photo by Melina Souza
Ever Dundas recommends
Angela Carter’s ‘The Erl King’
Shortlisted for the 2012 THRESHOLDS Feature Writing Competition
Angela Carter’s writing is, quite frankly, delicious.
I haven’t come across another writer who makes me feel such joy when I read their work. She weaves a spell, pulling you into her dark, beautiful and perverse worlds. I hope to take you into her world, with the story of ‘The Erl King’, my favourite from the The Bloody Chamber collection. And why that particular story? Well, whet your appetite with this delectable morsel:
The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered.
It’s poetic, evocative, sensual and difficult. If that doesn’t whet your senses, I don’t know what will.
I am intrigued by everything around me, often walking the streets in an almost naïve state of awe and interest, but, like anyone, I can become inured to the familiar. Carter conjures the world anew, and I walk the streets with a different kind of engagement. When art makes me experience the world in this way it thrills me. Victor Shklovsky states that, “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney.” Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’ does just that.
Carter’s writing defamiliarises the world in its evocative depiction of the wintry weather: ‘These vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light…’ We know what wintry overcast weather is like, yet Carter’s use of language makes us see it – feel it – as if for the first time. She achieves this same physicality of effect with the feeling of being enclosed in a wood: ‘The trees threaded a cat’s cradle of half-stripped branches over me so that I felt I was in a house of nets…’ Her description of touch – ‘He lays upon me his irrevocable hand’ – stands out because a hand, a physical touch, is not usually described in such a way. The word ‘irrevocable’ has quite a precise, distinctive effect.
The style of the story – its language and technique – mirrors what is happening to the narrator, as the evocative language seduces, drawing the reader in, laying upon us an ‘irrevocable hand’. The first paragraph ends with the image of ‘introspective weather, a sickroom hush’. Carter’s sharp observation perfectly captures the oppressive weather, and simultaneously draws you further into the story — and into your own introspective space. There is almost a tangible feeling of a sweeping, invisible hush, an eerie sigh, that sweeps through the woods. There is also the jarring effect of the use of the word ‘sickroom’.
Many authors have experienced the ignominy of being presented with The Guardian’s ‘bad sex award’. Sex is a difficult thing to write about without clichéd or just plain ridiculous prose, but Carter’s sensual use of language mirrors the erotic tension in the story:
He strips me to my last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, pearlised satin, like a skinned rabbit; then dresses me again in an embrace so lucid and encompassing it might be made of water. And shakes over me dead leaves as if into the stream I have become.
There is the clichéd combination of food, seduction, sex, and death throughout the story, but these are defamiliarised in her execution:
Eat me, drink me; thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden, I go back and back to him to have his fingers strip the tattered skin away and clothe me in his dress of water, this garment that drenches me, its slithering odour, its capacity for drowning.
She also renews the cliché of falling into a lover’s eyes:
Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection, I will diminish to a point and vanish.
In all of Carter’s writing, she shakes up our idea of what ‘normal’ is, in both her style and content. Her stories are often tongue-in-cheek, irreverent and subversive. She makes the reader work through her dense use of symbols, intense, precise sentences and mischievous shifts. These shifts occur throughout the text, from the opening paragraph noted above, with its evocative, poetic language, to: ‘There are some eyes that can eat you’. The predatory eyes are straight out of the dark, unforgiving tradition of the old oral fairy tale. As well as the wondrous imagery of eyes that can devour, this line is jarring in the sudden change from what has gone before; it keeps the reader working, thinking and tasting the flavours of her language.
Carter also keeps the reader on his or her toes with the device of the shifting narrator. At the beginning of the story there is an objective narrator, and Carter uses the pronoun ‘you’ throughout; it is the reader who is being addressed and implicated in the story. However, there is a shift when she writes ‘…the cold wind that always heralds your presence…’ The ‘you’ in this case, refers to the Erl-King, but could further implicate the reader. Where previously the reader was trapped in the wood, they are now the trapper.
There is a further shift in the sentence ‘Erl-King will do you grievous harm’, a line independent from the surrounding text. After positioning the reader as the Erl-King, the reader is told that the Erl-King will do them harm. This shift in narrator is a particularly postmodern move – drawing attention to its form, implicating the reader and, something for which Carter is renowned, proposing shifting identities and roles.
Carter takes this further by changing tense. The story begins in the present-tense, but the sentence ‘My hands shake’ marks the end of it, and the narrative shifts to what is going to happen: ‘I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair…’ Carter then shifts narrator again. It is no longer ‘I’, but ‘she’: ‘Then she will open all the cages’.
Perhaps, after committing murder, it is easier for her to consider herself from a third-person point of view. Or is the narrator suggesting that if she does not murder the Erl-King, then someone else will? Will a matriarchy eventually overcome the patriarchy? ‘Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’
‘The Erl-King’ disrupts fixed gender roles. Literary scholar Terry Castle writes that ‘Carter’s postmodern fiction uses the fantastic to undermine conventions of perception and mimetic representation’. Carter defamiliarises the male/female dichotomy that has dictated the different ways in which the body has been portrayed:
His skin is the tint and texture of sour cream, he has stiff russet nipples ripe as berries. Like a tree that bears bloom and fruit on the same bough together, how pleasing, how lovely.
Male bodies are not usually described in so sensual a manner. More often the male is described in terms of action; we tend not to know how his skin and nipples look and feel. Carter’s description of the male body exposes the constraints of the dominant discourse. Words converge. It is a text written upon the body, but the body is not passive, and Carter explicitly defamiliarises gender roles when she writes ‘He is an excellent housewife’. It is a simple, concise, yet jarring sentence.
Carter takes archetypes, and re-imagines them, demonstrating their mutability and heightening our awareness of dominant discourses and received ideas.n. Carter turns the association of women as seducers – femmes fatales, who are cloaked in illusion – on its head. Throughout the story, it is the Erl-King who is the seducer. Carter describes the Erl-King’s eyes as being as ‘green as apples’, drawing upon the fairy tale and biblical association of apples with poison and evil. She goes on to describe his eyes as ‘green as dead sea fruit’, clearly demonstrating that the narrator is aware they are being seduced by something that appears beautiful on the surface, but is in fact corrupt. Throughout the story, the narrator is seduced, but also shows resistance – she takes action, and is not merely acted upon.
‘The Erl-King’ is powerful because it uses language to convey simultaneously the autonomous nature of language and its powers of social critique. Throughout the story Carter seduces the reader with the rhythm of her language, but then uses defamiliarising devices to break any sense of familiarity or habit. This ‘break’ is mirrored in the seduction and then the resistance of the narrator. The shifts in narrator and tense also break the rhythm of the story and upset the reader’s comfortable sense of any stable identity.
My old university tutor once compared a particular author’s short stories to a Fabergé egg: smooth and perfect, yet when opened, jewels spill out. This is how I would describe Carter’s stories, particularly ‘The Erl King’. Only instead of jewels, we discover words that are as irresistible and various as sweets in our hands.