OR: Black-Winged Angels/The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales

The first part of a feature on the work of Angela Slatter that originally appeared in Black Static #21:-


Angela Slatter is one of the new breed of Australian writers of speculative fiction who in recent years have been achieving recognition beyond the shores of that continent. While her work contains elements that should appeal to aficionados, Slatter isn’t such an easy fit within the boundaries of the horror genre as many of her contemporaries. With its emphasis on what Slatter terms ‘reloaded’ fairy tales, her oeuvre refers back to some of the older traditions of storytelling, tales from folklore transmuted into the fictions parents used to tell their children back in the age before TV and video games, and inevitably brings to mind the work of another Angela, the Carter of The Bloody Chamber, though Slatter remains very much her own woman, mining the same rich seam of ideas but using the ore she brings to the surface for her own ends.

BLACK-WINGED ANGELS (Smashwords ebook, 53pp, us$4.99) began life as a collection of nine stories Slatter wrote for her MA, and was released in electronic format as an experiment on the part of the author.

The collection opens with the poignant story of ‘The Little Match Girl’, in prison and accused of witchcraft, though her only real crime was to sleep with a coward. The unnamed protagonist is a woman who has suffered abuse at the hands of others, especially men, but maintains a certain dignity, and at the end chooses to take her fate into her own hands rather than continue to accommodate the passions of those who have been set up as judge over her. The story is sexually explicit, and the narrator is a whore, but Slatter brings no hint of disapproval or condemnation. Rather, her anger (and, underlying the sadness, this is a very angry story) is focused on a society that forces women on this path and then condemns them for it, and her judgements are directed at the men who desire women and yet fear their sexuality, the text shot through with an almost palpable distaste for the hypocrites and the self-righteous. It’s a theme that recurs in her work, the way in which society has a double standard, prepared to use ‘outsider’ women (the prostitute, the wise woman) when it is convenient but unwilling to accept them for what they are.

‘Red Skein’ is a reinvention of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, with at its heart the antipathy between Matilda and her mother, one giving in to the wolf in her blood and choosing to run free in the forest, while the other rejects her heritage, instead staying with a man who mistreats her for the sake of propriety. Ostensibly it’s a werewolf tale, but the hard core of the story lies in the choice between freedom and conformity, between following your own heart or giving in to the wishes of others: it’s about not being afraid to be yourself. Containing stories within a story, ‘Pressina’s Daughters’ is perhaps the most technically accomplished of these tales and a forerunner of what Slatter was to attempt with Sourdough. When a were-creature is spurned by her human lover the woman’s daughters seek revenge, only they have misjudged their mother’s mood and end up cursed, and we learn how these three very different curses play out in separate vignettes. The appeal of the tale is in Slatter’s vivid and evocative writing and the incidentals of each vignette, the subtext that what matters is not so much misfortune itself as the way in which we respond to it.

A woman is buried beneath ‘The Juniper Tree’, but she is able to reach out from beyond the grave and save her daughter from the depredations of a callous stepmother. With cannibalism in the mix, this is a more obviously horrific story than many of the others, but informed by a lucid and wry understanding of human relations and even some sympathy towards the evil stepmother’s situation. In the end she is a victim too, driven to act as she does out of fear and a mistrust of her husband’s intentions. Her problems are rooted in a reliance on others for her security. There’s a similar subtext to ‘The Danger of Warmth’, in which the Snow Queen takes a human lover, only to fear that he will be reclaimed by his determined girlfriend. Like the stepmother in ‘The Juniper Tree’ she is driven to perform terrible deeds, but her concerns are similarly groundless, a symptom of her lack of faith in the power of their love.

The last story in the book, the heartfelt ‘The Bone Mother’ is the tale of the crone Baba Yaga, and how a visit from her granddaughter is the prompt for reconciliation with the daughter who left her on her own many years ago and is now dead. The story is a magical one, with the mortar and pestle as transportation, talking dolls and spirits to command, but underneath all that smoke and mirrors is the simple tale of a woman’s need, of both the power and the folly of love, and as a side issue a return to Slatter’s theme of society’s fear of ‘outsider’ women, seen in the figure of Baba Yaga, who is needed for her healing powers, but also used as a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. It’s a moving end to an impressive collection.

Seven of the stories in Black-Winged Angels can be found in THE GIRL WITH NO HANDS AND OTHER TALES (Ticonderoga paperback/hardback, 210pp, au$25/$75) along with nine others, an introduction by Jack Dann and a fascinating afterword by Slatter in which she explains something of the genesis of each story.

Opening shot ‘Bluebeard’ is a reinvention of the classic tale of a serial killer but here given an almost schlock horror sensibility, and at the same time in the dynamics of the various relationships it reprises themes found in Slatter’s other stories, such as ‘The Little Match Girl’. A prostitute and her daughter go to stay at the family chateau of a wealthy man, one of the woman’s customers, but of course things are not really as they seem. The tale is imbued with a sense of inbred decadence, an ‘unhealthy’ sexuality and madness, with several horror tropes thrown into the mix and even that old cliche in which the supposedly defeated monster rises up from his or her death bed for another shot is given a novel twist. Add in more than a hint of paedophilia and contempt for the hypocrisy of men who pay women to sleep with them but pretend to be better than they are. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, but Toto we are most definitely not in the Forest of Arden anymore, said the master of mangled metaphors.

‘The Living Book’ is the story of immortal Sophia, on whose flesh are inscribed ever changing words, a vampire of sorts who absorbs knowledge, and how the modern world showed her a means of escape from servitude to her creator. Rooted in a fascinating concept, one that finds echoes in the work of Clive Barker and Ray Bradbury, the story is ambivalent in its narrative thrust, so that for much of its length we’re not really sure if Sophia is victim or monster, though ultimately she appears to be just another woman used by men for their own purposes. Chinese myth and culture are touched on in ‘The Chrysanthemum Bride’, as a haughty girl thinks a marriage proposal from an aristocrat will take her away from her poor family, but the reality is far different. As so often with Slatter’s tales there’s a strong sense of horror and outrage at the way in which women are used by men, but here moderated with a satisfaction at seeing the underdog get what she deserves, even if the price is too high, the story beautifully written and unveiling its surprises with an admirable skill.

‘Frozen’ is the tale that comes closest to possessing genre credentials, a subtle and understated ghost story, the true horror of what is taking place only revealed at the end, as a man’s longing for a replacement for the child who froze to death gives birth to a vampire of sorts. Rich in atmosphere it deftly draws the reader in, and then delivers some last lines that are truly chilling. ‘The Hummingbird Heart’, is a Bradburyesque tale in which a mage restores a woman’s daughter to life by means of the eponymous heart, only for the gods to take her in another way. Ostensibly set in mythic Greece, the story has the timeless and universal appeal of a fable, with delightful touches of whimsy in the way in which the mage courts the mother and at the end a sense of balance having been achieved.

A community turns against a young writer when her ‘Words’ bring scenes to life, the story developing into a variation on the Pied Piper, with each line carefully chosen and underlying the text an important message about the perils of bigotry and unthinking rejection of the things we do not understand. ‘Skin’ is the tale of the initially happy but ultimately tragic love affair between a fisherman and a mermaid, alcohol abuse the cause of its undoing, and how she first takes and then saves his life. The shortest story in the book, it is also one of the most poignant, with a strong undercurrent of regret, reading at times like a determinedly downbeat reinvention of Disney crowd pleaser Splash. ‘The Dead Ones Don’t Hurt You’ wouldn’t have been out of place in the anthology Rigor Amortis (reviewed elsewhere) and finds Slatter in a humorous mood, though her comedy is pitch black, as poor Melanie, who usually ends up with abusive creeps for boyfriends, finds that even a zombie won’t be faithful, preferring one of its own kind. It’s a lovely tongue in cheek tale, with plenty of raunchy laughs and a serious point to be made.

In ‘Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope’ a miller’s daughter is ensnared by a king who believes she can transform straw into gold, a trick that is really accomplished by the evil Rumpelstiltzkin. Slatter’s interpretation of this familiar story brings out a subtext to do with child abuse, seen most obviously in the miller’s unwelcome attentions to his daughter, but also in the wrongdoer’s wish for a child as his price. Alice and her baby are saved by the love of a mother, one that stretches out from beyond the grave. ‘Dresses, Three’ is a tale of tangled families and abusive uncles, with a niece using a witch come dressmaker to exact her revenge, images of beauty intercut with horrific events, the two playing off of each other in a magical mix.

The last in the book, title story ‘The Girl With No Hands’ is one of the best. The Devil chooses to take a bride and tricks a miller into offering his beautiful daughter Madchen, but the girl does not love him and what follows can be seen as a reinterpretation of the story of Job as various misfortunes are visited on her. And yet for all that, this is a story of hope, one in which, the greedy miller aside, people act out of love and with honourable intentions, a story in which obstacles are overcome through a determination to cope and make the best of things. The Devil is defeated not by magic or angelic intervention, but thanks to human compassion and caring. As far as this collection goes, it’s pretty much against the run of play, almost as if Slatter wanted to end on an upbeat note, to show us that there are valid alternatives to acting like an arsehole and that they can pay dividends.


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1 Response to OR: Black-Winged Angels/The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales

  1. Pingback: OR: Sourdough and Other Stories | Trumpetville

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