“Wolf-Alice” — Angela Carter

Books, Literature, Writers

“Wolf-Alice” by Angela Carter

Could this ragged girl with brindled lugs have spoken like we do she would have called herself a wolf, but she cannot speak, although she howls because she is lonely–yet’ howl’ is not the right word for it, since she is young enough to make the noise that pups do, bubbling, delicious, like that of a panful of fat on the fire. Sometimes the sharp ears of her foster kindred hear her across the irreparable gulf of absence; they answer her from faraway pine forest and the bald mountain rim. Their counterpoint crosses and criss-crosses the night sky; they are trying to talk to her but they cannot do so because she does not understand their language even if she knows how to use it for she is not a wolf herself, although suckled by wolves.

Her panting tongue hangs out; her red lips are thick and fresh. Her legs are long, lean and muscular. Her elbows, hands and knees are thickly callused because she always runs on all fours. She never walks; she trots or gallops. Her pace is not our pace.

Two-legs looks, four-legs sniffs. Her long nose is always a-quiver, sifting every scent it meets. With this useful tool, she lengthily investigates everything she glimpses. She can net so much more of the world than we can through the fine, hairy, sensitive filters of her nostrils that her poor eyesight does not trouble her. Her nose is sharper by night than’ our eyes are by day so it is the night she prefers, when the cool reflected light of the moon does not make her eyes smart and draws out the various fragrances from the woodland where she wanders when she can. But the wolves keep well away from the peasants’ shotguns, now, and she will no longer find them there.

Wide shoulders, long arms and she sleeps succinctly curled into a ball as if she were cradling her spine in her tail. Nothing about her is human except that she is not a wolf; it is as if the fur she thought she wore had melted into her skin and become part of it, although it does not exist. Like the wild beasts, she lives without a future. She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair.

When they found her in the wolf’s den beside the bullet-riddled corpse of her foster mother, she was no more than a little brown scrap so snarled in her own brown hair they did not, at first, think she was a child but a cub; she snapped at her would-be saviours with her spiky canines until they tied her up by force. She spent her first days amongst us crouched stockstill, staring at the whitewashed wall of her cell in the convent to which they took her. The nuns poured water over her, poked her with sticks to rouse her. Then she might snatch bread from their hands and race with it into a corner to mumble it with her back towards them; it was a great day among the novices when she learned to sit up on her hind legs and beg for a crust.

They found that, if she were treated with a little kindness, she was not intractable. She learned to recognize her own dish; then, to drink from a cup. They found that she could quite easily be taught a few, simple tricks but she did not feel the cold and it took a long time to wheedle a shift over her head to cover up her bold nakedness. Yet she always seemed wild, impatient of restraint, capricious in temper; when the Mother Superior tried to teach her to give thanks for her recovery from the wolves, she arched her back, pawed the floor, retreated to a far corner of the chapel, crouched, trembled, urinated, defecated–reverted entirely, it would seem, to her natural state. Therefore, without a qualm, this nine days’ wonder and continuing embarrassment of a child was delivered over to the bereft and unsanctified household of the Duke.

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“The Snow Child” — Angela Carter

Books, Literature, Writers

“The Snow Child” by Angela Carter

Midwinter — invincible, immaculate. The Count and his wife go riding, he on a grey mare and she on a black one, she wrapped in the glittering pelts of black foxes; and she wore high, black, shining boots with scarlet heels, and spurs. Fresh snow fell on snow already fallen; when it ceased, the whole world was white. “I wish I had a girl as white as snow,” says the Count. They ride on. They come to a hole in the snow; this hole is filled with blood. He says: “I wish I had a girl as red as blood.” So they ride on again; here is a raven, perched on a bare bough. “I wish I had a girl as black as that bird’s feathers.”

As soon as he completed her description, there she stood, beside the road, white skin, red mouth, black hair and stark naked; she was the child of his desire and the Countess hated her. The Count lifted her up and sat her in front of him on his saddle but the Countess had only one thought:how shall I be rid of her?

The Countess dropped her glove in the snow and told the girl to get down to look for it; she meant to gallop off and leave her there but the Count said: “I’ll buy you new gloves.” At that, the furs sprang off the Countess’s shoulders and twined round the naked girl. Then the Countess threw her diamond brooch through the ice of a frozen pond: “Dive in and fetch it for me,” she said; she thought the girl would drown. But the Count said: “Is she a fish to swim in such cold weather?” Then her boots leapt off the Countess’s feet and on to the girl’s legs. Now the Countess was bare as a bone and the girl furred and booted; the Count felt sorry for his wife. They came to a bush of roses, all in flower. “Pick me one,” said the Countess to the girl. “I can’t deny you that,” said the Count.

So the girl picks a rose; pricks her finger on the thorn; bleeds; screams; falls.

Weeping, the Count got off his horse, unfastened his breeches and thrust his virile member into the dead girl. The Countess reined in her stamping mare and watched him narrowly; he was soon finished.

Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a blood stain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush. Now the Countess had all her clothes on again. With her long hand, she stroked her furs. The Count picked up the rose, bowed and handed it to his wife; when she touched it, she dropped it. “It bites!” she said.

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge Is an Elegant Collection of Creepy Intertextual Tales

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

revenge

In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

Read “The Werewolf,” A Short Fable by Angela Carter

Books, Literature, Writers
“The Werewolf,” a short story by Angela Carter (collected in The Bloody Chamber and Burning Your Boats):

It is a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts.Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life. Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within. There will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table. Harsh, brief, poor lives.To these upland woodsmen, the Devil is as reals as you or I. More so; they have not seen us nor even know that we exist, but the Devil they glimpse often in the graveyards, those bleak and touching townships of the dead where the graves are marked with portraits of the deceased in the naif style and there are no flowers to put in front of them, no flowers grow there, so they put out small votive offerings, little loaves, sometimes a cake that the bears come lumbering from the margins of the forests to snatch away. At midnight, especially on Walpurgisnacht, the Devil holds picnics in the graveyards and invites the witches; then they dig up fresh corpses, and eat them. Anyone will tell you that.Wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out the vampires. A blue-eyed child born feet first on the night of St. John’s Eve will have second sight. When they discover a witch – some old woman whose cheeses ripen when her neighbours’ do not, another old woman whose black cat, oh, sinister! follows her about all the time, they strip the crone, search for her marks, for the supernumerary nipple her familiar sucks. They soon find it. Then they stone her to death.

Winter and cold weather.

Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked for her on the hearthstone and a little pot of butter.

The good child does as her mother bids – five miles’ trudge through the forest; do not leave the path because of the bears, the wild boar, the starving wolves. Here, take your father’s hunting knife; you know how to use it.

The child had a scabbby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife, and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem. It went lolloping off disconsolately between the trees as well as it could on three legs, leaving a trail of blood behind it. The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron, wrapped up the wolf’s paw in the cloth in which her mother had packed the oatcakes and went on towards her grandmother’s house. Soon it came on to snow so thickly that the path and any footsteps, track or spoor that might have been upon it were obscured.

She found her grandmother was so sick she had taken to her bed and fallen into a fretful sleep, moaning and shaking so that the child guessed she had a fever. She felt the forehead, it burned. She shook out the cloth from her basket, to use it to make the old woman a cold compress, and the wolf’s paw fell to the floor.

But it was no longer a wolf’s paw. It was a hand, chopped off at the wrist, a hand toughened with work and freckled with old age. There was a wedding ring on the third finger and a wart in the index finger. By the wart, she knew it for her grandmother’s hand.

She pulled back the sheet but the old woman woke up, at that, and began to struggle, squawking and shrieking like a thing possessed. But the child was strong, and armed with her father’s hunting knife; she managed to hold her grandmother down long enough to see the cause of her fever. There was a bloody stump where her right hand should have been, festering already.

The child crossed herself and cried out so loud the neighbours heard her and come rushing in. They know the wart on the hand at once for a witch’s nipple; they drove the old woman, in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcass as far as the edge of the forest, and pelted her with stones until she fell dead.

Now the child lived in her grandmother’s house; she prospered.

Fifty Sexy Literary Alternatives to Fifty Shades of Grey

Art, Books, Literature, Writers

I hate to be anti-book—any book, really, even awful ones—but Fifty Shades of Grey barely qualifies as a book, and it’s utterly dreadful to think that a Twilight knockoff that started as Twilight fanfiction (!) is now sold in bulk across the world when there are so many good books out there—salacious, sexy, erotic books at that. But, like I said, I hate to knock on something when it’s more productive to offer an alternative. So: a list.

This list is subjective, occasionally weird, and hardly complete (feel free to point out what I’ve left off). I’ve only included works that I’ve read in part or in whole. I’m clearly aware that certain stuff like D.H. Lawrence, much of Updike, and infamous classics like Walter’s My Secret Life are not on here—if it’s not on here, I haven’t read any of it. I vouch for everything else.

  1. Song of Songs (Old Testament)
  2. Juliette, Marquis de Sade
  3. Justine, Marquis de Sade
  4. The 120 Days of Sodom, Marquis de Sade
  5. The Pearl, William Lazenby (ed.)
  6. The Story of O, Pauline Réage
  7. Delta of Venus,  Anaïs Nin
  8. Little Birds, Anaïs Nin
  9. Lost Girls, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
  10. The Soft Machine, William Burroughs
  11. Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille
  12. The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway
  13. Ada, or Ador, Vladimir Nabokov
  14. Fanny Hill, John Cleland
  15. Poems of Sappho
  16. Crash, J.G. Ballard
  17. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  18. House of Holes, Nicolson Baker
  19. Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker
  20. Satyricon, Petronius Arbiter
  21. “Penelope”/Molly’s monologue from Ulysses, James Joyce
  22. “Nausicaa” from Ulysses, James Joyce
  23. “Circe” from Ulysses, James Joyce
  24. Boccaccio’s Decameron
  25. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  26. Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller
  27. Women, Charles Bukowski
  28. Poems of Catullus
  29. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
  30. Kama Sutra
  31. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
  32. The Ways, Caracci and Aretino
  33. Vox, Nicholson Baker
  34. Ars Amatoria, Ovid
  35. A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews
  36. Casanova’s letters and memoirs 
  37. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
  38. Snow White, Donald Barthelme
  39. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  40. Briar Rose, Robert Coover
  41. Frisk, Dennis Cooper
  42. Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
  43. Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa
  44. “Wild nights! Wild nights!”, Emily Dickinson
  45. Various selections of Robert Crumb
  46. Dream Story, Arthur Schnitzler
  47. A few choice passages from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
  48. Venus in Furs,  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
  49. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
  50. “I started Early – Took my Dog -”, Emily Dickinson

Books Acquired, 6.02.2012 (Comix + Angela Carter)

Art, Books, Comics, Literature, Writers

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Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids is a collection of comix (and other oddities) for kids, edited by Art Spiegelman and his wife artist/publisher Françoise Mouly. I saw at random and picked it up for my daughter, whose birthday was the next day. She loves, loves, loves this book, spending hours poring over all its weird images and picture games. Cover is by the great Charles Burns; there are also comics by Spiegelman, the late great Maurice Sendak—

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—a weird search picture by Martin Handford (here’s a detail)—-

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—and comics by other notables like David Sedaris, Paul Auster, Claude Ponti, Jules Feiffer, and Kim Deitch. The endpapers — “Strange Cartoon Lessons” are by Kaz:

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I also picked up Burning Your Boats, which collects all of Angela Carter’s short stories:

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I was looking for her dystopian novel The Passion of New Eve, but no go. Of course, I couldn’t pass up this volume, which comprises four collections, as well as early and uncollected stuff.

Read “The Werewolf,” A Short Fable by Angela Carter

Literature, Writers
“The Werewolf,” a short story by Angela Carter (collected in The Bloody Chamber and Burning Your Boats):

It is a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts.Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life. Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within. There will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table. Harsh, brief, poor lives.To these upland woodsmen, the Devil is as reals as you or I. More so; they have not seen us nor even know that we exist, but the Devil they glimpse often in the graveyards, those bleak and touching townships of the dead where the graves are marked with portraits of the deceased in the naif style and there are no flowers to put in front of them, no flowers grow there, so they put out small votive offerings, little loaves, sometimes a cake that the bears come lumbering from the margins of the forests to snatch away. At midnight, especially on Walpurgisnacht, the Devil holds picnics in the graveyards and invites the witches; then they dig up fresh corpses, and eat them. Anyone will tell you that.Wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out the vampires. A blue-eyed child born feet first on the night of St. John’s Eve will have second sight. When they discover a witch – some old woman whose cheeses ripen when her neighbours’ do not, another old woman whose black cat, oh, sinister! follows her about all the time, they strip the crone, search for her marks, for the supernumerary nipple her familiar sucks. They soon find it. Then they stone her to death.

Winter and cold weather.

Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked for her on the hearthstone and a little pot of butter.

The good child does as her mother bids – five miles’ trudge through the forest; do not leave the path because of the bears, the wild boar, the starving wolves. Here, take your father’s hunting knife; you know how to use it.

The child had a scabbby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife, and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem. It went lolloping off disconsolately between the trees as well as it could on three legs, leaving a trail of blood behind it. The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron, wrapped up the wolf’s paw in the cloth in which her mother had packed the oatcakes and went on towards her grandmother’s house. Soon it came on to snow so thickly that the path and any footsteps, track or spoor that might have been upon it were obscured.

She found her grandmother was so sick she had taken to her bed and fallen into a fretful sleep, moaning and shaking so that the child guessed she had a fever. She felt the forehead, it burned. She shook out the cloth from her basket, to use it to make the old woman a cold compress, and the wolf’s paw fell to the floor.

But it was no longer a wolf’s paw. It was a hand, chopped off at the wrist, a hand toughened with work and freckled with old age. There was a wedding ring on the third finger and a wart in the index finger. By the wart, she knew it for her grandmother’s hand.

She pulled back the sheet but the old woman woke up, at that, and began to struggle, squawking and shrieking like a thing possessed. But the child was strong, and armed with her father’s hunting knife; she managed to hold her grandmother down long enough to see the cause of her fever. There was a bloody stump where her right hand should have been, festering already.

The child crossed herself and cried out so loud the neighbours heard her and come rushing in. They know the wart on the hand at once for a witch’s nipple; they drove the old woman, in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcass as far as the edge of the forest, and pelted her with stones until she fell dead.

Now the child lived in her grandmother’s house; she prospered.