October recommendation: Fireworks, Angela Carter’s collection of sadomasochistic erotica

It’s October, and maybe you want some light heavy reading, something titillating but deep, sharp, maybe a little gross at times, always unnerving, right?

How about reading Angela Carter’s 1974 collection Fireworks?

Subtitled Nine Profane Pieces, the collection features nine profane pieces. Actually, I don’t think profane is the right adjective (although I’d always cede to Carter’s judgment in matters of diction). Many, no, most, of these stories approach the spiritual—albeit in a roundabout, okay, profane, manner. In the phallically-titled “Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest,” for example, Carter reimagines Adam and Eve in a new garden through a lens that ironizes both Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage as well as the European colonial project in general. There’s also some mild incest in the tale, to boot—so, okay, sure, profane.

The noun in Carter’s subtitle, pieces, is wholly accurate: the selections in Fireworks have a unified tone, but are disparate in form. There are fabulous thrillers here (“The Loves of Lady Purple,” the story of a puppet prostitute who sucks the life out of her ventriloquist master), morality tales (“Master,” a riff on the Great White Hunter with a figurative middle finger pointed in the general direction of Defoe’s Crusoe), and reminiscences that approach so-called autofiction (“A Souvenir of Japan” and “The Smile of Winter,” mementos of the years Carter lived in Japan). “Flesh and the Mirror” expands on Carter’s years in Japan, but swerves into Borgesian territory; “Reflections” goes straight through the Borgesian mirror into Burroughs world (William S., with just a touch of Edgar R.).

The strongest piece in the collection, at least in my estimation, is “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” which reads like a travelogue into incestuous abjection. “Here we are, high in the uplands,” our detached narrator begins, before offering up an anthropological catalog of life in that upland. The barest ghost of a plot clutches onto “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” and the piece is all the stronger for it. Instead, we get a cold, ugly study in cruelty and horror.

Readers new to Carter might prefer to start with her seminal 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, a book whose inverted fairy tales eviscerate the adjective I used in the previous clause, that adjective seminalThe Bloody Chamber is great! (Check out “Wolf-Alice” for a taste.) (And while I’m hanging out in parentheses, I’ll point out that Burning Your Boats collects pretty much all of Carter’s short fiction.) But back to Fireworks—if the pieces here are not as refined and unified as the anti-fairy tales that comprise Carter’s more-celebrated collection The Bloody Chamber, they are all the more fascinating as studies in sadomasochism, alienation, and the emerging of a new literary consciousness. Great stuff.

Fireworks — Konstantin Somov

Board of Demented Associations (Fireworks) — Salvador Dali

Fireworks — Konstantin Somov

“Fireworks” — Animal Collective

Fireworks — M.C. Escher

Happy Hogmanay

From the OED:


Sc. and north. Eng. ({sm}h{rfa}gm{schwa}{sm}ne{shti})
Forms: 7 hogmynae, 8 hagmane, -menai, 8-9 hagmena, -menay, (hagman heigh), hogmanay, (9 hogmena, -menay, -maney, hanganay). [Of obscure history, noted only from 17th c. App. of French origin: see note below.]
The name given in Scotland (and some parts of the north of England) to the last day of the year, also called ‘Cake-day’; the gift of an oatmeal cake, or the like, which children expect, and in some parts systematically solicit, on that day; the word shouted by children calling at friends’ houses and soliciting this customary gift.
c1680 [see b]. 1693 Scotch Presbyt. Eloq. (1738) 120 It is ordinary among some Plebeians in the South of Scotland, to go about from Door to Door upon New-Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane. 1790 Gentl. Mag. LX. I. 499/1 Concerning the origin of the expression ‘Hagman Heigh’. Ibid., In..Scotland, and in the North of England, till very lately, it was customary for every body to make and receive presents amongst their friends on the eve of the new year, which present was called an Hagmenay. Ibid. II. 616/2 On the last night of the old year (peculiarly called Hagmenai). 1792 Caledonian Mercury 2 Jan. (Jam.), The cry of Hogmanay Trololay is of usage immemorial in this country. 1805 J. NICOL Poems I. 27 (Jam.) The cottar weanies, glad an’ gay..Sing at the doors for hogmanay. 1825 BROCKETT s.v. Hagmena, The poor children in Newcastle, in expectation of their hogmena, go about from house to house knocking at the doors, singing their carols, and [saying] ‘Please will you give us wor hogmena’. 1826-41 R. CHAMBERS Pop. Rhymes Scot. (1858) 295 The children on coming to the door, cry ‘Hogmanay!’ which is in itself a sufficient announcement of their demands. Ibid. 296 Cries appropriate to the morning of Hogmanay..‘Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers, And dinna think that we are beggars; For we are bairns come out to play, Get up and gie’s our hogmanay.’ 1827 HONE Table-Bk. I. 7 The Hagman Heigh is an old custom observed in Yorkshire on new year’s eve. 1830 SCOTT Jrnl. II. 360 We spent our Hogmanay pleasantly enough. 1884 St. James’s Gaz. 27 Dec. 6/1 Seasonable mummery..was reserved for Hogmanay. 1890 Scott. Antiq. June 40 This is the sort of thing they used to sing as their ‘Hagmena Song’ in Yorkshire. 1893 HESLOP Northumb. Gloss. s.v., In North Northumberland the hogmanay is a small cake given to children on Old Year’s Day; or the spice bread and cheese, with liquor, given away on the same day. 1897 E. W. B. NICHOLSON Golspie 100-108.

b. attrib. and Comb., as hogmanay cake, day, night, concert, song, etc.

c1680 in Law Mem. 191 note [Protest of the Gibbites] They solemnly renounce..Pasch-Sunday, Hallow-even, Hogmynae-night, Valentine’s even [etc.]. 1826-41 R. CHAMBERS Pop. Rhymes Scot. (1858) 295 A particular individual..has frequently resolved two bolls of [oat]meal into hogmanay cakes. 1864 BURTON Scot Abr. I. v. 297 The eve that ushers in the new year is called in Scotland Hogmanay Night. 1897 Westm. Gaz. 21 Dec. 6/3 On New Year’s Eve there is to be a grand Hogmanay concert for the special benefit of patriotic Scots in London.”
Watch the fireworks: