Book Review: Heroes & Villains, Angela Carter (1969)

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 [1]. 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” [2]. 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 [3]. Heroes & Villains (1969) is the product of her inspiration and “her first tale to engage in a recognizably sf displacement of reality” [4].

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.


[1] Some of these descriptors are derived from her SF Encyclopedia entry.

[2] I wrote a short post on Angela Carter’s views of genre derived from a previously unpublished interview with David Pringle that appeared online in 2017.

[3] 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!”

[4] SF Encyclopedia entry.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Heroes & Villains, Angela Carter (1969)

    • Which part is “terrible science”? The human mutations of the Out People? Science if only a small focus of the novel so there’s not that much to go on.

      Which of her stuff have you read?

        • Well, to its credit that element is far in the background. If anything, the constant sickness and malnutrition most suffer is on the realistic side of things! As is to be expected with Carter or Ballard or Kavan, it’s more about interior space and myth and the operation of narratives… a fascinating brew for sure. The Bloody Chamber was my first exposure to her work — long before I knew she wrote anything that might be classified as science fiction.

    • I look forward to your comments! I must confess, I struggled a bit identifying her main purpose. Also, as I don’t know much about gothic literature, I can’t precisely pin what she’s trying to say about that element of genre.

      • Assuming that you, and me, have a strong enough knowledge of science fiction history, we’ll know that it has deep roots in Gothic literature. Brian Aldiss identified Mary Shelley as the mother of modern science fiction with “Frankenstein”. Like that one, Angela Carter’s novel also has elements of Gothic horror, that has the same origin as science fiction, and I assume are typical of the Magic Realist school with which she is associated.

        I think this is probably what she was alluding to as the “element of genre” as you say. Her novel also has deep medieval layers, atavisms of our deepest and basest desires and fears.

        • Not sure I buy Aldiss’ argument about the Gothic origins for the American SF scene — definitely a contested area of argument. Maybe it makes more sense in the British scene… I’m not sure.

          Regardless, I still don’t know what she is trying to say about Gothic lit — if that is her intention at all. I read it far more directly as a feminist dystopia (although she called Passion of the New Eve her first feminist novel) in which women have no choices and very delineated paths. Marianne, when she makes a choice immediately has her agency removed by men. And when women claim agency, Jewel’s foster mother Mrs. Green, it is but a fleeting power that is insubstantial in the final summation.

          Her struggle with Jewel–with its final sequence vs. the Out People while mired in mud (and of course his murder etc.)–yields a new myth structure for a society (I assume) formed around her. And even here, Marianne’s choices mattered little. Other forces killed Jewel.

          • Well, I think it definitely makes sense in the British scene, but I thought that British and American science fiction had the same origin. I think you’re talking about the old pulp magazines, that were of a different tradition. The father of them, was a European immigrant, and science fiction is I think, essentially European in origin, as is Gothic literature. I think the same can be said therefore for American SF, although I think you might disagree.

            I’ve read “The Passion of New Eve”, I didn’t really like it at all. As I said above, I think she was aware of the Gothic tradition in SF, and was integrating it into the narrative, if she was trying to make any statement about it at all. I think I can understand that there is feminism in her novel and fiction, but I’ll wait until I’ve reread it before I do so.

            • Richard Fahey: I thought that British and American science fiction had the same origin.

              I’d agree and, in support of that claim, would point out that American science fiction starts to get off the ground as an art form when John Campbell (sorry, but there it is) writes, under the name of Don A. Stuart, two stories, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Who Goes There?’, and then takes over the editorship of ASTOUNDING.

              The first of those Stuart stories, ‘Twilight’, appears to consciously rewrite or replicate H.G. Wells’s story ‘The Man Who Saw Tomorrow’ in an American Depression-era frame so as to port Wells’s general affect over to the American SF magazine context. This it does quite successfully. I have no idea where Campbell got ‘Who Goes There? from (except for the fact that he lived with an aunt who was his mother’s twin sister and couldn’t necessarily tell them apart); I can only assume that’s all him.

              I’d argue that the mode of ‘Twilight’ became the mode that 1940s-era Golden Age ASF operated in most successfully — it’s both what most deeply effected ASF’s readers at the time and what we recognize as still powerful today — because it produced stories like, most notably, C.L. Moore’s ‘Vintage Season’ as well as chestnuts like Asimov’s ‘Nightfall.

              The point is, that mode of SF writing is not the 1940s version of Hard SF as some might expect from Campbell, but something that comes in a very clear line from the scientific romances of H.G. Wells and similar Edwardian engineer-mystics, but done in a mid-20th century U.S. frame.

              In other words, a rose is a rose by any other name, and the ‘scientific romance’ is just another name for science fiction. It’s just that some people haven’t wanted to accept that because: –
              (primus) it means that science fiction is not something invented in America and;
              (secondus) Heinlein in BEYOND THIS HORIZON (1942), for instance, then becomes an entrant in the same field of artistic activity as Aldous Huxley in BRAVE NEW WORLD (1932), and the Heinlein is not all that next to the Huxley, either stylistically or in terms of technological/scientific prediction (the Huxley is amazingly on the money about biology and genetic engineering, given when it was written).

              As for Angela Carter, all I’ve ever read of hers was BURNING YOUR BOATS: THE COLLECTED STORIES. She was good.

            • As for Angela Carter, muahahaha, let me know when you read this one. It’s a good one!

              Oh no, a reference to Beyond this Horizon (42) — good god I hated that one. There’s a review on the site somewhere from the earliest days. But my vitriolic response to the novel probably got the better of me.

  1. Having reread it, I find it difficult to make a thoroughly objective comment. When I read it very many years ago, I did think it was a masterpiece, but I now seem to view it through a clearer lens, and realise how vague my memory of it was and what I thought about it at the time. Even though I now realise that the plot and narrative is weak, there is much contemplative thought and intricate metaphor involved.

    The back cover of my edition, describes it as “a post-apocalyptic romance” and “a dispassionate vision of life beyond our brave nuclear world.” These quotes speak like anecdotes for the bleak but furious intensity of the novel. Angela Carter is an elegant stylist, exuding sharp almost kaleidoscopic prose in her description of the world she created. It is alive and resonate. Marianne finds adventure outside of her confined guild in a transformed landscape and uncivilised society, even as she finds herself to be chattel to the uncouth but strangely articulate Jewel, who is savage and ignorant however, and incapable of loving his partner. The catastrophe has caused the old world order to develop into recognisable atavisms of disturbing medieval strangeness where base human desires have emerged unfettered. There is a sadness about the loss of things as well as the truth about our own humanity and status. The author is trying to say I think, that we haven’t really changed.

    Angela Carter is not like a modern Mary Shelley writing another Gothic romance, but she was aware of the science fiction tradition and the malleability of the modern genre, and shaped some of it’s tropes into something fresher which suited her own symbolism. Her novel can’t be compared to Anna Kavan’s “Ice”, which has a more extant global system, but it’s strong plotting and background, is weaker in “Heroes and Villains”, where lavish description often replaces actual story-telling. It’s still powerful and readable though, with a lot of hidden meaning to be explored.

    • No one can be “thoroughly objective” so don’t worry about that!

      But yes, you are right that there isn’t much narrative and it’s far more about metaphor and scene. And escape from one world yields imprisonment in another… I am curious what you thought the implication of the final sequence is. Does start the steps to make a new society?

      • I think I can usually be positive about whether I really like a novel/piece, and if it’s a near/masterpiece, so I can be thoroughly objective. As I said though, I did think it was a masterpiece when I first read it, and I do still think it’s an excellent novel, but as you say, there isn’t much narrative, and I can’t help thinking it would have gained more if it had.

        I assume you mean “does [she] start the steps to make a new society?” I’m not sure. Civilisation/society has no real government and the previous world order has been forgotten about. She might want to be queen of this new and awful world, but whether or not she wants to start a new society, is another matter. I don’t think she’s anything like idealistic or visionary in terms of her intellect. As you say, escape from one world yields imprisonment in another, she was like the property of Jewel, she wants freedom. I suppose in that way, she might want to start a new society, and perhaps it will transform a barbarous and nightmarish world.

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