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Reading this collection is like wandering through the Angela Carter Museum. The tour begins with her early works from the 1960s and 1970s, which display the rough-edged elements that the British writer would later polish into masterpieces of short fiction. "A Very, Very Great Lady and Her Son at Home," in which a pompous mother gets her comeuppance, contains characters straight out of the Brothers Grimm (a father of 23 children lists their names on the brim of his hat) and an ending naughty enough to satisfy fans of Roald Dahl's adult tales. "A Victorian Fable," told in an invented vernacular, hints at the postmodern narrative play that made Carter the darling of associate English professors. Her aptly-titled first collection, "Fireworks" (1974), contains language so full of flash and dazzle -- "at all hours a crepuscular gloaming prevails" is one of her more subtle phrases -- that one cries out for a crisp edit by the ghost of minimalist Raymond Carver.
Once we step into what a curator might call Carter's mature period, however, everything comes together. With her rich language, delicious sense of irony, and playful feminist spirit, Carter created fairy tales for a postmodern age. In "The Bloody Chamber," she rewrote the Bluebeard legend and gave the old boy a taste of his own blood. In "The Werewolf," she brought a horrific twist to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood -- and did it in two pages flat. Her final three collections--"The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories" (1979), "Black Venus" (1985), and "American Ghosts and Old World Wonders" (1993) -- reveal one of our era's great writers at the height of her powers. While her contemporaries were turning out K-Mart realism in bare-bones language, Carter was a fictional maximalist who bathed in luxurious sentences and wrote about women raised by wolves.
In her final years Carter's best stories weren't quite stories at all, more like exquisite short histories. "The Fall River Axe Murders," for instance, details the life of Lizzy Borden down to the missing teeth on her comb and ends moments before the infamous murders. It's an amazing piece of writing -- all prelude, and yet completely satisfying. The only regrettable thing about Burning Your Boats is that Carter's death in 1992 means that this is the complete collection. No matter. I'll be reading it again. -- Salon