A colleague lent me this book spontaneously last week. It was in her bag, she’d just read it again and – I suspect – she was surprised that I’ve never read anything by Angela Carter, of whom she is a fan. I quickly set about remedying the situation… and within the first few pages, I was so engrossed that I nearly missed my tube stop.
Throughout the experience of reading Heroes and Villains, I felt like I’d stumbled into the parallel universe of one of my favourite fairy tales as a child. The gothic has invaded every crack. There is a white tower, a blonde-haired heroine, a dark-haired prince of sorts. Only here, the divide between good and evil is indefinable, fraught with complication and at times, irrelevant.
There is blood, and death. There is sex, there is hatred. The heroine, Marianne, is no simpering princess who sings to animals but instead a spiteful, stern girl with sharp, cold eyes who is so profoundly bored by her life in the white tower of Professors that she welcomes violent abduction. The “prince” is no dashing sophisticate but a brutal, illiterate wanderer named Jewel for his beauty who is far better versed in violence than chivalrous charm and who can only emit tenderness in brief, near-accidental caresses. Marianne leaves her sheltered realm and enters Jewel’s– a world of skins tattooed with crawling serpents, treacherous forest, chained children, the smell of festering flesh and a steady bubbling up of disorder. A violent existence that sees morality barely enforced by the indulgent maternal presence Mrs. Green and the sinister shaman-like figure of the Doctor. One that causes Marianne herself to brutally murder and feel not remorse but rather a ‘sense of wellbeing.’
The language is what really pulled me in. I soaked into it like a warm bath. The tone is one of ominously fantastical dreaminess. At times we float through it, at other times it stabs. Indulgent, Blyton-esque descriptions of environment like ‘the light was so thick and delicious looking it could have been eaten with a spoon for the evening was as unnaturally warm and sweet as fresh jam’ sit alongside the starkest, most radically disconnected sentences that refuse to use any more than six words to convey a horrific moment of death, rape or profound loss.
Whether this deliberate brevity echoes the internal numbness within Marianne, or to shift our reception of reality in terms of what should and should not affect us (she herself saw art in de Sade terms of immoral subversion of the establishment), Carter’s bullet-blunt approach here in fact creates an even more disturbing atmosphere than detailed description would have.
And of course, there is a love story, albeit a deformed one. Jewel and Marianne are thrown together by a dark fate. They simultaneously repel and gravitate towards their union, and cling grimly to one another in moments of necessity whilst resenting their co-dependence. Jewel nurses an overwhelming superstition that Marianne will be his death. She, in turn, flees bitterly from any reminder of her reliance upon him. Whilst murder barely raises her eyebrows, she is terrified by the potential subsuming of her independence through lust, sex, and the eventual outcome of pregnancy. She is frightened by her inability to escape the hypnotic power of his flesh, his body, his face – the memory of which has haunted her from childhood. Neither Marianne nor Jewel ever fully articulates what they feel for one another as love – such a word has no rightful place in this post-apocalyptic world of forests and ragged cities. What is love, here? What are lovers? On their wedding night a disjointed sense of unreality reigns as we read;
‘He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture…He had become the sign of an idea of a hero; and she herself had been forced to impersonate the sign of a memory of a bride.’
Heroes and Villains allows us an all-too-brief entry into a world where the normal has become alien, the familiar tinged with something impure yet seductive. Like the gleaming blackness of Jewel’s skin underneath his tribal paint, the book scratches the surface of established signs to reveal them as far darker than we ever remembered.
Carter herself said: ‘I see my business, the nature of my work, as taking apart mythologies, in order to find out what basic, human stuff they are made of in the first place.’