Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Angela Carter, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (1993)

Here's a posthumously-published (alas) collection of short stories, some of them focusing on American mythologies, and some European. We start rather underwhelmingly, I thought, with "Lizzie's Tiger." Lizzie, a young girl living in Antebellum Massachusetts, goes to a seedy circus with the goal of seeing a promised tiger. And that is about it. At the last moment, it is revealed, OMG, it's Lizzie BORDEN! Again! Please free-associate about what all this might say about her later axe murders. The thing is, though, from biographical details gleaned from that OTHER Lizzie Borden story, I knew who she was meant to be right from the beginning, and so I was unmoved by this revelation and everything leading up to it; maybe my reaction would've been different if I hadn't, but I dunno. I feel that a story turning on a last-minute revelation like that is rarely going to be particularly great.

But then! We get "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore," which answers the burning question: what if John Ford's 1630-ish revenge tragedy was actually a film by John Ford, director of Stagecoach, The Searchers, and many other Westerns? As you may know, "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" was controversial because it revolves around an incestuous relationship between siblings; in Carter's rendering, Giovanni and Annabella of the original become Johnny and Annie-Belle, living with their father somewhere in the Great Plains. The story is interspersed with bits from the putative screenplay, as well as snippets of dialogue from the original play. It's truly a virtuoso performance by Carter, and yet, I can't help but feel a little ambivalent about it. In part, what she wants to do is to use the story to create parallels between the Old World and New...but, really, there are no meaningful parallels between the Johns Ford, other than the random coincidence of their names matching (and it's not even an uncommon name--wikipedia's disambiguation page lists dozens of 'em). I mean, I admire the hell out of the audacity of the conception--and even the execution! (in which case you have to wonder what I'm even complaining about), but it's still pretty arbitrary. Also, if we're making a comparison here between different sensibilities, I have to note that the American version should have a happy ending. That's just how we roll in the US. I am admittedly not super-familiar with Ford's filmography, but I have my doubts that any of his movies are gruesome tragedies.

Well, "Gun for the Devil" is probably my favorite thing here--it's a fairly straightforward (by Carter's standards) transplantation of the German Freisch├╝tz legend to a Mexican border town. As you may know, in this legend a marksman receives seven magic bullets from the Devil, six of which will hit whatever he wants, but the seventh of which will hit whatever the Devil wants (I think I first learned this story from Tom Waits' semi-concept album The Black Rider, though it may have been earlier from some book of mythology or other). It's cool and chilling, just like you want it to be, though as a killjoy, I must note that Carter pretty clearly seems to miscount the number of bullets--unless that's intentional for some reason, though I really can't imagine what that reason would be.

(Sidenote: what I don't understand is why the marksman doesn't just refrain from shooting that last bullet--lock it up in a safe or melt it down or something. Sure, the Devil may find some sneaky way to make sure it gets shot anyway, but he never seems to even have to make the effort. What the heck is the guy thinking? Eh--might as well at least try it. Maybe that ol' Devil's forgotten all about it! Or maybe he'll let me get away with it 'cause I'm just such a swell guy! Seems questionable.)

Anyway, that's all well and good, but I feel like the collection...kind of loses momentum after "Gun." The last Americo-centric story, "The Merchant of Shadows," is a Hollywood-mythology thing that I don't find very interesting, and then the "Old World" pieces are mostly fairly slight deconstructions more than stories--"In Pantoland," about English pantomime; "The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story," about the Puritan dislike of holidays; "Ashputtle; or, the Mother's Ghost" about Ashputtle, a close variant on Cinderella...they aren't wholly without entertainment value, but they're not spectacular. Doesn't mean the collection as a whole isn't worth reading, but it's definitely the least of Carter's books that I've read so far.


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