‘American Ghosts and Old World Wonders’ by Angela Carter

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Thursday, May 5, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Sometimes reading books can be a bit like following the clues to a treasure hunt, one book leading you on to find the next, and that’s exactly what happened to me with this book.  Reading Bill Willingham’s Fables: Legends in Exile made me think about other fairy tale adaptations that I’ve enjoyed, which instantly put me in mind of one of my favourite writers of reinterpreted fairy tales, Angela Carter.  I first encountered Angela Carter’s writing in my first year of university.  I shuffled into the introductory lecture on postmodernism, not exactly eagerly anticipating it after the preparatory reading we had been set, and the handout that came round included a photocopy of Carter’s short story ‘John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore’.  Prior to university I had read voraciously but traditionally, and this story was like nothing I’d ever read before.  It was clever and witty and unexpected and I fell in love with it.  I bought American Ghosts and Old World Wonders because it contains this particular story but, like a great many of my books, I never got round to reading it all the way through.  Now, with the urge to read Carter having been firmly implanted in my mind, it seemed like the perfect time to dust off this book and read it.

American Ghosts and Old World Wonders was published after Angela Carter’s death from lung cancer in 1992 according to directions that she left.  The book is a collection of nine stories, four set in the new world of America and five in the old world of Europe.  Part one contains ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’, ‘John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’, ‘Gun for the Devil’ and ‘The Merchant of Shadows’ and part two comprises ‘The Ghost Ships’, ‘In Pantoland’, ‘Ashputtle, or The Mother’s Ghost’, ‘Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room’ and ‘Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene’.  The new world stories have a more defined story to them, while the old world stories are more abstract and bizarre, although nowhere near as odd as I found Fireworks when I read it last year.  The balance between the two halves of the book and the two different styles works well and it forms a good, coherent collection (unsurprising given how specifically Carter planned the contents of the book).

Two stories stick out in my mind from this short story collection and they are, interestingly, the first two in the book.  ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’ is about a young Lizzie Borden, who became famous for allegedly killing her father and stepmother, escaping for one evening from her poverty-stricken home to go to visit a nearby fairground.  Lizzie is depicted as a serious little girl and Carter uses a wonderful phrase to describe her, saying that she has ‘a whim of iron’.  It’s just perfect because it encapsulates the arbitrary nature and forcefulness of childhood desires, and I’m sure anyone who has ever met a child will be able to picture exactly what Carter means.  It is impossible to read the story without it being shadowed by the knowledge that this isn’t an ordinary little girl but one who later possibly commits a double murder with a hatchet, and Carter plays on that to change a story of a girl visiting a fairground and seeing a caged tiger into something altogether more sinister and unsettling.  Although the story follows Lizzie she never speaks, but only observes in a way that becomes increasingly eerie as the tale progresses, so by the time she encounters the tiger there are obvious parallels between the two of them: both caged, whether literally or figuratively, both potentially lethal and both biding their time for now.  I think Carter has written at least one other story about Lizzie Borden, so I’ll definitely be investigating that to see what she does with the interesting character that she has created.

My other favourite was the story which caused me to buy the collection in the first place: ‘John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore’.  In this contribution, which is part story, part playscript, Carter plays on the fact that John Ford is the name of both a Jacobean dramatist and a maker of 20th century western films, combining the two forms to relocate Jacobean Ford’s Italian play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ to the prairies of North America, using setting and characters more at home in one of 20th century Ford’s westerns.  It’s such a simple idea but so clever and effective and I loved it just as much this time as I did when I first read it sat in that lecture hall.  If you read anything by Angela Carter, read this story.

American Ghosts and Old World Wonders by Angela Carter.  Published by Vintage, 1994, pp. 146.  Originally published 1993.

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