angela carter

Fabulous Beasts: Angela Carter, Vampirella & The Company of Wolves

Fabulous Beasts:

Angela Carter, Vampirella & The Company of Wolves

Graham Williamson inspects the late author Angela Carter's Vampirella, its abandoned cinematic dramatisation and how more of her exquisite horror tales remain curiously unmade...

“The cinema fell on its prey with immense rapacity, and for the moment largely subsists on the body of its unfortunate victim.” 

– Virginia Woolf, on adaptation. [1]

Angela Carter, who died in 1992 at the age of just 51, remains one of the most acclaimed and widely-studied British writers of the 20th century. Part of the reason is the extraordinary highbrow-to-lowbrow sweep her fiction covered.

British fiction is as riven with snobbery as British society in general, with literary novelists confined to one end of the spectrum and genre authors at the other. Occasionally one of the former group may dabble in the other’s practice, being careful to protect their reputation with a pseudonym, but the traffic never runs in the opposite direction. Except, that is, for Carter, who wrote stories and novels of phenomenal eloquence and originality about werewolves, cannibals, ghosts, incest and other areas which have “not been dealt with kindly by literati”. [2]

Carter’s work is also marked by a deep engagement with cinema. She was a fan of everyone from Peter Greenaway to Greta Garbo, and she once rewrote ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a Renaissance tragedy by the English playwright John Ford, in the style of the Hollywood Western director John Ford. Given this, it is strange that her work has inspired only two film adaptations. There’s 1984’s cult classic The Company of Wolves, then a less well-known adaptation of her early novel The Magic Toyshop three years later – then nothing.

Granted, neither film set the box office alight. According to its director Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves struggled in America due to a marketing campaign aimed at the slasher-movie audience, who were duly frustrated by the film’s oneiric mood and Byzantine plot structure. While undoubtedly a bad commercial decision, this was strangely in keeping with the source material, which had seen more mutations than the film’s lycanthropic characters.

According to the film’s credits, The Company of Wolves is based on three of Carter’s short stories. Yet the actual impetus for the film was her radio play of the same title, broadcast in 1980. It was this script that persuaded Jordan that Carter’s ornately-written stories could be dramatised – not least because Carter herself noted that taking The Company of Wolves from page to recording booth turned it into “almost an exercise in genre”. [3]

Working with Carter had such an impact on Jordan that, after completing his Oscar-winner The Crying Game, he decided to spend his newfound commercial capital on re-uniting with the writer to film another story from The Bloody Chamber – the same 1979 collection The Company of Wolves was drawn from. The film was abandoned after her death, and it remains tantalisingly unmade.

Whereas Carter had adapted The Company of Wolves from a short story into a radio play, the story Jordan was now interested in had taken the opposite journey. The seventh story in The Bloody Chamber, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, started out as a 1976 radio play called Vampirella. The distance between those two titles shows that Carter already saw the process of adaptation as being, in part, the process of moving towards genre. Yet, in many ways, Vampirella is a more complex work than the exquisitely written yet narratively straightforward story it became.

Appropriately for a radio play, Carter’s initial inspiration was a sound – the rattle of a pencil against a radiator, which she thought sounded like a fingernail running along the bars of a birdcage. Both the play and the story begin with this image, as Anna Massey’s lonely Vampirella wonders if her pet bird might ever sing a song it hasn’t learned.

Each great work of vampire fiction finds something new in the genre’s founding myth, and Vampirella is no exception. In the notion of a vampire’s curse, Carter finds the springboard for a debate on genetics and free will, as Vampirella surveys her cursed lineage and wonders if she’s merely “compelled to the repetition of their crimes”. The short story was published in the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, and it now feels like a premonition of the neo-Victorian rhetoric about feckless criminal underclasses that flourished during her reign. It turns out the nature versus nurture debate is a hot potato even among the unnatural creatures of the night.

The cod-scientific basis of these ideas is parodied in the story’s male hero, played by Richard O’Callaghan and called, simply, Hero. He’s introduced riding a bicycle through Transylvania, cheerfully reassuring himself that the bicycle is “the most rational mode of transport in the world”. (We might also remember that one year prior to Carter’s play being broadcast, the Australian activist Irina Dunn coined the phrase “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) Hero’s blind faith that rationality will protect him resembles a protective spell more than it does reason. The story, too, is set on the eve of World War I, in which the most educated, well-bred, logical men of their generation plunged the world into savage insanity.

As Carter was writing the play, her close friend Sir Christopher Frayling was working on his book Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. Interviewed for Writing in Three Dimensions, a 2012 radio documentary about Carter’s audio plays, Frayling says Carter found the idea of him exploring Transylvania hilarious and wrote the character of Hero as an affectionate parody.

Here is one aspect of Carter’s personality which shines through in her radio plays more clearly than anywhere else. She is incredibly funny, and just as her writing in general swoops from high intellectualism to low pulp her sense of humour can be as silly as it is sophisticated. Vampirella’s bloodline is absurdly overstuffed with monsters from folklore and fiction; her father is Dracula, she has a family portrait of the medieval child-killer Gilles de Rais. There is a lengthy flashback to the trial of the French necrophile Henri Blot, played by David March with a John Cleese-worthy accent. Betty Hardy plays the family housekeeper Mrs. Beane, wife of the mythical Scottish cannibal chieftain Sawney Beane; she protests she “never had a notion as to the nature of his tastes” and reassures Dracula that every family has its bad eggs.

In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, this fantastical family tree is pared down to Dracula, who is renamed Nosferatu after F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking unofficial adaptation of 1922. Murnau’s film is also alluded to in Vampirella when Hero crosses a bridge to get to Dracula’s castle, in tribute to a scene from Nosferatu which fascinated the Surrealist founder Andre Breton. Unlike Murnau’s protagonist, Hero then falls off the bridge with a big comedy splash.

Vampirella, then, has cinephilia. It has humour. It has class consciousness, as Sawney Beane complains that he was eaten alive by his landlords before he turned the tables. Like the rest of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, it looks at traditional fairy tales through a feminist and Freudian lens. Hero wishes to wake Vampirella from the sleep of death, paralleling the story of Sleeping Beauty – except, ironically, he wants to take her to Vienna, the home of dream analysis.

Carter had recently completed a translation of Charles Perrault, but she rarely did anything as obvious as an “adult fairy tale” – indeed, she complained when the American dust jacket for The Bloody Chamber made such a claim. Rather, both Vampirella and The Lady of the House of Love mix direct references and generic fairytale themes into a wholly original story. One particularly well-hidden reference is to Carter’s own first published work. Her 1966 poem The Unicorn deals with the folkloric theme of a virgin taming a mythical beast; in Vampirella the virgin is the male Hero and the monster is female, but the essential point remains. Virgins, unicorns and vampires belong together because, as Carter writes, they are all “fabulous beasts”. [4]

Sadly, Neil Jordan’s film Vampirella proved to be no less mythical. However, the experience of working with Carter on a vampire project, however brief the collaboration may have been, continued to inform his later forays into the horror genre. Next time I’ll be looking at the vampire films he did make, Interview with the Vampire and Byzantium, and looking out for Carter’s spirit in these very different works.

Read part two of Fabulous Beasts: Neil Jordan, Interview with the Vampire & Byzantium


[1] p. 350, Virginia Woolf: Collected Essays Volume 4: 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, 1994.
[2] p. 459, Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories, Angela Carter, 1996
[3] p. 10, Come Unto These Yellow Sands: Four Radio Plays, Angela Carter, 1985
[4] p. 93, Anagrams of Desire: Angela Carter’s Writing for Radio, Film and Television, Charlotte Crofts, 2003 

Picture of Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

Background image: Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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