Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Forms of a Quiet Beach

I would have thought that the strangest night of my life would have some foreshadowing, but that’s not how it was.

I slept too late, skipped breakfast and hurried to work. Danny had the car up on the rig. We got the suspension sorted eventually. He went out for a while to drop something off with his wife. I texted Jess but she didn’t text me back. I resisted the urge to throw my phone across the garage. I hung around, feeling idle and smoking way too many cigarettes. I watched the kids outside the game shop across the road, eating chicken wings, playing music on their phones and swearing amicably at each other.

The only weird thing about it was that I felt far more upset about Jess than I thought I would. Night fell before Danny returned. We packed up and I tried to persuade him to come to the pub with me, but he was off to meet his wife again. They were taking the baby to see her mum, he told me. He rolled his eyes like it was a burden, but I could see that he was happy. I didn’t begrudge him that happiness. Nina was a nice girl, and their kid was cute as hell.

So I was at the pub alone, on a stool by the bar because I wanted to be near other people. It was a Thursday night so it was decent but not packed. I knew I still smelled of oil and grease but I’d shower when I got home. Normally Delia talked to me while she worked, and always found time to pull my pints. Sometimes she even flirted with me. I think she actually liked my company, but she knew I had a girlfriend. Delia barely seemed to notice me. She offered a quick smile and a ‘hi’, but then went around busying herself with swiping down the bar and collecting glasses. I stared into my Carlsberg and thought about texting Jess again.

That’s when I noticed him. He was sitting only a few feet away, just around the L-shape of the bar. A guy in a rumpled suit, maybe mid-thirties, dark hair. He had a notebook open on the bar and was sketching something as he occasionally sipped his pint. I was intrigued so I watched him for a little while, trying to study his face, his eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what it was he was drawing. The angle was too shallow and he didn’t move his notebook, so I couldn’t tell. The pub wasn’t that noisy but I was still surprised when he glanced up at me with a wry smile and said, “Want to see?”

I felt a little embarrassed that he’d obviously sensed me watching him so I tried my own wry smile and said, “Sure.”

He lifted the notebook. It was a very detailed drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral. I squinted at it. In fact, it was so good that it almost looked like a photocopy of a snapshot. My first thought was that he’d copied it from a photo that he had with him on the bar, but I didn’t see one.

“Wow, mate...did you paint that thing from memory?”

“Yeah. Went down there a few days ago.”

“That’s pretty impressive, seriously.” I took a long sip of my beer so as not to appear too friendly, but I was genuinely impressed. “You a professional artist, then?”

He laughed and shook his head. I could hear sadness in his laugh. “No, I’m a student. Studying literature.”

There was something odd about this guy, I realised then, but I had no fucking clue what it might be. I was tired and a little pissed off, and suddenly I didn’t care about the guy at the bar. I nodded and continued drinking quietly.

“I want to go home,” the guy said. I glanced up from my pint and saw he was staring directly at me. There were tears in his eyes. And I thought, Oh, ok, he’s a mental. And he’s gonna break down in front of me. Just great.

I sighed and tried for some compassion. “Where’s home?”

“A long way away. This isn’t my home. I’m not a man.”

I frowned at his words and the intensity of his gaze. “What are you then?”

“I’m an alien.”

I could tell that the guy meant it literally. I smiled at him and nodded. He was harmless, I realised – seriously mental, but harmless. Fuck it; I had nowhere better to be.

“What planet are you from?”

There wasn’t a trace of humour in his eyes. “I’m telling you the truth.”

“Well, I’m a mechanic, but I like to read, and I know a bit about science...so tell me where you come from.”

They guy laughed and took a sip of his pint. “Ok. I come from a place that’s kind of very far from here. It’s not a planet, exactly. It’s complicated.”

I nodded. “That’s ok. I like complicated.”

He stared at me for a long time, and despite myself I was quite unnerved. “We call it the Locked Community. Or at least, that’s an adequate translation. Do you even really care?”

I raised my pint to him, trying to ignore the strangeness I was feeling. “Sure I care. ‘The Locked Community’. Sounds nice.”

He glanced away at my sarcasm and said, “I’m a fucking idiot. And I’m drunk. And tired. I should go home and go to bed.”

For no apparent reason, a serious chill went through me. Yet it wasn’t a chill. It was more like a feeling of inertia during the plunge of an aircraft. I found myself murmuring the word, “Whoa...”

I had the strangest feeling of unknowing and knowing at the same time, and also denying what I suddenly knew or didn’t know. “Holy shit,” I said to myself.

“Do you have a name?” I found myself asking.


“Is that your...I mean, is that an assumed name?”


“Do you have a name...where you come from?”

“Yeah.” He chuckled and glanced at me like I was kind of sweet. “Everything has a name. Usually things have more than one. I guess my name would be something like ‘Forms of the Quiet Beach’. Or ‘Images of the Calm Shore’. Something like that.” He took a long swallow of his pint, and added, “Do you smoke? I wish we could still smoke in pubs.”

The creep-out sensation had gripped me now, and I knew that if I continued to sit there it would only intensify. I tried to look away from the guy and stare directly at the feeling, to lessen it. But it only got stronger.

“Holy shit,” I said again.

“What’s your name?” he asked me.


The guy laughed. “Infinity of El? Power of God? I’m talking to the power of God. Who knew?” That wry look was in his eyes again, as well as the sadness.

I tried to open my mouth, to speak, but everything seemed trite. Eventually I managed, “How long have you been here?”

“On Earth, you mean?  Seventeen years. Feels like a hundred.”

“Is this what you really look like?”

“No. I made this body up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I imagined it. Like, with my mind. It’s complicated.”

The L-shaped bar didn’t feel real anymore. Neither did the pub itself. It was like someone has turned down the volume on everything except the sound of our voices. Everything was soft-focus, except this guy in a rumpled suit sitting a few feet away from me, drinking sadly and drawing in a notebook like it was the most normal thing in the world.

“How the fuck...I mean, how the fuck did you even get here? What are you...?”

The guy shrugged. “I told you what I am.”

“What do you really...look like, if not like this?”

He turned a page in his notebook and drew a knot of careless scribble. He showed me the scribble. “Like that. Not literally like that, but you get the idea.”

“You’re not a physical being...?”

“Before this, no, not really. Not anymore. The Locked Community tells all different kinds of stories, and I’m not sure which of them I believe. Sometimes I believe parts of many of them. We were properly physical once, though. At least that’s our working assumption. We can become physical if we want though.” He gestured at himself. “But like I say, it’s complicated.”

“Why are you...here?” I asked. My own voice sounded so loud in my ears.

“To study literature, to hang out and meet people. To fall in love. Hasn’t really panned out the way I’d planned. Once you get here, everything changes.”

“Are there others here?”

“Sure, loads. From all over the place, but it’s not like you might think. There are some groups here who really don’t like you, but they tolerate you because you’re useful.” He laughed suddenly. “Not you, personally, Mike. I mean humanity in general.”

I nodded like I understood, and the feeling of almost understanding wasn’t disingenuous.

“You have a girlfriend, Mike?”

I blinked wide-eyed at the guy and tried not to cry. “Jess. She’s great, but I’m a selfish asshole sometimes and...she’s getting bored with me.”

“I’ve read that can happen,” he said, and that smile was there again.

For some reason I felt like he was comforting me, and that I should be glad of this little intimacy in the midst of this strangeness, but the tears forced their way into my eyes.

“She’s gonna leave me, eventually.”

“Not if you change though, right? I watch a lot of movies. And in the movies a character has to change for themselves, not the person they claim to love. When they can change for themselves, that’s when they get some semblance of a happy ending. I bet it’s kind of true in real life too.”

I stared at the weird guy at the bar. There was no pub, no other customers, no world around us – just him and me and our sadness. I felt like my mind and heart should be bursting with a billion questions, but the truth was I didn’t know what the hell to say. He took a sip of his pint and I took a sip of mine.

“I could go back, Mike. I’m not stuck here or anything. But, my exams are next year and I promised myself that I’d stay the course, so to speak. But I miss my friends, my family. I miss the magic of my world. I used to frown on that kind of freedom, you know. Now I just think about how much I miss it.  Seventeen years is a long time to be encased in this flesh. I want to feel the numinous howling in my mind again.”

I didn’t know what to say to ‘Ethan’. All I knew was that I wasn’t asleep at that strange moment, and that I was deeply sad.

Hesitantly I asked him, “Do we come...from the stars? Humans, I mean.”

He looked tired and confused, but not as sad as before. “Everything comes from the stars. We’re all related somehow.” His gaze became stern. “Don’t you forget it, Mike. Don’t let people feed you a lot of bullshit. That’s where they’ll twist the knife, in your misunderstandings. We’re all fucking related.”

He downed the last of his pint and tore a page out of his notebook. “St Paul’s Cathedral, for you.” He folded the page and slid it across the bar towards me.

“Thank you,” I muttered and didn’t expect that he would hear me.

“You’re welcome.” He smiled at me again. “I don’t usually share with people. But it was kind of fun to let it out. I need some sleep, so...take it easy, Michael.”

The words sounded so banal in my mouth and yet there was nothing more authentic to say. “Take it easy, Ethan.”

He got up from his stool and wandered away. I waited for the volume on everything to rise back into normalcy. I waited for the soft-focus to become hard-edged definition. It took a long time. I never saw him again. It was the strangest night of my life. I only fully regained my senses when my phone started bleeping. I remember mechanically pulling it from my jacket pocket and checking the Caller ID. Jess was texting me. The text read, Miss U xxx.

Monday, 13 December 2010


The Strike

S – Hey there, James.

J – Oh, Christ, Sam…what the devil are you doing here?

S – Came to see you, man. You look worse for wear. Glug glug glug. We all have our vices, don’t we?

J – How did you get in…?

S – Getting in is the easy part. It’s what you do once you’re inside which counts. You know that shit better than anybody.

J – Sam…Sam, don’t hurt me, please don’t. Whatever you think I’ve done, you’re mistaken. I swear it to you.

S – Wow, Father. Live the lie, huh?

J – Sam, for the love of God…

S – You’re one to talk of love, or God. I want it back, Father. I want what’s mine.

J – What? What!

S – My crucifix. The one you took from me, among other things. And I want to thank you for all the strength you gave me.

J – Strength…?

S – Yeah. You ever wish upon a falling a star? I have. You become one with it, and you come crashing down into the earth. It’s a true liberation. I speak to God now, like the mad often do. God speaks back to me. Everything we know is a dream. We hate one another but we have an understanding. I don’t judge her for what she allows me to do, and she doesn’t judge me for what I do.  You can't hide in this church forever.

J – Have mercy on me, Sam, I beg you. Please. Don’t hurt me.

S – I need to hurt you.

The Meditation

S – Get away from me. You’re puerile, and I’m so bloody tired of metaphors.

G – That’s tough shit. It doesn’t change, even in death, Sam. Death is the Las Vegas of metaphors.

S – Stay the fuck away from me, bitch.

G – I’m in your blood, Samuel, in your cock, wriggling my way up your ass…filling your mind with intention.

S – This paralyzing freedom. I fucking hate you for it.

G – Free will, baby.

S – I hate you.

G – I hate you too. And love you.  I created you.

S – A little black girl with no eyes in her damn face. If you’re trying to teach me something you’re wasting your time.

G – I am the all and everything. I have no time, Sam. It’s only your time I’m wasting.

S – I don’t believe in you anymore. If I believe in you then I have to believe in me. That’s too much responsibility.

G – You can believe what you want. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. It might feel like that sometimes but you’re free. Shit, it’s the greatest gift I could have given you. You don’t even have to be thankful. Just do something with it. Or don’t. You could suicide yourself in the name of some crude artistic statement. You would find peace eventually, even as a coward.

S – How can you allow this, all this horror and suffering…does it amuse you? Rape and genocide; is it supposed to be beautiful? Tell me. Is there meant to be some twisted poetry to it?

G – How can you allow it? Is it beautiful, Sam, what James did to you? Do you covet that violation? Is it the dark jewel in your paper crown?

S – He turned me into a horrible cliche. I still want it back, you know. I despise you.  I killed him.

G - I know you did.

S - I'm not sorry.

G - I know you're not.

S - Stay with me.

G - Ok, Sam.  Ok.


I didn’t really want to die. Mum said that it’s not normal for a twelve year old boy to think about suicide. Doctor Hiller agreed. He said that it happens but that it’s not normal. He seemed more interested in me than Mum ever did, like I was an interesting mystery that he could maybe write a book about one day. Doctor Hiller looks like a movie star, like the guy that played Han Solo in the Star Wars movies. He played Indiana Jones too. Maybe my doctor is like that character. I reckon he likes adventures too much. Not like me. I just wanted to get away.

My grades were good, they said, so they couldn’t understand it. Is it only average kids who try to kill themselves? My English teacher tried to be nice to me when I finally went back to school, but I could see the disappointment in her eyes – like she had judged me wrong, like I wasn’t ‘brilliant’ after all. Everyone at school knew. It wasn’t something I could hide. They took away all my stories. They said they wanted to check if there were signs I had been unhappy.

Such a smart boy. So sad. So sad. I got tired of hearing them whisper it. I didn’t let them take away my books, not even the horror stuff. I would’ve screamed the whole school down. What makes me really sad is that I know they were only trying to protect me, and themselves. I guess it’s not nice when one of the kids you teach tries to hang himself with his own tie. Not a correct use of the school uniform. Such promise. Such a sweet, quiet lad. I don’t pretend to be a grown-up. I never have. But I do try to understand people, why they do the weird stuff they do. Why did Mum keep going back to Simon? Why did she keep putting herself in danger? I know she believed me when I told her about the gun. Simon was part of something called the ‘Armed-Response Unit’, but even I knew he wasn’t supposed to keep a gun at home. She never blamed Simon for anything really, because he never hit me. Maybe she wanted to convince herself that she wasn’t worth anything, didn’t deserve anyone except a guy like Simon. She never really cared about me, I think. Mum was very pretty, still is. She didn’t have to stay with Simon. He’s a good man, Paul, a good man. She knew it was a lie. Dad was a good man. He never raised his hand, he never pinned mum to the bed while she begged. I guess it’s me that is disappointed in her. It hurts, you know. Even today, two years later. Why was she so weak? Why was I so weak?

All my books and the stories I write, it’s all rubbish if I can’t even be brave. I tried to cut my wrists after mum put me into the Ensler psychiatric-unit, but when I saw the blood I got so scared I passed out. I didn’t cut deep enough to die. Doctor Hiller still wrote his notes, smiling at me with his movie-star face. They bandaged my wrist. The talking-circles didn’t really help. Mum moved to Cambridge with Simon. He works with a different police station now. Mum says he doesn’t use a gun anymore. I can still taste the barrel in my mouth – a ‘banging blow-job’. He never hit me but what he did was worse.

Simon loved to read though. He even loved a lot of the same stories that I did. I remember once he told me I would be a good writer some day. Don’t give up on your writing, Paulie. Dr Hiller doesn’t believe in evil. Monsters are created, he said. What happened to create a guy like Simon? There is still war and killing on the news every day. I tell them it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s a lie, though. I still cry every night. Simon enjoyed the idea of war. I think he saw a kind of purity in it. I’m not like him. I refuse. I want to get better, I really do. But I don’t want to fade away. My name is Paul Kistri. I am fourteen years old. I have love inside me.


Commentary for ‘Paul’

With the work entitled ‘Paul’ I wanted to write a piece of flash-fiction that was engaging and substantial. This seemed like a huge task considering that I set myself a limited word count. I first tried to figure out how to marry narrative, character and voice into a work that was no more than 750 words, without the resultant story seeming either too lightweight or contrived. In order to do this I took the approach that a short story told in first person would be the most effective and subtle way to achieve a distinct voice and character immediately. I then tried to figure out what kind of character Paul would be and why he would be telling the reader this particular tale. I suppose the character is not too far removed from me at that age, and I wanted Paul to be a fictional mouthpiece to convey thoughts and feelings that were similar to what I was going through during the early years of my adolescence. I envisioned my protagonist as a very intelligent but melancholy teenager, with a kind of vulnerability that he almost didn’t want to hide. Paul is not ashamed of his sensitivity to the world around him, but he does feel that it makes him different to most people who tend to wear their hardiness and cynicism as a badge of honour.

The narrative I wanted to convey included Paul’s suicide attempt, the reactions to it from his peers and teachers at school, and to explicitly convey his meditation on some of the reasons for why he did what he did. I suppose there is a certain kind of ‘reveal’ in the story when the reader learns what took place with his mother’s boyfriend, Simon. However, I didn’t want this to seem like a cheap twist or a sleight-of-hand. I wanted to affect the reader with this moment but in a way that would be chilling because of its banality and its lack of clear motivation. The characters of Simon and Paul’s mother had to be implied in as few words as possible because I was attempting to make every word of the story count. I wanted to suggest the mother character was not a bad person, rather she was selfish and weak – a woman in desperate need of love and affection. The character of Simon was harder to sketch because I didn’t want him to appear as a cardboard plot-device. I tried to imply that Simon, a policeman, was obviously an intelligent, skilled and respected man in many areas of his life, but that there were perverse undercurrents to his character. It would be a side of him that none of his work colleagues would be aware of. This character and Paul’s reactions to him were intended to be uncomfortable or disturbing to the reader, but in an authentic non-sensationalist way. Whether I have managed to achieve this is down to the personal opinion of the reader.  Also, I didn’t want to portray Paul as too mature for a fourteen year old boy because this might distract the reader from connecting with him – yet I did want to imply that Paul was perhaps wise beyond his years. This is a tricky thing to pull off and I hope I have come close to achieving it. In general though I am pleased with what I have created. I feel that I managed to be true to the character of Paul as I envisioned him, as well as conveying the overall mood of the piece. A lot of care went into crafting this piece of flash-fiction and I hope that it is evident in the text.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Red White Chapel

I am here, in the dark with you. The tall man dressed in black, a wicked silver knife in my hand. My face is unseen. I absorb the light, turning no one away. I am everywhere, in your mythologies and perversions. I am in your children’s books, because children always know. They say I am a deep cultural myth, weaved countless times over; a hybrid of truth, lies, fear and imagination. Some say that I am a priest, wandering between the worlds of the living and the dead. What does the knife of an immortal do to mortal flesh?  Agonies and shadows, liquid fire, and the arcing light of divine silver.

September 9th, 1888

My wife’s name is Anna. She frightens me. She does not yield as I thought at first she would. I feel I am in the presence of some divine confluence of events. London is dying, and my peers remain oblivious. As the lower classes succumb to this disease and corruption so does our once great city. Anna is dying also, slowly, slowly dying, and yet still she dares to softly question me. Oftentimes I am inclined to think of this world as an intricate puzzle-box, a child’s game of infinite complexity or simplicity. All things are connected to all things, but this is talk unfit for public consumption. Our Great Queen, she is unperturbed by the destruction of my Londinium that, as a child, I had so loved and despised.
     When I first met Anna she was kneeling at her father’s side.
     They took shade beneath a mighty tree on Hampstead Heath, sharing wine and pastries as other couples did. I saw the possibilities even then, during those summer months, when she was a breathtaking seventeen years of age. She had a skin like alabaster. Her father and I became acquaintances of a sort. He told me an illness in his daughter’s blood had long made itself known to his doctors. There was nothing to be done, he claimed. His wife had befallen the same fate. He felt the Lord had abandoned him, executed his wife and left him with this gorgeous, sickly child who was the singular image of her mother.
     It is funny the way men play games with men.
     I am not an enemy of Christ or the Church. In fact, though I am a man of reason, I do not believe our new enlightened age signals the death throes of the Almighty. Our pen and scalpel alone will not tear God so easily from the heavens. I told her father that we could come to some arrangement. He seemed pleased enough, realising that I was a man of considerable familial wealth. His recompense was sizable. No, I am not an enemy of God. But perhaps this thing stalking Whitechapel and Spitalfields, perhaps this may immolate the Christian spirit in many years to come.
     They have already begun weaving tales. I have heard them in the raucous public houses and gas-lit corners of the East End. If ever he were a man when he first put his blade to the whores, he is a man no longer. Already their lurid fictions have made him something else, their Penny Dreadfuls filled with gleeful superstition; these have drifted into the London nights and the air is thick now with mythical imagination. I cannot allow my tender Anna to know the recent truths of this ugly city; the truths of The Decameron, Baudelaire, or de Sade. I have locked her in our most handsome Georgian home in Bloomsbury. She is most ill, and I fear it would be too much. I have forbidden any visitors, or servants. Anna looks at me in such a way, with the complicity of the damned, but also a jutting mysterious power beneath it. She frightens me in ways I am hesitant to describe. They have given this hero, this destroyer of whores, a name.
     They call him Jack.

The diary of Elliot Crane
Professor of English & Rhetoric Studies
Bentham College, London


Men do not kill for the pleasure, for the sheer craft and joy involved. Men only pretend that they do. In truth men kill because they are angry and weak and beautiful and afraid, so utterly afraid of being alone.  That is why men destroy. But angels, ah, angels seek beauty everywhere. The divine takes pleasure in all things, even the darkest, most abhorrent of things. I am so old that I am young, and I have been seen so often that I am anonymous.

1st November, 1888

Jack the Knife, Jack the Knife
He’ll take your heart an’ steal your life
Jack the Knife comes back for more
Out of the shadows to gut the whore

I heard illiterate street-children singing this near Mitre Square. This new hero has made a comfortable home in their merciless imaginations, as though they are just waiting for the Whitechapel murderer to slaughter again. They are flinty-eyed and cold of heart, these dirty ragged urchins. They desire blood to light up the night and flow with the sewage through the streets.
     He has many folk-names now. Old Jack, Red Jack, Demon Jack. I pity the man that actually raises the blade. He cannot compete with his mythical counterpart. This heinous coward, he kills women because they disgust him, because he is so afraid of them. He hates them utterly, these whores; their witchlike toothless faces, their desperate hidden strength, their sheer human ghastliness. Perhaps finally he sees too much of himself in them. Anna has been asking more questions in that quiet, forceful way of hers. Recently I awoke to find her vacant from our bed, methodically walking the dark corridors of our home. I have found her twice in my study, with gaslight burning, leafing calmly through books of Greek mythology. She tells me softly that she is like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods, and I pretend I do not understand. If I were not such a reasonable man, I would swear that she is touched with some terrible magic. I cannot abide it. My anger swells. I commanded her to bed. She does not fear me. I try to make love to her as forcefully as possible, crushing the pale buds of her breasts in my palms, but it is a fitful, embarrassing experience, and she is somewhere else besides. In the night I hear her laughing softly to herself.
     Jack the Knife, with his anointed silver, he baptised those horrid women with their own scarlet life, and whisked them away from this rotting carapace. I can imagine what he does. He wanders the streets as only the bourgeois can, with the unassailable confidence that all of London is his leisure. He dons his Sunday-finest, as though he is attending church, and in a way he is. I imagine that he wears a wedding ring on a long chain of silver around his neck. He offers this ring to the toothless whores in grimy alleyways and back gardens, where the light is poor and the shadows thick. They laugh at him, or call him ‘sir’, and some of them play along. But some of them understand, in a flash of insight, and try to scream. They do not accept him as one of their own.
     If this Whitechapel murderer is not caught by the Inspectors of Scotland Yard, then he will soon become a terrible immortal, if he is not one already. Then he will truly be Jack the Knife. In the newspapers this morning I read of more ghastliness; two murders in one night. Elizabeth Stride and Cathy Eddowes were opened up like crimson treasure chests, the uterus and kidney taken swiftly from their broken, brokered flesh. Those two unfortunates are not the last. I suspect more women will fall, carved at the delicate hands of Jack. There is a monster hiding in the shadows of Whitechapel. Anna did not come down for tea this morning, instead she pondered in our room, still clad in her torn nightdress. Before leaving for work I lit a fire in our hearth, and tossed the newspapers into the crackling, spitting flames. I write too much in these pages, I fear, or not enough.

The diary of Elliot Crane
Professor of English & Rhetoric Studies
Bentham College, London


You are fascinated with me only because I am within you, as all things are. The blood is the life. It can be shared or it can be spilt; liquid fire, knowledge of the gods, running through the veins of men. I know the hot crimson. I know how it sings when it is released, humming from ruined flesh. But the murders of men are lazy, cowardly and ugly. Unlike the beauty they imitate. You see, I am in love with my chaos. I am in love with you, all of you. The angels you pretend to be, the devils you wish you were. I have a wicked silver knife, and I dress in black. You cannot see my face. I am an angel. I can take your breath away.

10th November, 1888

There has been another murder. They are calling him the Ripper now. Jack the Ripper. On the streets of Whitechapel there is talk of the Ripper being something other than human. A ghost perhaps, an old-world demon of vengeance sent to reap the vice-ridden, or even the cleansing hand of the Lord himself. Delusional fantasies always gather around violence and mystery; the city whispering to itself. They want Jack the Ripper to be a monster, an evil serpent with burning silver blades, not an inadequate mortal. But he is both of these things, surely? I head another rhyme near Hanover Street, sung by a miserable-looking little girl. She had hair like dirty straw and eyes like black stones. Jack the Ripper will bleed the moon, of silver knife and silver spoon. She peered at me as I passed her, threatening to devour me with her awful gaze. She muttered something about how she could not cry any more.
     At dinner I told Anna not to defy me with her strange silences, her glances and frowns, and still this magic seemed to emanate from her pale dying frame. She said nothing in her defence. Angered, I moved to strike her across the face, yet despite her weakness she caught my hand firmly at the wrist, halting me, peering at me like the girl in the street. My heart trembled, I think, with utter desire and fear. I dared not let her see my reproach and left the table immediately.
     Identity is like gold to the civilised world. The white man lives in a realm of time and space and reason. There must be logic present in his world or, unlike some primitive races, he will descend into madness. We desire cold, dead fact. Anything warm and ambiguous is not fit to be entertained by our superior intellect. But Jack the Knife; the Ripper, he escapes our definitions, having no identity. He is only what we have allowed to happen, to Londinium and our psyches. Anna knows this somehow. I can see it in her eyes. It has been almost a year since we were wed. She is only eighteen. Still there is this love of words, this fascination with language that her father said was ‘inevitable’ since all she did was read through the worst periods of illness; a silent, bookish girl. But it is more than that. There is some horrible intelligence in my exquisite alabaster wife. I suspect that in medieval times my Anna would have been lashed to a tree and burned alive. In fear this morning I left her a key on our mantle. I do not know if she will use it to venture from our house, into the truth of the city, or even if she will touch it. But I am afraid of her, and I must bring this to an end.

The diary of Elliot Crane
Professor of English & Rhetoric Studies
Bentham College, London


At first she is horrified at what she is about to do, but the fear passes quickly, for she is a brave girl. She has not been outside for almost a year. The noise of carriages and the smell of horseshit assail her senses. The wind bites her cheek. She pushes onward, amidst men, women, and the cold London air.
     Her husband has planned all this. She knows there is something wrong. She knows that there is a great wrongness somewhere in the city, and in her husband’s heart. Even now as she wanders in her wasting flesh, she resolves to find that wrongness. She will not stand before St Peter without answers; she will not falter at the Gate. She does not have much time left in this world, she reasons, perhaps a few years, perhaps far less.
     Eventually she notices a newsstand. An older man is watching his little worker beat his trade to the passers-by. The child is successful, since today’s paper is full of horror. A young Irish whore butchered beyond all recognition in her bed. Anna shoves a coin into the little worker’s palm and tears a paper from his grasp. The boy grins and forgets her immediately. She reads the gruesome article, of how the whore’s heart was taken. I listen to her silent reading voice and notice how beautiful it is, how fierce and earnest. She becomes sick with certainty and wonders suddenly if she is in some terrible dream. I smile at this.
     She is in the secret place now, my domain. I am not the architect of this horror, but I shall be remembered for it. Standing there she realises she has slipped through a crack into the place below the world. She is strange, this Anna. She glances up from the pages in her hands, and somehow she notices me.
     I am taken aback, angel that I am. I did not expect this. She sees me watching her, only a few feet away, dressed in black and faceless, a wicked silver knife in my hand. She quickly realises that no one else can see me. There is something in her eyes that I am enchanted by. It fades, that fierceness, and she lowers her gaze, unimpressed with me somehow. She lets the paper fall to the ground and turns, heading back towards the handsome Georgian house.
     I realise something. She is leading me home. She knows I am following her. She glances across the street, and sees her husband standing in front of a jeweller’s shop. There is finality in his eyes and his thoughts. He has been following her too. He has met her in this place below the world, at last. He thinks she will run, and he resolves to slaughter her there in the open, no matter the consequences. But he does not know her. She crosses the street, avoiding carriages and horses, and silently takes his hand. Shaken, he leads her back to the house.
     He leads her into the bedroom. Curtains are drawn, gaslight is ignited. He orders her to disrobe. He tells her he will fuck her now, violently, and slit her throat at the moment of his liberation. She does not disrobe. Instead she tells him that she loves him, and that she cannot allow him any longer. She glances at me, uncertain, and despite her heavy garments I see that she has never been more naked than she is now.
     There are moments when angels can make themselves known to men, when the invisible can breach the visible world. You have read about such moments, in scripture and fairytale, and secretly you believe such moments to be real. You are like children in this secret belief, and children always know.
     I step from the shadows, taken with the solemn radiance of this Anna. I click my silver knife against the bedpost. Elliot turns and sees me. For a moment he is dumb-struck, not quite believing what he sees, and glances at his wife. Although I am faceless, he knows that I am smiling. He begins to scream, this killer, as though horrified of the things he dreams. There was a time when he thought I was beautiful. I fall upon him, and Elliot Crane, the Whitechapel murderer, is lost amidst whirling silver and flowing crimson. Not a drop of his blood hits the floor, and in the next moment Anna is left standing alone in the empty bedroom. She is awed, but she will live another few years.
     There is magic in the world.
     There are those who wish they had never seen it, but Anna is not one of those.
     I love you, you see. That is why I am here in the dark with you. I am the Knife.
     Call me Jack.


Red and the Black

Her motivation was like ice, surprising after the horror in her wake. The determination howled in her blood. Bethany was running so fast that she had left behind all sense of genuine space. She stumbled, fell, got up again, without any loss of the duty that drove her forward. She was clad in a hooded crimson shawl, bleeding and barefoot, thinking that her life was gossamer, a thread whose pearls were these merciless flights from a maelstrom that hung like a wraith at her shoulder.
     Her feet no longer hurt. She felt nothing in her body. She was pale and thin, as mama had been, with quick, dark eyes that belied her sixteen years. After the Templar Knights came with fire and burned everyone she felt nothing for the Word of God. Those soldiers of Christ, previously heroes in her dreams, became gargoyles and demon-kissed. Bethany knew well of her mother’s affront to Catholicism, her secret workings with the ancient painted-lady of the shoreline caves. Secrets could not be kept from the devoted. When one of the knights forced mama onto the hay-strewn floor of the stables she cursed in a foreign tongue and spat in his face. The horses bucked and snorted, pawing the earth as though it were them about to be defiled. Bethany hid, as she was told. The terrible knight began reciting a Latin remonstration as he cupped at mama’s breast, forcing her thighs open with his knees.
     His face had changed then, it quivered, becoming momentarily feline, then canine, then again the ruthless mask of Man. She remembered her mother’s words just before the knight breached their hiding place, words like a sliver of quartz in her head – you must watch everything.
     She watched it all.
     Nearly three days now she had been running, resting, keeping close to the imagined spirits of the forest trees. She had found a journal once from Father Calhill, hidden within a bible-binding, talking of the elder guardians of the green places. It was heresy to speak openly of such things, so mama and the priest kept their devotion concealed from all but the inner circle of the Memoria Sol – the Memory Sun. Rome was at war with itself, as it had been since the birth of modern Christendom.
     There were demons hiding within the Church - Bethany came to suspect it just as mama had - monsters with an exquisite understanding of the mortal imagination. They were the true dark sorcerers and cruel witches; a score of vampires demanding nothing less than total subjugation, infinite agonies.
     Bethany ran a hard, dead flight.
     She heard the sea before she saw it. Quickly but carefully she made her way down the slopes and gravel to the broken beach, where huge slabs of rock jutted like the half-buried skeleton of a titan. The mouth of the cave was here somewhere, obscured by grey stone and crashing foam. Bethany had followed mama to this place many times, in secret, lest her mother concern herself with her daughter’s similar interests. She knew the painted-lady lived somewhere in those caverns, at home in the dark, closer to the womb of the Earth. She was one of the most trusted allies of Memoria Sol. Bethany once overheard Father Calhill say that she was perhaps two hundred years old, a keeper of the most sacred magic, her very existence denied.
     Bethany feared the Church had somehow infiltrated her mother’s clan of heretical insurrectionists. The Templar Knights spared no souls. When the stables began to burn she did not leave at once, she stayed for many moments; cradling her mother’s defiled, butchered corpse. Bethany tried to collect mama’s entrails and put them back inside, but her young hands were slick with red life and everything kept slipping through her fingers. She was unable to shed a tear. She was now the legacy of the memory sun, barely a young woman; a child who watched her mother desecrated by holy men.
     She knew those holy men were coming and that there were monsters among them.
     Entering the black space felt frightening, sexual, the sea like a susurration of charmed voices, and Bethany felt the surety of fate flooding her veins. Mama had been dead for only three days. She had made it this far. Any life beyond this was now unimportant. It was warmer and wetter inside than she had anticipated. The stones were slick beneath her bare feet. It was not a complete darkness. Fractures in the rocks above let in shafts of light like a sacristy, and the deeper into the caves she progressed the more like an underground church it became. Even the expectant hush was the same, the poised stillness that she felt inside cathedrals.
     When she saw it she knew she was already too late.
     The painted-lady was posed on a candlelit altar in mock crucifixion, a stalagmite rising through her punctured chest. Bethany felt a lurch of doom, climbing bile in her throat. She wretched but nothing came. The painted-lady’s robe was a patchwork of dark fabrics, her long grey hair tangled about her skull like bloodied serpents. She had been impaled, and someone or something found this banality amusing.
     It was over, Bethany knew. Memoria Sol was now a ghost in the breast of a sixteen year old girl.
     She heard the knight scratching in the mud with tip of his sword, and her gaze found his obsidian eyes. It was the same knight that took mama.
     “It dies with you, little one. We cannot allow you to be here. We wish to make a mockery of the Church. We need total control of men’s minds. There can be no greater possibilities for them. You have a great love in your heart. You are stronger than me. We both know that. Your love binds, connects. But I am singular and a coward. I am going to take your maidenhead, your blood and your flesh. I want to see a crystalline fear in your eyes.”
     Bethany opened her young lips and spoke a rebuttal. “I am not afraid of you, demon, not in truth. You lack the imagination to be worthy of it. It never dies, ugly fool. Take me. I will pity you as you feast on me.”
     He smiled then with a mouth that split impossibly wide. Memoria Sol held steadfast to the deepest secret – knowledge of the eternal human soul, a flame without limit, never to be extinguished. She was about to be taken into a birthright beyond claim. As the feral knight approached her, Bethany began to scream the gleeful scream of immortality.

Wordsworth and the Sublime

The word ‘sublime’ can mean exalted, noble, awe-inspiring, or it can suggest a supreme indifference. Each of these descriptions is self-contained and yet connected, layering the concept of the sublime with many shades of meaning, and language is inherently a system of signs that refers to itself for meaning. Many writers through the ages have discussed and argued on what the sublime means in various contexts. Among them is John Baillie, who wrote ‘An essay on the sublime’ in 1747. In it he creates a useful sketch of what the sublime might be:

Few are so insensible, as not to be struck even at first view with what is truly sublime; and every person upon seeing a grand object is affected with something which as it were extends his very being, and expands it to a kind of immensity. […]hence arises that exultation and pride which the mind ever feels from the consciousness of its own vastness -

With this in mind the essay will explore the work of William Wordsworth with regards to the sublime.  When discussing the subject of poetry in ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, Wordsworth argues for a choice of language closer to what is actually used by men, and ‘to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination […] as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement’.  Later he goes on to say, ‘For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its dignity and beauty who does not know this’.

It seems Wordsworth wants to convey the power inherent in both Nature and the mind of Man, especially by highlighting the interrelationship between them. Later in the Preface he asks, ‘What then does the poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure’. This insight alone could be deemed sublime because it recognises the endless interplay of elements that give rise to any one moment, event, or individual. As he says in ‘Expostulation and Reply’:

The eye – it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.

Wordsworth views both nature and the human mind as being filled with magnificent subtleties. It is this exquisite strength that he discusses in much of his poetry, a vitality that can overpower or liberate the senses depending on the skill of the perceiver. In ‘Simon Lee’ he writes simply:

O Reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.

Wordsworth seems to find nobility in the connection between nature and man – the way nature enlarges the mind by feeding its creativity, and how the mind exalts nature by perceiving its complex power. To the poet this interrelationship is awe-inspiring, creating a rich combination of fear and joy. In this imaginative perception the mind appears to itself as both vast and miniscule, a microcosm of the external world. As he highlights in ‘Tintern Abbey’:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

This sense of the sublime could be described as a noble humility because it carries with it the acknowledgment of disturbing things, of questions unanswered, of suffering and joy both existing at once. If increasing age necessitates this kind of humility then perhaps it is recognition of the inevitability of death. Juliet Barker, in her book Wordsworth: A Life, discusses an incident the poet had as a child at Cockermouth Castle while investigating the ruins with friends. She writes:

Like any small boy, he found the castle dungeons irresistible and decided to brave a descent. These were no ordinary dungeons, however, but oubliettes, accessible only through a small trapdoor in the ceiling. […] Not surprisingly, he was overcome with horror at the thought of being buried alive. To the hitherto blithe and unthinking boy, the ‘soul-appalling darkness’ of the dungeon was like an unexpected taste of the grave.

The passion of youth could be said to normally lack this awareness simply because youth, in general, is fresh, a carefree romp through new enchanted lands. However, in later life, through ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ the mind can become sober, even solemn, by witnessing the complexity of nature and its relationship to Man. The mind’s responsiveness to life does not need to wither, it only needs to mature. As he describes so sincerely in ‘My Heart Leaps Up’:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!

The spectre of death seems to be powerfully connected to an appreciation of the sublime. In the note to Isabella Fenwick on ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ he says, ‘Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being’. In the Ode itself he writes:

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!

With maturity comes the appreciation of the transience of human life, and nature’s apparently sublime indifference to it – it seems a noble indifference that is somehow comforting. Has Wordsworth added a colouring of imagination to a natural world that neither comforts nor remembers? If he has added this gleam then it is a sober moral choice stemming from his love of man and nature. In the ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ he writes:

Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;

The use of the word ‘consecration’ suggests that Wordsworth does not genuinely doubt nature, but rather that he desires an imaginative morality that would make human life sacred.  If recognising sanctity is to be awe-inspired, then Man’s morality can allow him to experience the sublime. This more mature interaction with the world can be seen in his sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ where he writes:

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

These lines touch upon the potency of stillness, a kind of quiet power beneath the surface that seems all the more awesome because it is patient. Considering the frenetic, full-blooded perception of youth, could this quiet power be analogous to the more solemn perception of maturity? Perhaps the idea of the sublime comes into focus more sharply in older-age because it is a consciousness infused with an awareness of death.

This creation of a mature poetic image of the mind is indivisible from Wordsworth’s sense of morality. It is tantamount to a code of conduct, a way of treating the mind and its experiences with love. This link between reason and imagination seems to be an important key to understanding and interacting with the sublime. As he writes later in The Prelude:

This spiritual love acts not, nor can exist
Without Imagination, which in truth
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And reason, in her most exalted mood.

This code of conduct is a way of navigating through human experiences; it simultaneously enchants and makes sense of what Man perceives in his relationship to nature and to himself. Everything in a human life is transient, even the physical body. Wordsworth was buried at Grasmere Churchyard in the Lakelands, near to his childhood home. As Juliet Barker writes in Wordsworth: A Life:

The headstone that was eventually erected over William’s grave was, as he wished, stark in its simplicity. A plain piece of Lakeland stone, without ornament of any kind, it simply stated to the curious passer-by, ‘William Wordsworth 1850’.

In closing then, it seems the individual must eventually recognise that death claims all living things, but he must also recognise that the power to imagine can transcend any physical experience. This is the closest thing to a divine power that Man possesses. Wordsworth was likely well aware of this when he composed these lines of The Prelude:

The prime and vital principle is thine
In the recesses of thy nature, far
From any reach of outward fellowship,
Else is not thine at all.


Barker, Juliet: Wordsworth: A Life (London: Viking, Penguin Books Ltd, 2000)

The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Hartman, Geoffrey H.: Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1987)

Kelly, Theresa M.: Wordsworth’s revisionary aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988)

The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company,

Purvis, John: A Preface to Wordsworth, Revised Edition (London, Longman Group UK,

Romanticism: A critical reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1995)

The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996)

William Wordsworth: Selected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A Clutch of Words...

Pulling Back

To forget we are alive, or to remember
Our hot, fat blood and crumb-dust bone?
Giving pieces of ourselves away,
Scattering memories like tired shoes.
Needing no collars to protect our cheeks
From the solar wind.
Is it pertinent
To honor man by remembering beast,
To forget selectively, with a quickened heart?
The difficulty of a deepened life is lived
Every day we chase or flee,
With only faith that we are replenished.

Plenum of Kali

Guilty the cardinal kings, the courts, striving for pleasures
Pastimes, sports, here in the waters
The deep and the shallows, sweating the swing
In the noose, the gallows, is your child
Mine, the moderate distraction
Offered up godlike, surrounded, serene
I’ve killed all my friends
At my doctor’s suggestion, the sound or inflection, of voice,
Choice, ghosts among bodies
I’ve gutted the clock and named all
My hobbies, to weep
Or walk backwards through verse
Licking my fingers of dark red


The gun is the life, is the death, is the
Now I hope all of you have remembered your
The chamber is empty, to be filled
With the dancers.
I hope you’re all ready to be killed
With no answers.

Santa is out there, in the dark, on the
Better to cut or to bleed where you’re
Is the drip-drip-drip
On hardwood floors
Better the void
Of scoreboard whores?

The action of class, at last
The class action
Is captured in the lens of lascivious
There go the reindeer, through snow
And through folly.

The knife in your heart means I
Truly am sorry.
I beg you are mighty and loving
And kindly.
I hope you’re all ready to live
And remind me.

Please Stand By

DNA in the Cathode-Ray
Shrinking the world at large, flesh in flesh-tones
Red Menace in Colour, sitcom to SatCom
Bring me Arabic with cheddar, and wine
The hot-cold-hot of tribal altercation
Ex-Marx the spot
Where they pierced the ground
Addendum to file, My Lai, or not
White liberal nodding-guilt
Distinctions for none
Like Jack, the knife, the dirty bomb
Let’s not forget what we have, have not
The multiplex at World’s End, stones for all the family
What happened yesterday

Boy meets Girl

The hard is killing us, some say
Softer, softer, if solitary has no recompense
The laughing, not just chaos
Paper planets on a string
A music without racket, tennis without love
Aloft with caramel calculation, domination dreams
Denying the clasp, the twinge, the crossed tease
Who hangs there, needing the nimble-fingered tendrils of snowflake?
The outsider-ones have eyes of plastic fire
Can we be frozen here?

'When I have fears that I may cease to be'

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ by John Keats was written in 1848 and is his first attempt at a text in the style of a Shakespearean sonnet with 14 lines, the last two of which share the standard rhyming couplet. Although the sonnet form was primarily used to elevate the image of ideal romantic love, Keats uses the form here to evoke a much darker declaration that is almost a lament or perhaps the speaker’s own elegy. It is considered one of the most successful of his attempts in this style. The text is still unabashedly sweeping but it does not attempt to be anything other than a subjective look into the speaker’s mind. It is written in classical Iambic Pentameter with an everyday-speech feel to the narrator’s tale. This is a poem laced with a kind of romanticised death imagery, a theme that runs through much of Keats’ work. The speaker almost seems caught in a kind of preternatural twilight between life and death and is using this paradox to garner some insight. He says:

And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; (lines 7-8)

The speaker’s fear of death is not simply concerned with his own mortality but also with the thought that he will miss out on a beautiful mystery that will not lose its potency after he has perished. It is akin to the seeker who fears he will die before his quest is completed. The phrase ‘magic hand of chance’ implies chaos but also the exercise of the speaker’s own free-will, and how easily that will can be taken by an indifferent world. It is difficult to deduce whether the poet sees death as merely a veil between worlds or a morbid finality. Perhaps this is a contradiction that all artists are faced with when they choose to create something.

There is genuine deep sadness in the poet’s understanding of his own predicament. He is akin to a medium who is attuned to the resonances of another world, who fears that his abilities are dwarfed by his own mortality, that he will be pulled back from a full appreciation of the imagination before his pen has gleaned his ‘teeming brain’. This suggests that within his biology are secrets that could be unlocked if only he had enough time. The issue of time is an important one because the title alone evokes a kind of race against the clock. Time is in league with death, stalking the poet and threatening to collapse his physical life and all his works. It is perhaps a darkly humorous conceit that the poet deals primarily with a timeless fabric of imageries and yet is hounded by time and enclosed within it. He says:

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love;-then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. (lines 10-12)

Who exactly is Keats referring to? Who is the ‘fair creature of an hour’? Is it a lover, or perhaps poetry itself? The ‘relish’ that he refers to might imply a kind of self-love, an ‘unreflecting love’ that no one else can give. Is this an aspect of the poet himself, the imaginative Keats that will live on after his corporeal death? Is this the speaker staring into the reflecting pool like Narcissus, musing on his own self-image? It is important to remember that the poem is titled ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’, in that the poem is about the fear of losing one’s own personal identity to a larger force, be it ‘Nature’ or ‘God’ or ‘Death’. It is not the cessation itself that takes primacy in the text but the genuine fear of it.

Does Keats really believe that his physical death will be the end of him, or is he playing with the hypothetical reader’s understanding of the concept of death? By animating the text with a speaking or reading voice, the reader is forced to give life to the discussion of these fears. Therefore it can be suggested that the text creates a kind of poetic time travel, plunging the reader into 1848 and all of the speaker’s worries. Is this the speaker’s last laugh perhaps, a kind of immortality that is achieved by making the reader share the same doubts and fears? The last line is telling in that there is a bitterness that can be read into it but also a sense of defeated resignation. He says: ‘Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.’ Is this Keats’ own fame that he refers to, or is it the way a loved one is viewed through the eyes of someone that cares for them?

Perhaps it is not the theme of death that is being explored, but rather the theme of psychological isolation that can be viewed as a kind of living-death, an existential anxiety that comes with being an individual. It is curious that the last line has the words ‘to nothingness do sink’, in that sinking implies depth, which in turn evokes richness and texture, not the nothingness that is overtly stated. Perhaps the nothingness is seen by the speaker as a kind of poetic clarity, a nebulous energy that can take any imaginative form, in effect a metaphysical Idealism. This is merely subjective speculation, but for Keats it would have surely been a true romantic conceit, simultaneously disturbing and comforting.

Friday, 22 October 2010

A Healing Flame: Desire and Regeneration in ‘Goblin Market’.

‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti was written in 1862 and has been the subject of numerous readings focusing on the nature of desire and its corruption of Man. Many scholars see the poem as a Christian allegory with an almost Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, a filter through which much of the poet’s work is viewed. This essayist would argue that there is a nuanced metaphorical potency to the tale that makes it much more than a limited religious fable. The critic Jerome McGann calls Rossetti a ‘morally committed artist’ who places her characters ‘in situations where they are asked to distinguish the real from the illusory.’ There is much Christian symbolism in the text, evident to anyone who pays it a glance, but this is by no means where the true power of ‘Goblin Market’ lies.

The hypothetical reader may be inclined to speculate about an interrelationship between desire and self-abuse, a theme implied through the juxtaposition of the two main characters. Laura’s hunger for the goblin fruit, her desire for possession, to be possessed, is set beside Lizzie’s supposed self-control and moral certitude. In lines 65-71 of the poem the reader is made to see this conceit quite starkly:

“No,” said Lizzie: “No, no, no;
Their offers should charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut her eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.

Perhaps this apparent simplicity is deceptive. The most engaging works of art have a multiplicity of meanings that are interconnected, bringing forth different interpretations based on the varying beliefs and associations of the hypothetical reader. Is this especially true of a poet as canny, driven and complex as Rossetti? One salient fact seems evident. The girls’ motivations in ‘Goblin Market’ are not as contradictory or obvious as they may first appear. Despite their seemingly polarised natures, they both share a dangerous, potentially redemptive desire to move beyond their own perceived limitations, a deeply human urge for communion with something greater. It is a spiritual hunger that is made emblematic through a nuanced Christian framework that invokes the Eucharist. Marylu Hill discusses this theme in an insightful essay and says this of the poem:

Desire, however, remains for both Rossetti and [Saint] Augustine something right and necessary, and its proper fulfilment will be better yet when God “awakest us to delight” in Augustine’s terms, which is sometimes also translated as “arouse us”.

It is a misplaced desire that leads Laura to briefly fall from grace, not the desire itself, and as such Rossetti is tender towards the girl, leading the reader to appreciate that there is nothing inherently immoral in her. Jerome McGann is aware that Rossetti is sympathetic to the plight of the exploited, but he posits that she ‘focuses on that material condition as a sign, or revelation, of an inward and spiritual corruption.’

Laura and Lizzie are two friends who begin to find themselves intrigued by merchant goblin men who sell their wares. What they appear to be selling is delicious fruit that the two girls are expected to crave. However, it seems that these merchant men are selling more than just fruit. They are selling the secret promise of liberation, awakening, and sated temptation. These things will ultimately come at a price greater than shiny coins, as Laura will discover as the poem progresses. The ‘liberation’ sold by the goblin men is insubstantial and illusory. The sinister fruits offer only an increased appetite that cannot be sated because they are not the true fruit that the girls seek. In lines 164-168 we see this vividly implied:

“Nay, hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
Tomorrow night I will
Buy more:”

Like Satan wearing the beguiling face of Adam, the goblin men fool innocent Laura into thinking that the beauty and promise of the fruit is a mark of its ability to provide spiritual sustenance. The reader can find echoes of this Ideal-Real conflict in the depictions of tortured femininity seen in much Pre-Raphaelite art. Jerome McGann understands that this apparent ‘power over women comes ultimately from the women’s (erroneous) belief that the goblins have something which the women need, that the women are incomplete.’ With this in mind, it is important to note that it is not just unbridled sexual desire that lies beneath the actions of the main characters but also a pseudo-awareness of the awful price of such ‘liberation’, a fear that it might birth an Eve within them, a fallen woman in the goblin eyes of society.

Delores Rosenblum says this in her poignant essay: ‘The woman vampirized by art, in life more dead than alive, in art endowed with ghostly life, suggests the kind of depersonalisation that woman-as-model experiences. The watcher commemorates her symbolic death.’ This kind of sentiment might seem insightful but irretrievably bleak if taken out of context. Earlier in the essay she says: ‘By stylising certain literary and scriptural conventions, and by exaggerating the renunciatory pose, Rossetti expresses at once her extreme alienation and her self-possession.’ In this way the artist can use an aesthetic of negation to preserve a secret of personal integrity, as a rebuttal to an enforced identity of degradation.

Jerome McGann says this of the goblin paradigm: ‘Indeed, they do not merely fail in their promises, they punish the women who accept these promises as true.’ This betrayal does not make the women passive victims because their strength, like Rossetti’s, is something that can exist beyond that paradigm. They may be forced to live in a corrupt goblin world but they do not have to see through corrupted eyes, nor feel it through a goblin heart. This then puts their souls, in a Christian sense, beyond the reach of spiritual perversion. The power of the merchants’ seduction is incomplete and therefore ultimately an illusion.

The poem uses a sexualised imagery of food to underscore the eroticisation of addictions and self-abuse that is hoped for by the goblin men, and Laura’s almost unknowing complicity in these transgressions. In lines 126-128 we see the following:

She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock.

Although the merchants seek to foster an insatiable hunger for their fruits and hence their ideology, the text presents an ambiguous depiction of this appetite as simultaneously creative and destructive, forcing the characters into new areas while also endangering them. Taking a Christian perspective this idea seems to gravitate towards an inversion; Lizzie acts as a Eucharistic agent for Laura, taking the poisonous essence of the goblin fruit and transmuting it through love and self-sacrifice into an antidote, creating a regenerative communion where the erotic and the spiritual co-exist, feeding and expanding each other. In effect they collapse the authority of the goblin paradigm, as can be seen in lines 521-523:

She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life?

As McGann clearly states: ‘The definitive sign of their dialectical relationship appears in the simple fact that Laura is not finally victimised.’ Laura consumes and imbibes her sister, now offered up Christ-like and self-conscious, so that an incorruptible spiritual beauty can spring from the corruption. This is a subtle and profound transformation; humble, devoted and unwavering, unlike the sinister glamour and bombast of the perverse goblin men. McGann goes on to say this:

Lizzie’s behaviour is also a stylistic metaphor standing for Rossetti’s poetry, whose correct beauty judges, particularly through its modest address, all that is pretentious and illusory. The fruits, the language, the behaviour of the goblin merchants are all metaphors for what John Keats had earlier called ‘careless hectors in proud, bad verse’.

This suggests that ‘Goblin Market’ is not just a Christian allegory, although it powerfully employs such a framework. More accurately it is a critique of the poetic literary impulse itself, exploring the relationship it has to the psychological-symbolic power of the human soul and its capacity for simultaneous regeneration, innocence and self-awareness.


Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1990)

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology (John Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 1997)

Gilmour, Robin, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of
Literature 1830-1890 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1993)

Hill, Marylu, ‘Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me: Eucharist and the Erotic Body in Christina
Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’’, Victorian Poetry 43 no.4 455-472, 2005)

Leighton & Reynolds, Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, 1995)

McGann, Jerome, ‘Christina Rossetti’s Poems’, and Rosenblum, Delores, ‘Christina
Rossetti’s Religious Poetry’ in Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader, ed. Angela Leighton (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996)

Rossetti, Christina, ‘Goblin Market’, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What is a poem?

To begin with an official interpretation seems like a solid base with which to explore the question. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines a poem in this way:

Poem / n. metrical composition, usually concerned with feeling or imaginative description; elevated composition in verse or prose; something with poetic qualities.

This is a fairly broad if impersonal description of what constitutes a poem. It can be argued that poetry has existed as long as language, whether we are discussing the spoken or the written word. If language is a means of communicating thoughts through sound or a visual medium then it follows that poetry is an extension of this basic function. We write and speak so that we are understood by ourselves and others. Language is the primary means through which human culture defines and engages with its multiplicity of identities. We use it to create the idea of a Self that is separate from the world in which it is created. The development of language triggers a process of individuation in which greater subtleties of experience can be defined and shared with others, or simply understood by those having the experience.

Poetry seems to be an elevated form of language that is given focus by virtue of what it claims to be. If something is separated from common language and is ordered into some semblance of metrical rhythm, does it then constitute a poem? A conventional poem is usually composed of metrical feet, a unit of stresses in syllables that can be falling in nature, called trochaic, or rising in nature, called iambic. Prose can also be considered poetry if it bears the mark of careful intention. Is it true to say that poetry concerns itself with an appreciation of beauty? Perhaps it is not always the full-bodied Beauty of the Romantic poets; indeed, much modern poetry is edgy, dark and offensive to many people. Even the more restrained poems of today and yesterday are often filled with subversive allusions and little digs at conventional wisdom. Is it going too far to say that poetry can act not only as a mirror of human consciousness but also as an agent of social change? There are many poets who were and are unashamedly political in their work, often creating a parallel tract to official history. Is this part of the identity of the poem, to recover buried subjective truths and social values? It is inarguable that the poem owes its life to human voice, whether it is the spoken voice or the silent reading voice of the mind.

It can be argued that the poem, like all prose, is dead. It is fixed, inflexible, an artifact or perhaps a fetish. It is concerned with subjectivity but the poem itself is objective, a thing with no individual life. It is the creative, combining faculty of the human mind that animates the poem, breathing life and rhythm into something inert. The implication of this argument is that human consciousness is the active spirit of all poetry. The poem itself is merely a pattern, a guideline or form through which the imagination is able to view itself.

This essay will now look at a poem called ‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake. Although ‘The Tyger’ and ‘London’ are considered by scholars to be some of his best work, for this essayist ‘The Sick Rose’ is concise and possesses a terrible power and immediacy. I will transcribe the poem in full:

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is there one definite meaning to this poem that Blake himself understood fully or is there a nexus of interconnected meanings, some of which were partially obscured even from Blake? Is the poet an architect or simply a medium? Perhaps he is both, transcribing and also shaping the immaterial. Is this a poem about the futility of ideal romantic Love, or is it a meditation on the nature of Evil? Is it somehow both, or neither? The poem suggests the substitution of one love for another – crimson joy becoming a ‘dark secret love’. Or is the poem talking about the ghost of entropy, the inescapable fact of decay and death. These many meanings are not separate from the mind of Blake or any other reader of the poem. It is the human voice, silent or spoken, that gives the poem its power. It is this same voice that can deny the inert language its power.

Next let us look briefly at a poem called ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth. It is an unashamedly romantic and upbeat work. The poem is composed of four verses each with six lines. I will transcribe the last verse here:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Wordsworth captures the appreciation of simplicity that poetry can often give us, taking comfort in something like nature without sentimentalizing it. The key line in this verse is ‘They flash upon that inward eye’. Poetry is usually concerned with how the interiority of people engages with the exterior world, how the subjective imagination sets up a feedback loop with everything that is deemed objective, and how the two influence each other to create the subtleties of the human spirit.

The last poem this essay will look at is one of my own. It is titled ‘Hush’:

The sun-rain-sun of a difficult season
Grey luminosity of the King’s Cross
Sanguinary mornings, bloodless
Slow faces in books and newspapers
The silent hum after the echo of the closing notes
Day as the overture of Night
The breeding ground of afternoon
Black silk curtains reading over shoulders
Stealing watches off slender wrists
The office ceiling lined with carpet
Butterflies pressed between every brick and stone
Amidst the noise silence is screaming
The city hides its excitement
Poets and killers bleed between the lines

When composing this poem I did not want to be overly abstract or grandiose, rather I wanted to capture a specific mood I felt during very early mornings in London, a sense that the city was suspended between life and death, an odd liminal mood that seemed almost tangible. Whether the poem can be considered a success to that end is debatable, but it still follows that I am both the creator of the poem and also a reader of it, and as such there are resonances that remain beyond my grasp. Is it this kind of compressed metaphorical potency of all poems that invests them with such wonder and appeal? Perhaps it is akin to the human soul speaking to itself.

Into the Underworld: Sex, Power and Feminism in the fairytales of Angela Carter


This essay utilises a theoretical feminist approach to explore the depictions of gender, sex, power and feminism in the fairytales of Angela Carter, arguing that her work promotes a non-evasive ethic that tackles issues of denial and repression. The first chapter tackles the tensions between gender identities and sexuality, arguing that Carter’s work tests the limits of such representational boundaries. The second chapter argues that a greater comprehension of a female subject’s darker sexual aspects can potentially liberate her from patriarchal scripting, that facing the ‘shadow’ is a crucial step towards insight and self-governance. The third chapter argues that an awareness of binary systems and the transgression of such polarities constitutes a non-oppositional ‘underworld’ perspective. Overall, the nature of interrogating and potentially breaching intellectual absolutes and limitations will hopefully be of interest in a feminist context.


The writings of Angela Carter can be perceived as having many facets, edges and secret spaces. They have often rightly been figured as paths for tackling the issue of sexuality and the recognition of gender as a performance-based activity. Her work partially attempts to unveil the social constructs of masculinity and femininity, and the sexual currencies and taboos attached to them. Many critics have entered the labyrinthine debate concerning the writings of Angela Carter and the positive or negative influences her work has had on feminist discourse.

This essay of three chapters will take a feminist theoretical approach in exploring the fairytales of Angela Carter, with a general focus on The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, comparing and contrasting various feminist explorations of the material. The first chapter will argue that there are similarities and differences between our conceptions of sexuality and gender, and that a radical deconstruction of gender-types and a re-imagining of female heterosexuality is promoted in Carter’s tales. The second chapter will explore the ‘darker’ side of heterosexuality and the power-relations between men and women, arguing that Carter’s tales explore how the female subject might collude with the patriarchal scripting of her sexuality and identity, and that an awareness of how this occurs can be potentially liberating for the female subject. The third chapter will argue that a non-evasive ethic is evident in Carter’s tales, and that her writings consistently tackle taboo subjects of repression and denial, suggesting a non-oppositional ‘underworld’ perspective that favours the transgression of binary systems.

Gender and Sex – noticing the tensions

Carter’s interest in the complexities of sex and power, coupled with her provocative rhetoric, appears to make many critics uncomfortable. To this essayist it is Carter’s fairytale-themed writings, especially The Bloody Chamber, that seems to attract the most interesting criticisms. Patricia Dunker is suspicious of the fairytale itself and expresses a belief that using such a hetero-sexist paradigm somehow entraps the author. Dunker claims that ‘Carter envisages women’s sensuality simply as a response to male arousal. She has no conception of women’s sexuality as autonomous desire’. Here we might argue that for a heterosexual woman, especially one interested in penetrative sex, might not her sexuality be in some way connected to male arousal, especially if she is considering sleeping with him? This is not to belittle Dunker’s unease at some of the more disturbing elements in The Bloody Chamber, but, as Linden Peach perceptively suggests, the tales are:

not only explorations of women’s sexuality but of the ways in which men have sought to control that sexuality, of how both men and women need to reconfigure their sexualities, and of the commodification of women as ‘flesh’.

The aspects of Carter’s writing that explore this gender-as-performance scenario have many antecedents. The psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lancan proposed a realm of decentred and fictional human identities, both masculine and feminine, none of which are ‘real’ or ‘natural’. It is a lens through which Carter’s work is at least partially illuminated. This unveiling of the socially-constructed fictions of gender is a process that has found much currency in feminist theory and is largely associated with the work of Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray.

Both women were influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytical theories. Irigaray’s work predates Butler’s and concentrates on the masquerades of various feminine identities that are products of masculine scripts and roles. It is the acting out of these roles by the female subject that garners most of Irigaray’s attention. She comments broadly: ‘I think the masquerade has to be understood as what women do in order to recuperate some element of desire, to participate in man’s desire, but at the price of renouncing their own’. It is this quality, I would suggest, that Patricia Dunker senses in The Bloody Chamber; if not a possible acquiescence then at least a disturbing interest in male scripting of female desire.

The character of Beauty has such an interest in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, possibly the least radical of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast interpretations. Beauty’s time with the Beast makes her strangely aware that she ‘was learning, at the end of her adolescence, how to be a spoiled child and that pearly skin of hers was plumping out, a little, with high living and compliments’. Later we are informed that her face ‘was acquiring, instead of beauty, a lacquer of the invincible prettiness that characterises certain pampered, exquisite, expensive cats’.

To elude or subvert this male scripting of the female subject Luce Irigaray proposes a stratagem of resistance that she terms ‘playing with mimesis’. This is a strategy of employing parody and excess in mimicking patriarchy-defined feminine identities and thus exposing them as artificial and inauthentic. In this way, she argues, the female subject avoids the essentialist trap of trying to access some authentic femininity that might exist beyond this social construction of gender. We can see this blurring of gender identities in many of Carter’s texts, most dramatically in The Passion of New Eve. In this decentred, postmodern novel the transsexual Evelyn/Eve character comments on the strangeness of being surgically transformed into a ‘masturbatory fantasy’ and she tells us: ‘the cock in my head, still, twitched at the sight of myself’. During her sexual ‘relationship’ with the sadistic Zero she notes her own mimesis: ‘I was tense and preoccupied; although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in just such imitations’.

In the work of Angela Carter as a ‘problematic’ feminist there can be seen this desire to avoid a hard-line acceptance of idealism or essentialism, anything that suggests a natural or transcendent gendered-self, because these ideas have helped promote the ascendancy of patriarchy and have impaired general critical-thinking. We can see how, if the woman is indeed vampirised through this erroneous belief in her natural passivity, an absurd ‘ideal femininity’, a resistance to these false truths might promote a genuine empowering of the female subject, and a recognition that a female subject independent of patriarchal scripting exists in the first place.

But in Carter’s work there does seem to be this complex fascination with the patriarchal scripting of female desire that Patricia Dunker alludes to. As Paulina Palmer and other critics have argued, Irigaray’s view of mimesis is not without its problems. Palmer comments in an essay: ‘How can we differentiate a woman who is passively enacting a male-defined image of femininity from one who is subversively ‘playing with mimesis’?’ This tricky question of credibility can be levelled at Angela Carter herself, as well as the female characters that populate her fiction. This kind of mimesis has been criticised by writers like Palmer, Robert Clark and Patricia Dunker for its ‘lack’ of overt political resistance, because the female subject must necessarily use this strategy in an abstract world of ideas, surfaces and images. It is a criticism that is often levelled at Carter’s earlier work, including Shadow Dance and The Magic Toyshop.

The latter novel, one soaked with fairytale imagery, begins with Melanie standing in front of a mirror and exploring her teenage sexuality, dragging her hair ‘sluttishly across her face’. Like Dunker, Palmer suggests that the women in Carter’s early texts submit to what Irigaray calls ‘the dominant economy of desire’. Palmer goes on to say that Carter ‘represents woman as puppet, performing scripts assigned to her by a male-supremacist culture’. It is a problem that Palmer believes inherent in Carter’s writing up until Nights at the Circus, where a more heroic playing with mimesis comes to the fore and Palmer states that the character of Fevvers ‘engages in an exuberant version of it’.

Yet, there is an implication in Palmer’s essay that Carter’s earlier work embodies a lack of some kind – that this mimesis is an insubstantial shadow-play and that Carter falls short of her original intentions, perhaps due to her gothic fascination with phallocentric ideologies. But as Elisabeth Mahoney suggests, ‘Representational limits are what Angela Carter’s fictions consistently test, especially those associated with questions of sexual difference and identity’. Perhaps the reason that Carter so excels at this kind of shadow-play is because she is acutely interested in the nature of story-telling and her works are often tales about stories.

In The Bloody Chamber the reader gains access to a collection of lenses that are not just rewritten fairytales but are multidimensional stories about fairytales, in which the nature of power-relations, sexual desire and transformation are all keenly explored. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book for those that care to see; that it deconstructs and reconstructs ideas concerning narratives and human identity, and presents depictions of a certain ‘conscious artifice’ through which these ideas can be laterally viewed. Although The Bloody Chamber is largely concerned with the seductions and controls of heterosexuality there are many tales in the book that are equally concerned with the performance aspects of both masculinity and femininity, and Carter gleefully celebrates the significance of the meta-gendered or transgendered subject. As the heroine of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ explains in Carter’s strangest version of the Beauty and the Beast tale:

And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops from my beautiful fur.

When read against ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, where Beauty and the Beast stroll through a garden in a drift of petals like a ‘normal’ romantic couple, we can see the genuine radicality that is suffused in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’. Not only does the heroine discover her own innate animalism, an equal to the male Beast, but the accoutrements of her fictional femininity reveal themselves to be water, a mere glamour that she happily shrugs off.

Despite the importance of such gender deconstructions, we must not forget the physical realities of life that Carter herself was so obviously interested in. To put it somewhat crudely; if a heterosexual woman intends to fuck a man she desires, doesn’t she need his erect phallus to complete her experience? Doesn’t the man need her wet vagina to similarly complete his experience? I only use such language to make a point, as it were, one that is sensible and valid. However, this mechanical need for male and female genitalia during heterosexual encounters does not mean that there should be a fixed social identity for either women or men. In The Bloody Chamber, though it is strange and disquieting, Carter explores a host of reciprocal roles that attempt to move beyond scripted notions of gender identity. Yes, women and men often enjoy fucking each other, but that is a much-desired physical act and not a constraining and limited social fiction. Sarah Gamble implies this, despite having reservations with Carter’s work, when she argues:

It is not until the stories in The Bloody Chamber that Carter, if not deconstructing ‘the’ couple as such, certainly begins to renegotiate the terms on which they meet through her speculation that a sincere exchange of affection between the sexes is possible.

Masculinity and femininity, in this sense, is up for grabs, but the fact of sex is not. The mythologies surrounding sex are definitely ripe for reinvention, and in The Bloody Chamber as elsewhere there are characters that face their darkest conceptions about what constitutes ‘the other’ and are somehow both masculine and feminine as a result. Or as the French theorist Julia Kristeva argues in Strangers to Ourselves:

By recognising our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, then there are no foreigners’.

This is an argument that is deeply resonant with ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ as well as the tale of ‘Wolf-Alice’, where the protagonist tends to the Duke who is locked in a painful liminal zone between identities. He seems both self and other, male and female at this stage:

an aborted transformation, an incomplete mystery, now he lies writhing on his black bed in the room like a Mycenaean tomb, howls like a wolf with his foot in a trap or a woman in labour, and bleeds.

Angela Carter seems deeply interested in possibilities of transformation and indiscreet states of being in The Bloody Chamber. Could it be her skill and acuity as a teller of tales that accounts for ‘problematic’ aspects that critics like Clark, Dunker and Palmer have noticed in her work; the fact that there are fractures and contradictions in her writings? It seems Carter herself would have balked at clean-cut easy answers to such questions, since desire and power often possesses a transgressive quality. As Elaine Jordan argues in her essay ‘The Dangerous Edge’, the ‘abyss between desire and its satisfactions, and between the thinkable and the thing thought of, is crucial to the persistence of desire and thought’.

Angela Carter takes naked pleasure in exploring the limits of mimesis, desire and decentred identity in many of her stories. In the title-story of the Black Venus collection Carter attempts to flesh out the character of Jeanne Duval, the mistress of the iconic poet Charles Baudelaire. Jeanne attempts to move beyond her prescribed role as mystical muse; a gendered ‘vase of darkness’ filled with ‘black light’. Carter discusses the tensions that move between Baudelaire and Duval; the mingling and oppositions of their voices. It is a subtle, intelligent tale. I would suggest that Carter’s writings attempt to liberate sexuality and consciousness, through ethical transgressions that recognise the indeterminacy of meaning and identity.

Initiation Rites – facing your demons

The Bloody Chamber can be seen as a primarily heterosexual initiation ritual, a process that ushers the female subject into the House of Rational Magic that constitutes adult creativity and sexuality. If we figure patriarchy as a social shamanism of an external and limiting kind, one composed of power-relations masquerading as natural truth, then perhaps Carter is proposing an initiation into a certain internal shamanism; a form of magic that does not align itself with the myths of nature or essence.

The Bloody Chamber does not offer the advice ‘just lie down and take it’ to the heterosexual female. Instead it offers the female subject an opportunity to create a synthetic or individualistic identity based on fragments and associations of whatever she deems appropriate, that she can then use in her relationship with men and with herself. Female sexuality is not naturally passive. Nor is it conversely aggressive like the fanged rose in ‘The Erl-King’, a motif that returns in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ when the female vampire informs us of ‘the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs’. It can be a sexuality that is decentred and thus potentially liberated, as in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘Wolf-Alice’; or perhaps an identity that has its centre, if anywhere, in the infinite canvas of fiction.

I would suggest that Carter is interested in enlivening and recuperating the fairytale genre – and the feminine myth – as much as she attempts to deconstruct and demystify it. This is evident from the sheer pleasure she takes in sensuous descriptions of the gothic, the occasional complicity of her heroines, and the allusive dreamlike quality of her prose. She recognises voices from the past and marginal themes, and rather than confining or prescribing female identity she utilises fairytale tropes in order to shape new and inclusive identities.

This pleasure that she takes is nakedly erotic as well as intellectual; it is akin to what the Greeks called Eros. David Punter argues that channelling sexuality into conventional white-washed forms ‘is repressive and, in the end, highly dangerous, [in] that it is a denial of Eros and that Eros so slighted returns in the form of threat and violence’. Or we might argue that if we repress Eros it can return as Thanatos – the death instinct, with all its polymorphous qualities. As the researcher James Hillman eloquently argues in his perceptive book The Dream and the Underworld:

If we follow this notion of Eros, then it is the brother of death and not the principle that will save us from it. There would be a closer bond between what goes on in dreams and a love that fulfils itself in darkness, in the intangible bodies of psychic images. Thus there is a downward love, and not only an Eros stretching itself towards the horizon of others.

Carter attempts to fearlessly explore these themes in The Bloody Chamber, with close attention paid to the interiority of the female subject.

In Lucie Armitt’s evocative essay ‘The Fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber’ she references the critics Elaine Jordan and Merja Makinen, and says of them, ‘They acknowledge the role these tales fulfil as textual explorations of the genuine complexities that confront even the most assertive of heterosexual women under patriarchy’. I would suggest this is the power that Carter sensed in being able to take hold of the narratives that govern women’s lives and their interactions with men, especially men they desire. If during this process of self-reinvention a female desires to flirt with patriarchal myths this does not mean that she is passive, rather it suggests agency – a desired sophistication in understanding the tropes of those myths.

I would suggest it is fruitful to acknowledge our shadows; it affords us our sanity. Aidan Day comments on this in his perceptive book Angela Carter – The Rational Glass. He argues that a ‘rational and ethical self is central to Carter’s programme in The Bloody Chamber collection, and it cannot sustain itself by evasion and repression’. This non-evasive ethic is something that Carter seems to promote at all times, even when such an agency might appear on the surface latent or collusive with the patriarchy it attempts to subvert. Lucie Armitt suggests this when she comments at the end of her essay: ‘Taking a leaf out of her own protagonist’s book, Carter flirts with textual danger on her own untamed terms, refusing to give us clearly defined answers’.

In The Bloody Chamber the female subject encounters all the alluring and horrid phallocentric myths that constitute patriarchal social shamanism, and the reader is geared with some insight as to why these myths were perhaps so alluring even when they clearly restrained and limited her. We can see this vividly expressed in the title story, in part a reworking of Charles Perrault’s version of the Bluebeard tale. During a contentious scene in Carter’s version the young heroine notices her attractions to the Marquis that she has recently wed. After leading her to his garish mirrored bedroom he strips her naked without any tenderness, approaching his ‘familiar treat with a weary appetite’, and she notes:

He in his London tailoring; she, bare as a lamb chop. Most pornographic of all confrontations. And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring. […] And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh

She notices her arousal and that it is impersonal, fulfilling some interior mythical dimension, rather than a simply passive response to the Sadeian unpleasantness of the Marquis. She does not evade herself and is perhaps rewarded with insight. Here we might argue that the heroine intuits that her husband is merely a vehicle, one that excites a dark interconnection of signs and motifs within her own psyche. As she informs us earlier in the tale when she is given a ‘cruel necklace’ by the Marquis: ‘And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away. The next day we were married’.

This seems to be a very important though misunderstood key in unlocking Carter’s work and the power it possesses. To be a genuine female subject, where genuine is synonymous with self-made and active, one must understand the horrors and allures of feminine identities created by patriarchal coercion. One must understand the allure of passivity, or sado-masochism, or the possible masculine architect of such ‘feminine’ images. One must also comprehend that such a melancholy femininity cannot exist without its demonic counterpart; the very phallic masculinity that appears so powerful and controlling. Both are fictions that live primarily within, and only through this binary can they exist unnoticed. If women sometimes collude with patriarchal scripting of female desire, then men do it also with a counterpart scripting of male desire – in these instances both sexes are flirting with a polarised phallocentric mythology. Since they are internal polarities, unveiling the actions of one must necessarily destabilise the actions of the other. As Marianne informs her barbarian lover Jewel in Carter’s post-apocalyptic novel Heroes and Villains, ‘You, you’re nothing but the furious invention of my virgin nights.’

The Bloody Chamber is largely concerned with exposing the supposedly ‘natural’ wisdom and codes of canonical fairytales as false, as mediated social constructions with purpose, whether that purpose is sinisterly conscious or blithely unconscious. Without this exposure heterosexual women and men might be liable to feel corrupted, coded in ways they do not fully understand, entrapped by their dark psychic content, by their sexual fantasies, by their own will-to-power. The interlocking nature of The Bloody Chamber can help to off-set this entrapment by bringing us face to face with some of the reasons why it occurs and how we might unknowingly collude with our own psychic slavery. Lucie Armitt utilises Julia Kristeva’s conceptions of the abject when she suggests that abjection is ‘a particularly useful concept to apply to any metaphoric narrative, and especially to a mode of writing which, like these tales, prides itself on the interrogation of apparently impenetrable limits’.

The interlinked frames in The Bloody Chamber, as well as the repetition of motifs and the reoccurrence of character-types, is a beautiful method that Carter uses to signify the relationship between ideas of the self and the other, between violence and desire, or freedom and control. Perception is a shifting, indeterminate process. Therefore, can the female subject ever really be contained within patriarchy, or within the interconnected lenses of the book itself? The logic of the book is not phallic or linear, and while its goals include self-knowledge and the ability to reason it is not the reason of an apollonian day-world sort. It is a reflexive non-linear reason that holds the tales together, a tissue of poetic associations that could be described as a gyroscope of shifting lenses. Or as Armitt elaborates:

In other words, images, symbols and motifs from one story turn up in another in a way that reiterates and reworks the concerns of a previous vignette. As a whole, this multiplicity of interconnecting frames is, like the contents of the coffin, only precariously encased within the larger frame of the whole.

It is this arrangement that allows us to see themes deconstructed, decentred and revivified in ways that are disturbing and perhaps useful.

One of the key themes in The Bloody Chamber concerns the female subject courageously confronting the horror of the ‘rape-scenario’ that is perhaps implicit in fairytales and patriarchal masculine-feminine discourse. Sarah Gamble reiterates Margaret Atwood’s essay ‘Running with Tigers’ when she suggests that The Bloody Chamber is ‘best understood as a kind of fictional companion volume to The Sadeian Woman, for it constitutes an exploration of the same predator/prey equation that preoccupies the de Sade study’. It is the little-girl-in-peril motif, the ‘heterosexual fucking as rape’ implications, that Angela Carter finds so interestingly abhorrent.

Perhaps it is the presence of these themes that so disquiet critics like Dunker, Clark and Palmer. These unquestioned violent motifs serve to terrify both female and male subjects into intellectual passivity, Carter would claim, and create the monolithic fiction of the masculine as an almost supernaturally-sexualised predator. Discussions concerning the actual fragility of the male phallus and problems of impotency only serve to furnish us with intellectual insight, but to undercut the power of such a pathological myth we must return to the canvas of stories, for it is there that the myth gains or loses its power to entrance. By demystifying the Marquis or the Wolf in fictional terms Carter is thus able to destabilise their power-centre at the source, so to speak. To put it another way, if we fear or detest certain stories then we must question them and re-imagine them at ‘ground zero’, at the level of storytelling itself. We must return to old texts and read them with contextual differences, and create new texts that borrow whatever is needed from the old myths to provide elucidation.

This is what Carter is doing, I feel, she is borrowing as much from patriarchy as she needs to make her ideas intelligible and engaging. To expose Bluebeard or the Wolf, Carter must first have them present in some identifiable form. It is the same with apparently passive female characters. These images dwell within the psyche, nurtured or questioned by our imaginations. This does not necessarily mean that Carter is re-inscribing female disempowerment or adding to the phallocentric mythology, even if she senses in herself a gothic attraction and interest in such ideas. Is it unacceptable to be attracted to Bluebeard or the Wolf, or to the fiction of the passive feminine? Is it unacceptable to explore this attraction, its reasons and limits, through fiction? I would suggest that it is not, especially when the manifesto is one of general emancipation.

Underworld Perspectives – reinventing the Self

There is wisdom contained in much of Carter’s prose, concerning self-responsibility and the acknowledgement of our shadows, but in The Bloody Chamber it is constellated into this very unique hall of mirrors or Chinese boxes arrangement. Thus it takes on the quality of an initiation rite, or a descent into an underworld of images where egoist consciousness is not always in control. It is a willing oblation, akin to the tarot card called ‘The Hanged Man’; a willingness to experience a measure of melancholy and uncleanliness as a toll for entering the netherworld and gaining valuable insight. We could draw parallels with the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman who must be paid with silver for safe passage across the River Styx. Simple ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ idiom is not enough to successfully traverse this realm of the dead. In fact, those initiated into the place below the world must attempt to unite or transgress binary systems, to perceive the artificiality and co-dependence of opposites.

Perhaps for Carter, since we are all male or female impersonators, it makes selfhood a unique and vibrant thing if we can achieve some kind of synthesis or androgyny at the level of storytelling, if we can face our shadows, for it is this level of perception from which our mythologies and social interrelationships must arise. In Margaret Atwood’s essay on Carter’s work, ‘Running with Tigers’, she comments insightfully:

What Carter seems to be doing in The Bloody Chamber – among other things – is looking for ways in which the tiger and the lamb, or the tiger and lamb parts of the psyche, can reach some sort of accommodation.

If we are familiarised with gender and power relationships when we are children, often through fairytales, then those stories are loaded with significance and potential in terms of our maturation, and are just as powerful when we return to them again as socially-constructed adults. Angela Carter’s writing is filled with fairytale tropes that have a liberating potential, even if this potential is sometimes latent or ‘lacking’, as critics like Patricia Dunker and Robert Clark have maintained.

In an underworld scenario the uncertain persona, or mask of ego, must eventually comprehend why certain things are simultaneously seductive and controlling to the psyche, as Atwood suggests. The persona can then return to the over-world with a liberating insight. James Hillman encapsulates this kind of decentred, non-oppositional perception, and sees it as a way towards healing or re-imagining the self. He argues insightfully:

If we do speak in terms of opposites, then there is only one absolute material opponent to any position in life, and that is its death. If we deliteralize that statement, we are saying that ‘death’ is the way through the opposites, that is, it is the self-regulation of any position by psyche, by non-literal, metaphorical perception. In this sense, conjunction and the identity of opposites mean the simultaneous perception by the perspectives of life and death, the natural and the psychic. […] We see the hidden connection between what had hitherto been oppositions.

This salient connection to the underworld and its gothic, willing-sacrifice resonances should be brought into relief here. As Lucie Armitt highlights:

It is perhaps this masochistic dynamic that takes us to the world of the Gothic, a form less easily encompassed by formulaic convention, for although it flirts with the fairy-tale genre’s own spatial trappings, it usually transcends their protective bounds.

In this odd realm Angela Carter gives form to the tensions of the remade identities of self, versus the patriarchal identities of wounded-self that are usually offered for women to act out like eidolons, phantom images of the underworld. Carter comes down firmly on the side of the remade self because it is, in this context, a consciousness that has traversed the underworld successfully. It understands the ways it colludes with or subverts the roles and relationships thrust upon it by phallocentric mystification, and it crucially acknowledges such a patriarchy as a constellation of illusions.

The young heroine realises this during her final confrontation with the wolf in ‘The Company of Wolves’. As Carter describes: ‘she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing’. I would suggest this scene is not a rape, or an acquiescing to male desire on the part of the female subject. It is a unification of opposites and a sexual initiation that recognises ‘the other’ as part of the self in the dream of consciousness, resulting in the young heroine sleeping soundly ‘between the paws of the tender wolf’.

The form of the fairytale in the way Angela Carter utilises it lends itself to this exploration of blurred and overlapping identities. This is especially true of The Bloody Chamber, due to its ‘initiation’ quality and its underworld aesthetic. But once a subject has traversed the underworld and has found insight, what then becomes of her when she returns to the over-world? Carter attempts to explore these important questions in Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, published towards the end of her career, and we might argue that a certain cynicism with her own proclivities meant that such questions were never too far from her awareness.

Perhaps we might figure this idea in another way; as the limits and dissatisfactions of an underworld transgression, or of an indeterminate ‘postmodern’ sensibility. At the end of The Magic Toyshop we could argue that Melanie and Finn are left feeling strangely bereft without a governing patriarch, facing each other ‘in a wild surmise’. This does not mean that such a patriarch is needed, only that Carter is perceptive enough to sense the feeling of ambiguity or loss that might remain once a system is overthrown or seen through, despite its controlling or monstrous qualities.

Perhaps we might briefly discuss Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque, and its limits in figuring the underworld. Once the world has been turned topsy-turvy by transgression into the carnivalesque, we might return to find that the controlling paradigm remains much the same as when we left it. How do we then apply the insights gained during our time in such a realm? In connection to this we might also argue that the Feast of Fools was an authorised Dionysian revelry, a way of relieving social tensions, and is perhaps more closely aligned to the controlling paradigm than it might appear at first glance. Is the concept of the underworld as figured by James Hillman simply a version of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque? Is it a masculine sleight-of-hand that ultimately denies the female subject, as intelligently discussed by Jane Miller in her book Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture, and can it be explained away as patriarchy sanctioning occasional transgressions to defuse political discontent and to edify its power-base?

While Miller’s arguments have a strong political resonance, I would suggest that Hillman’s concept of non-oppositional perception is something far greater than what she is referencing. Elisabeth Mahoney makes a highly interesting point that might be useful here. She notes how feminine sexuality is dominantly coded as a lack of something, and that psychoanalytic theories ‘posit feminine desire as enigmatic; purely relational (for Freud through penis envy; for Lacan through the lack of the phallus, the universal signifier)’ and she goes on to argue:

Such models suggest that women are unable to articulate their own desires and remain trapped as objects of masculine desire, as the ‘other’ of the male gaze. Such influential psychoanalytic perspectives on feminine desire have prompted feminist theorists and cultural practitioners to rethink, if not altogether repudiate, these paradigms.

Therefore, in defence of the underworld perspective as an internal strategy to evade repression and denial of our darker aspects, we might consider that many scholars, including James Hillman and Julia Kristeva, believe the intellectual transgression of all absolutes is a profound and necessary tool in negotiating more inclusive concepts of sexuality and identity. I suspect it is a far more dangerous and transformative perception than Bahktin’s concept of the carnivelesque, or Bruno Bettelheim’s view of fairytales as deep unchanging archetypes that are purely positive and safe. This concept of the underworld implied by scholars like Hillman and Kristeva is always interrelated with our perceptions, both past and present, and like fairytales themselves it contains both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ polarities. It is the non-oppositional perspective from which we might perceive, rather than an unchanging aspect of a text or ourselves – and it does not play safe.


If we were to connect all the instances of resistance, subversion and transgression created by women throughout history, both in art and politics, might this interconnection form a counter-argument or a parallel tract to official history that is both reflexive and aggressive – an underworld of suppressed or denied experience? Perhaps through economic and cultural dominance the voices of patriarchy are heard loudest but they are not the only voices, nor have they ever been singular. The term ‘patriarchy’ itself is mutable, as is ‘feminism’.
We might consider that a heterosexual perspective is not the only one that can be used to analyse Carter’s work, or fairytales in general. Perhaps an application of queer-theory might garner some useful insights in this regard – the complexities of same-sex relationships as figured in fantastic literature, or simply a queer reading of Carter’s texts with regards to sexuality, identity and power.

There have always been other voices and other interpretive strategies, and like all things they rely on interrelationships for their meanings. Meanings change, and I would suggest that this is the power of an underworld perspective – a politicised and open-minded stewardship of ourselves, in all its multiplicity. I would argue that if the language for describing something changes, so too is the thing described also changed. Within that paradox lies an immense source of creative power because, as self-conscious beings gifted or cursed with the capacity for language, we must necessarily discuss ourselves into existence both externally and internally.


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