Angela Carter’s interest in the usefulness of fantastic devices increased markedly while she was writing the shorter pieces making up her first collection, Fireworks, between 1970 and 1973. She described these items as “tales” rather than “stories,” explaining in her introduction thatFormally the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretenses at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience, and therefore cannot betray its readers into a false knowledge of everyday experience.
Carter’s introduction goes on to locate her short work within the gothic tradition, readily admitting that tradition’s links with “subliterary forms,” such as pornography, ballads, and dreams.
All of Carter’s subsequent collections consist of tales rather than stories, according to this characterization, and all of them are firmly set in the gothic tradition. They are surreal even when they are not frankly supernatural or outrightly phantasmagorical, and they offer commentaries on quotidian existence rather than depictions of it. They make little use of dialogue, sometimes tending toward essaylike discourses imaginatively reconstructing the states of mind and existential plights of their central characters. These include several real individuals: Charles Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duval in “Black Venus” (1980); America’s most famous murderess, Lizzie Borden, in “The Fall River Axe Murders” (1981) and “Lizzie’s Tiger” (1981); and the greatest master of the gothic tale in “The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe” (1982). All the tales in The Bloody Chamber, and Other Stories—described by Salman Rushdie as her “masterwork”—and some of those in her subsequent collections apply the same method to various imaginary figures, including all the classic female stereotypes to be found in popular fairy tales.
“Reflections” is the longest of the items in Fireworks. Unlike the mildly phantasmagorical “The Loves of Lady Purple” and “Flesh and the Mirror,” it does not draw directly upon Carter’s experiences in Japan, but it has motifs in common with both of those stories. It is an account of a dream whose protagonist, while walking in a wood, is led by a siren song to discover a mysterious seashell. The shell turns out to have strayed from the Sea of Fertility: a “reversed system,” accessible through a mirror in a house where a lone androgyne plays the reality-weaving role delegated in Greek myth to the three Fates.
The dreamer passes through the mirror to the world beyond, where she is raped by the siren. Her retaliation and subsequent shattering return through the mirror break the thread which connects the two worlds and puts an abrupt end to the patient weaving of fate. There is no awakening, as such, at the end of the tale, but the implication is that the protagonist has finally broken free of the oppressive pattern that has hitherto confined and restricted her life. That kind of breakthrough recurs throughout Carter’s work, usually represented in more explicit but equally fantastic terms as the triumphant empowerment of a...
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