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Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter (Viking: $13.95; 126 pp.)

September 21, 1986|Holly Prado | Prado is a Los Angeles poet and fiction writer. and

Angela Carter, praised for her novel, "Nights at the Circus," now presents a collection of vibrant fictional fantasies. These aren't tales for the faint-hearted, although they take on familiar subjects, ones that are part of our psychic mythology.

Unlike most contemporary fiction, these fresh and often disturbing stories are special because of the absence of the author as a personal voice. Carter delights in submerging herself in various moods, leading readers into a story until they're completely absorbed in another world, perhaps that of Baudelaire's Caribbean Creole mistress or that of a hermaphrodite sneezing in the unseasonal rain of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Some pieces here are no more than skillful flashes, exhibiting Carter's seductive literary dexterity. But within this collection, there are at least three distinctly memorable, outstanding stories. "The Fall River Axe Murders" captures the background and psychology of the Lizzie Borden murders. August, 1892, is a hot, satanic month when " . . . the descendants of the industrious, self-mortifying saints who imported the Protestant ethic wholesale into a land intended for the siesta are proud of flying in the face of nature." The greedy and gluttonous personalities of Lizzie's father and stepmother are shown as viciousness masquerading as Puritanical goodness. Lizzie's frustrations mount to the moment just before the murders; readers are left with the heavy, American misery of her time and place. The accumulation of detail, along with the insight of an objective author who demands that readers see the evidence for themselves, make this story unforgettable.

A similar technique is used in "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe," although the voice here is as melodramatic as the one in the Lizzie Borden writing is objective--as melodramatic as Poe's own style. His vision of the feminine as mysterious and horrifying is revealed through his mother's illusory career as an actress and her death when Poe was a child. The unhappy beauty of this story is Carter's success at compiling imagined psychology from historical fact, creating Poe's personality as an inheritance from the tragic confusions of theatrical illusion.

In another mood, "Peter and the Wolf" is told as a traditional folk tale, but the narrative leads to a climactic incident that rescues the writing from folksy innocence. A child is raised by wolves; her family attempts to save her but can't. An older cousin eventually has a revelatory meeting with this creature, which offers the possibility that the unconscious and wild, as terrible as it might appear, can release one from sin. "Then he determinedly set his face toward the town and tramped onwards, into a different story."

Each of these tales is "a different story," different from the others and different from the overly frequent contemporary fictions of aimless characters wandering aimless shopping malls. At its best, Carter's work probes, frightens, enchants and makes the blood beat faster--exactly what real stories should do.

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