The Count’s Tale — Angela Carter

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‘I have devoted my life to the humiliation and exaltation of the flesh. I am an artist; my material is the flesh; my medium is destruction; and my inspiration is nature.’

Now the valet moved painfully about, gathering together the dishes, and it grew light enough to make out the Count’s shape as he lolled against the desecrated altar, his head bare. His hair, a coarse and uniform grey, hung down to his shoulders.

‘I am impregnable because I always exist in a state of dreadful tension. My crises render me utterly bestial and in that state I am infinitely superior to man, as the tiger, who preys on man if he has any sense, is superior. My anguish is the price of my exaltation.’

I began to wonder if the Count was one of the Doctor’s agents and then I thought, no! This man might be the Doctor himself, under an assumed identity! The suspicion made me quiver.

I can hardly describe to you the man’s appalling, cerebral lucidity. He was like a corpse animated only by a demonic intellectual will. When he had rested a little, we climbed back into the carriage and rolled off across the green, spacious countryside, under a vertiginous arc of sky which began to clear and sparkle. The mountains dwindled behind us. The dew glittered in the budding hedgerows. A lark rose, singing. It was a beautiful morning in early spring.

‘The universe itself is not a sufficiently capacious stage on which to mount the grand opera of my passions. From the cradle, I have been a blasphemous libertine, a blood-thirsty debauchee. I travel the world only to discover hitherto unknown methods of treating flesh. When I first left my native Lithuania, I went at once to China where I apprenticed myself to the Imperial executioner and learned by heart a twelve-tone scale of tortures as picturesque as they are vile. When my studies were complete, I tied my tutor to the trunk of a blossoming apricot tree so the rosy petals showered down upon his increasing mutilations as, with incredible delicacy and a very sharp knife, I carved out little oysters of his living flesh – the torture known as the “slicing”, the dreaded ling ch’ih. What a terrible sight he was to behold! The apricot tree wept tears of perfumed flowers over him; that was Nature’s pity, decorative but unhelpful.

‘Subsequently I visited the rest of Asia, where, among other infamies too numerous to mention, I amputated the scarcely perceptible breasts of all the occupants of a geisha house in the exquisitely bell-haunted city of Kyoto. Then I left my crest stamped in wax plugs in all the capacious anuses of the royal eunuchs of the court of Siam. Subsequently I visited Europe where, as a reward for my villainies, I was condemned to burn at the stake in Spain, to hang by the neck in England and to break upon the wheel in a singularly inhospitable France, where, sentenced to death in absentia by the judiciary of Provence, my body was executed in effigy in the town square of Aix.

‘I fled to North America, where I knew my barbarities would pass unnoticed, and in Quebec I hired my valet, Lafleur, whose interesting nose has quite caved in under the weight of a hereditary syphilis. Young as he is, his face has already been totally obliterated by the ghastly residue of past pleasures he never tasted personally. Together we travelled the various states. I gave certain evidence in the trials at Salem, Mass., which condemned eighteen perfectly innocent persons to death by pressing. I instigated a rebellion among the slaves on a plantation in Alabama which led to bloody and wholesale retribution; they were all tied to bales of cotton and ignited by ululating Klansmen. Then, in a perfumed bordello in New Orleans, I strangled with my legs a mulatto whore just as she coaxed the incense from my member with a mouth the shape, colour and texture of an overripe plum.

But after that, I became the object of the vengeance of her enraged pimp, a black of more than superhuman inhumanity, in whom I sense a twin. And that is why I must not let him catch up with me for I know too well what he would do to me if he did so. So Lafleur and I drove over the neck of the continent, through deserts that delighted me since they were far too atrociously barren to sustain life, through jungles altogether envenomed with hatred for the brown maggots of men who dare to try to live in that green, festering meat; and then across those rearing mountains that now lie behind us than which, even in the steppes of Central Asia, I have seen nothing more arid or inimical. Refreshed, we now travel towards the coast for I feel stirring within me a strange desire to return to the peaks where I was born and perhaps I shall try to die there. Unless, that is, the vengeful pimp ensnares me first. Which is a horror beyond thought.’

From Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

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“Exhibit one: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE” (Angela Carter)

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Exhibit One: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

The legs of a woman, raised and open as if ready to admit a lover, formed a curvilinear triumphal arch. The feet were decorated with spike-heeled, black leather pumps. This anatomical section, composed of pinkish wax dimpled at the knee, did not admit the possibility of the existence of a torso. A bristling pubic growth rose to form a kind of coat of arms above the circular proscenium it contained at either side but, although the hairs had been inserted one by one in order to achieve the maximal degree of verisimilitude, the overall effect was one of stunning artifice. The dark red and purple crenellations surrounding the vagina acted as a frame for a perfectly round hole through which the viewer glimpsed the moist, luxuriant landscape of the interior.

Here endlessly receded before one’s eyes a miniature but irresistible vista of semi-tropical forest where amazing fruits hung on the trees, while from the dappled and variegated chalices of enormous flowers the size of millstones, perfumes of such extraordinary potency that they had become visible to the eye exuded as soft, purple dew. Small, brilliant birds trilled silently on the branches; animals of exquisite shapes and colours, among them unicorns, giraffes and herbivorous lions, cropped up buttercups and daisies from the impossibly green grass; butterflies, dragonflies and innumerable jewelled insects fluttered, darted or scurried among the verdure so all was in constant movement and besides the very vegetation was continually transforming itself. As I watched, the pent-up force of the sweet juice within it burst open a persimmon and the split skin let out a flight of orange tawny singing birds. An elongated bud on the point of opening must have changed its mind for it turned into a strawberry instead of a waterlily. A fish sprang out of the river, became a white rabbit and bounded away.

It seemed that winter and rough winds would never touch these bright, oblivious regions or ripple the surface of the lucid river which wound a tranquil course down the central valley. The eye of the beholder followed the course of this river upwards towards the source, and so it saw, for the first time, after some moments of delighted looking, the misty battlements of a castle. The longer one looked at the dim outlines of this castle, the more sinister it grew, as though its granite viscera housed as many torture chambers as the Château of Silling.

From Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.