Angela Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders

December 12th, 2012 § 0 comments

America begins and ends in cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet into the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross. America, with her torso of a woman at the time of this story, a woman with an hour-glass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two, and we put a belt of water there. America, with your child- bearing hips and your crotch of jungle, your swelling bosom of a nursing mother and your cold head, your cold head.

American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, Angela Carter’s last short story collection published posthumously after her death from lung cancer in 1992, is a collection of two halves. The first half illustrates her continuing interest in America and its post-colonial history as demonstrated in The Passion of New Eve and Our Lady of the Massacre. In the second half she returns to Europe to once again discuss fairy tales as well as Prague, Pantomime and the representation of Mary Magdalene in art throughout the centuries. Between the two halves lies The Ghost Ship, an interesting story about New World Puritanical rejection of Old World paganism in regards to the origin of Christmas, which serves rather well as a natural bridging point. As a whole, the collection is an interesting look at the relationship between the Old World and the New, in those things carried over and the difference in the scale of history of the two.

For the first story in the collection, Lizzie’s Tiger, Carter returns to where she ended in the last, Lizzie Borden. This time however Lizzie is just a young child, her mother recently dead, living with her miserly father who dotes on her, as he does in The Fall River Axe Murders. After discovering a poster announcing that a circus is coming to town, she asks her father to take her but he, being the man that he is, refuses, and so she sneaks off alone as she wants to see the tiger. Various misadventures occur between her leaving the house and seeing the tiger, involving stealing cider and inadvertently tossing off a man who turns out to be the tiger tamer, but the interesting thing for me was the tiger act. The tiger tamer is the epitome of masculinity and he is even still visibly erect during the act; he enforces his will on the tiger through sheer force, but it rebels and attacks him when it has the chance. Lizzie on the other hand is pure feminine innocence and the tiger comes and subjugates itself before her because of the power of Lizzie’s love, willingly in contrast to that of the tamer. We are left to wonder what sort of influence this incident had of the behaviour of the Lizzie Borden of the other story, as the image of an animal trapped in a cage no doubt draws parallels to her own confinement in that narrow house.

The second story, John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, once again highlights Carter’s skill as a master stylist by re-imaging the Jacobean playwright Ford’s tragedy in the style of the westerns of the celebrated American director of the same name. Parma becomes the prairie and Giovanna and Annabella becomes Johnny and Annie-Belle respectively. Isolated and left with a distant father after the death of their mother, they become close and eventually begin an incestuous relationship, both swearing love or death.  These things never end well though and when Annie-Belle finds she is pregnant she marries the minister’s son who has been trying to court her in order to hide their illicit relationship. It is too late though as she begins to show before it could possibly be her husband’s, and she is abused by her mother-in-law physically and verbally, although her husband still wants to be with her. They plan to leave by the train and start a new life somewhere else where they will raise the baby, but Johnny is jealous and remembers his oath. He rides out to the train station and shoots them both dead before taking his own life. Carter takes a traditionally European tragedy and Americanizes it in order to create a new tragedy of the West, similar to the way in which Shakespeare adapted the Greeks for Elizabethan society, by incorporating the shift in cultural paradigms. To do this she uses a number of different interesting techniques, cutting between the new narrative, sections of the original play and the kind of music and camera shot directions you would find in a movie script.

Gun for the Devil, one of my favourite Carter stories, is another Old World vengeance story of the West. Set in a small town run by a bandit chief and his equally wicked wife, it revolves around the Count, a man of presumed Old World nobility with a shadowy past. Now retired having hung up his rifle, he spends most of his time at the bar in the town’s brothel as he is the consort of the brothel’s madam, Roxanna. The bandit chief has big plans to wed his young daughter, Teresa, to the son of another bandit chief that is much wealthier and thus improve his own standing. His plans are upset by the arrival of another citizen of the Old World, a young talented pianist who arrives in town and takes the vacant job of playing piano in the brothel. He has come to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the bandits and plans to do so by seducing the daughter and thus ruining the wedding. He becomes friends with the Count, who appreciates his skill as a pianist and his knowledge of Old World compositions, while manoeuvring into a position to seduce Teresa as her piano teacher. He takes the girl’s virginity in the church and begs his friend the Count to help him enact his vengeance, believing the tales that the Count’s uncanny accuracy comes for an occult source. The Count agrees to help him, but warns him that the seventh bullet is for the devil; the first six shots will hit anything that he aims for, but the devil will direct that seventh where he likes. Late at night, the pair summon up the spirits to make the deal, but this being a New World they summon up this world’s Gods, those of the Aztec and the Toltec. Outside a Native American hands him a rifle “on account”, but summoning up the spirits has taken the last of the Count’s strength and he realises that he is dying. On the day of the wedding, the pianist shoots dead the bride’s mother and father, the groom and fires off another three shots, leaving only the devil’s seventh bullet. Teresa flees towards the brothel and he runs after her trying to stop her as he doesn’t want to hurt her. The Count takes his gun from the wall, fearing the pianist will accidently shoot Teresa or Roxanna and stands at the door, taking aim. The tragedy unfolds as the younger man tries to shoot the Count to save his own life, the bullet hitting Teresa and killing her. The coda sees the pianist travel to a ghost town destroyed by smallpox where he meets the Native American again, who tells him they have business to conclude.

Fourth in the collection is The Merchants of Shadow, a story about a Londoner who has come to California to do research for his thesis on a legendary director, Hank Mann. The trail leads him to the house of the director’s ex-wife that he discovered as an actress and who went on to be a huge Hollywood star after his death. When he meets with her, it is quite surreal and purposely draws parallels to Billy Wilder’s seminal film noir, Sunset Boulevard. The problem I have with this story though is that after reading The Passion of New Eve recently it is quite predictable as it shares a great deal of common points and themes with the novel, down to the glass house and the way in which Carter plays with gender roles with the actress. It isn’t by any means a bad story, I just felt reading it that it retreads old ground without really adding anything to what Carter was saying in The Passion of New Eve and as a result it is my least favourite story in the collection.

As mentioned earlier, The Ghost Ship bridges the two halves, and is about three ships that visit Boston Bay, to bring the older pagan practices associated with Christmas to the New World, all rejected in turn by the Puritans who want none of the Old World. The three ships each carry an integral part of Christmas revelries adapted from the Winters Solstice. It is interesting as Carter details the various folklore and myths and the place they overlap, the relevance of the original story and the way that each has been perverted.  The Puritans will have none of it though, as they believe that each day should be special and find the idea of celebrating one in such an outlandish way as people celebrate Christmas as being abhorrent. Each ship that they turn away sinks in the bay, taking both its cargo and its crew with it. When the last sinks however, the Lord of Misrule, Father Christmas’ darker ancestor, casts a Christmas pud onto the beach where it is found by children, perhaps symbolising the way in which the Puritans decedents will embrace Christmas.

Pantoland is interesting because it is a very English story, as pantomime is essentially a very English tradition. As a child I attended one a year and I even participated in a few myself over the years. This does lead me to wonder if it would be difficult for people who were not English or did not have any knowledge of panto. If you don’t know what pantomime is, it is a form of theatre performance that mixes fairy tale with slapstick comedy, audience participation, mild sexual innuendo and song and dance. In Pantoland Carter examines the roles of certain characters in pantomime, such as the Widow Twankey type (played by a man), the Puss in boots type and the main boy type (played by a girl), what they represent and how they relate to gender roles. She explores the idea of pantomime as a fertility festival as when they main boy wins the heart of the girl that he loves, it is a four breasted affair, not unlike a fertility goddess. Carter ends the piece by lamenting the loss of tradition in favour of television.

Carter returns to fairy tales for the next story, Ashputtle or the Mother’s Ghost, examining three different variations of the Cinderella myth. The first is a traditional version of the Brothers Grimm tale in which she questions the absence of the father and why he allows the stepmother to treat his daughter the way that she does. When all that she asks her father for as a gift is the last branch that hits him on the way back from his trip, it seems odd that he does not realize that his daughter thinks that he cares so little for her. Carter also notes that Ashputtle does not seem to have a name before she is given the cruel nickname by her stepmother and any name she may have had is eradicated by this new one. The stepmother sees her own daughters as a means of increasing her standing in life and is willing to mutilate both of them in order to make the shoe fit. Through the love of her mother’s spirit, Ashputtle is able to win the heart of the prince and outsmart her wicked stepmother and this is a theme which is continued through the other two shorter variations.

Alice in Prague, dedicated to Czech surrealist artists and filmmaker, Jan Svankmajer, is an interesting story that mixes Prague, the place of his birth and his home, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the subject of his debut film. It is a surreal tale about Elizabethan occultist John Dee and Edward Kelley, who are in Prague working for the future Roman Emperor, the Archduke Rudolph. It is a strange story even by Carter’s usual standards, as the archduke has some kind of exotic fruit fetish and has his staff create a homunculus out of fruit and a wire frame for intercourse. In the curious room, while Kelley, a con-man, tries to divine fake messages from angels for Dee to translate, Alice appears in her tiny form. Kelley cannot believe it as he is a rational man, and also Alice speaks only in riddles that require logical answers (as Carter says she is from the world of nonsense). It is an interesting story that highlights the contradictions between rationalism and occultism, although I’m sure I have no idea what it all means.

The final story in the collection is Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene, in which Carter examines the portrayal of the Mary Magdalene through art. She focuses mostly on the depiction of Mary in the work of the French painter Georges de La Tour and his use of candlelight to create chiaroscuro.  Throughout the story Carter examines cultural and artistic attitudes towards religion, sexuality, penitence and femininity in regards to the Mary Magdalene. Unlike the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene is not a mother and perhaps the most interesting observation that carter makes is that there seems to be no specific word in the English language to describe an adult sexually mature female who is childless that is not related to her somehow using her sexuality as a profession. The motif throughout seems to be the idea of the candle flame as strength that all women can relate to.

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dreams on July 18th, 2010.

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