4.5/5 (Very Good)
English author Angela Carter (1940-1992) spun postmodern fabulations of decadent futures and decaying urban expanses replete with incisive deconstruction of genre conventions . Her dark, Freudian, and erotic masterpiece The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) ranks amongst my favorite SF 70s visions. From a young age Carter read John Wyndham and, like so many others in the 60s, felt the relentless pull of Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine and the larger New Wave movement: “this lode, this seam of intensely imaginative and exciting fiction” . And, as with her contemporary Emma Tennant, the work of J. G. Ballard–and/or his ability to fill the air with his entropic sadness–spurred her to write post-apocalyptic SF . Heroes & Villains (1969) is the product of her inspiration and “her first tale to engage in a recognizably sf displacement of reality” .
Preliminary note: This is a disturbing dystopia with adult sexual content, sexual violence, and scenes of physical and emotional abuse.
The Ivory Tower
Marianne, the precocious and severe daughter of a “Professor of History,” lives in a white tower made of steel and concrete (7). In this post-nuclear war future, humanity has split into three distinct groups–the villagers, Barbarians, and the Out People. The village in which Marianne dwells, whose inhabitants survived the blast in fallout shelters, adheres to a strict social structure with tripartite Professors (those who preserve knowledge), Workers (who farm the fields), and Soldiers (tasked with defending knowledge from the Barbarians). The Barbarians live outside the village fences, a world as “unknown and mysterious to Marianne as the depths of the sea” (31), and survive by raiding and hunting. The Out People somehow survived the holocaust outside the shelters and acquired fantastic shapes as a result of their exposure (130).
Marianne spends her day reading books and observing the world from her father’s tower. A world simultaneously terrifying–“intimations of the surrounding forest which, in certain stormy nights [..] seemed to encroach on and menace the community” (7)–yet filled with the seemingly vital and exotic Barbarians. Their raiders on horseback fill the air with “terrible screamings” caparisoned in scavenged fragments of “rags, small knives, bells and chains dangling from manes and tails” (11). Every time the Barbarians raid, women mysteriously leave the community. Marianne watches a young Barbarian kill her brother–“the Barbarian boy dropped the knife and clasped his victim in his harms, holding him with a strange, terrible tenderness until he was still and dead” (12). She observes her mother turn inward after her favorite child’s death and commit suicide. Marianne sneaks out of the encampment into the nearby ruins and observes the strange mendicants of the swamp who wander, filled with sores, through the ravaged countryside.
Her father, a kind soul, attempts to convey the importance of his task to “resurrect the gone world in a gentler shape and try to keep the destruction outside, this time” (15). But there’s rot on the inside. A woman throws herself under a horse. Her senile nurse–forever telling stories of the barbarity of the outsiders–kills her loving father. The stringent roles and expectations and the relentless allure of the Barbarians threaten to tear everything asunder. And Marianne makes her first cataclysmic choice–she chooses to leave with Jewel, a Barbarian man.
The Multiform Caravanserai in the Woods
The majority of the story transpires at an unusual house in the middle of the woods: “a gigantic memory of rotten stone” (41). Increasingly filled with the filth of the Barbarian tribe, the mansion comprised of a multitude of styles with Gothic turrets and Palladian pillars, slips towards decay. Marianne, cared for by Mrs. Green, Jewel’s foster mother and a one-time inhabitant of a village who chose to leave with a Barbarian man, increasingly fears that she made the wrong choice. Mrs. Green does not hold the power over Jewel that she claims. Power revolves around the the maniacal character of the abusive Dr. Donally (whose origins are never clear), who molds and manipulates Jewel into an atavistic force while leaving his own son chained and collared.
Surrounded by diseased children, Marianne decides to escape. But Jewel tracks her down and rapes her. His mantra of violent control fed to him by Donally: “Swallow you up and incorporate you, see […]. I’ve nailed you on necessity, you poor bitch” (69). But Donally is terrified of his creation. Confronted by Marianne, he confesses that he doesn’t teach Jewel to read for “self-defense” and to “maintain him in a crude state of unrefined energy” (76). Marianne is forced to marry Jewel. The forces beyond her control threaten to erode “her formerly complacent idea of herself” (129). She decides to betray her husband. And, amidst the filth and rot, the winds seem to shift. There are no heroes.
The Path to Uncreation
In a novel as dense and subversive as this one, there is so much to uncover in a short review. I will focus on two central ideas I found most interesting: Carter’s use of the stories we tell about others as a way to maintain societal stasis and her otherworldly prose. As I am less aware of the qualities of gothic fiction, I will leave Carter’s manipulation of genre tropes to others.
The villagers and the Barbarians tell stories about each other and the Out People that maintain divisions and ideology can no longer exist. In Marianne’s youth, her nurse explains that Barbarians “wrap little girls in clay just like they do with hedgehogs, wrap them in clay, bake them in the fire and gobble them up with salt” (8). But Marianne fears the same rigid and subsuming experience if she stays in the village. In another instance, Mrs. Green tries to tells legends of the Out People to excuse the Barbarians’ own decadent existence: “You should see the way the Out People live, if living you call it. Huddled in holes in the ground, nursing their sores. They poison their arrows by dipping the heads in their sores, it’s well known” (58). But the Barbarian children are diseased and die young and the tribe occupies the “ephemeral caravanserai” as tenants before it crumbles into ruin (56). The Barbarians tell similar stories about the villagers: “It’s a well-known fact that Professor women sprout sharp teeth in their private parts, to bite off the genitalia of young men” (62). Donnaly, who tattoos the Biblical story he wants Jewel to tell all over the boy’s body, uses stories like weapons. They manipulate. They delude. They keep everyone in their place.
Carter’s prose tears and rends with unnatural power. The wedding sequence in particular takes on transcendent qualities. Marianne observes the dress she is to wear, some relic of the time before the blast, take on a “moon-like glimmer and seemed to send out more and more filaments of tulle, like a growth of pale fungus shooting out airy spores, a palpable white infection” (83). Marriage in the tribe threatens to subsume her will. It will infect her very being. She will slowly join with the refuse that litters the rotting halls of the house. The institutions that existed in the previous world only serve to delude the survivors who, like Donally, dream of creating new heroes. In the novel’s final moments, Marianne observes the world slowly uncreating itself: the things around her “losing their names, […] existing only to themselves in an unstructured world where they were not formally acknowledged, becoming ever-widening margin of undifferentiated and nameless matter surrounding the outposts of man” (160). Like the house crumbling in on itself, the world’s slide cannot be averted. But in the wreckage of the old something else might be created.
Recommended for fans of experimental, feminist, and well-written 60s New Wave science fiction. I suggest tracking down The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) first.
 Some of these descriptors are derived from her SF Encyclopedia entry.
 From Pringle’s interview: “No, I suppose I felt that although I was very excited and stimulated by this, and perhaps I wouldn’t have embarked on a post-apocalyptic novel if it hadn’t been for Ballard – although there was a lot of it in the air at the time!”
 SF Encyclopedia entry.
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