, advice on love, love analyzed, love turned into aphorism and, in Tolstoy's case, love considered as disputatious moral argument.
"Bambi vs. Godzilla" by David Mamet (Vintage)