Tag Archives: Angela Carter

The Goblin Market

A pre-raphaelite painting of a woman holding a pomegranate for The Goblin Market by Malin James

“Proserpine” or Jane Morris & the Pomegranate by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847)

I’ve been sick the past few days, which has given me an unusual amount of time for listless thinking and wool gathering. In and amongst the drift of fairly useless thoughts came the realization that, for me, there are two kinds of erotic reading – stories that focus on sex, and stories that achieve a raw, nearly sexual intimacy, despite the absence (or near absence) of sex.

The first sort of reading is pretty obvious. It’s best characterized by stories like this and this. In fact, a lot of what I write for this site would fall into that category. The other kind of eroticism is harder to qualify, but it shows up in pieces like this, as well as in many of my non-erotic stories, which is why they’re often read with a sexual undercurrent, even when there’s no sex in them.

Instead of being expressed in an overtly sexual way, the intimacy in those stories comes out as a sort of shared ache – a sympathy between characters that is, hopefully, transferred to the reader. That affinity triggers something like an erotic response, one that’s subtly sexual and emotionally intimate. The latent sexuality in that response is what comprises the second sort of eroticism – one that’s emotionally sexual and not obvious in the text, but simmering beneath it.

“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, drips with limpid, super sensual imagery and includes a final scene that could be a portrait of sexual ecstasy, except it isn’t. The ecstasy isn’t sexual. It’s the culmination of devotion, sacrifice, and love between two sisters whose affinity is so strong it pushes their bond to lover-like levels of intimacy while remaining uncompromisingly platonic.

How Rossetti managed to blend the sensual with the sisterly is a bit of a mystery to me, even now. There’s nothing concrete that I can point to in the poem, no line on a map marking the territory between sexuality and emotionality, but it exists all the same, which is why I think of that shared territory as the goblin market. The goblin market in narrative creates a tension that works on the reader without any conscious effect, yet you put the book down feeling lush and keenly aware, like Persephone when she finally gives in and eats the pomegranate’s seeds.

For me, one author achieves the goblin market better than anyone else. If you read anything by Angela Carter you’ll feel it, but it’s especially effective in her collection, The Bloody Chamber, which I’ve pushed mentioned before. The title story is fantastic I’ve already fangirled all over it so I’ll focus on a different story from the same collection – “The Tiger’s Bride”.

“The Tiger’s Bride” is one of the sexiest stories I’ve ever read, yet it contains no sex.  What it does have is massive amounts of emotionally charged intimacy unpinning a story in which masks and identities are stripped away. It isn’t until a tacit understanding is reached between the tiger and his captive that a shared ache develops, but when it does, it makes something that should have been ghastly, (the tiger licks her human skin away, revealing golden fur), unbelievably erotic.

The narrator’s affinity for her captor can’t be expressed in words (he speaks in low growls, translated by a simian valet), which is just as well. It’s the silence of their understanding that transforms what could have been yet another variation on “Beauty and the Beast” into a story steeped in animal sexuality. Its lack of obvious eroticism heightens, pretty fantastically, the latent eroticism of the text.

I’m finding more and more that I need this second, more subtle, emotional component for the erotic aspects of a story to work for me. While I still love straight up filth, it doesn’t tend to stay with me. It’s the stories that weave tapestries of sex and emotional intimacy that I come back to again and again, whether they’re called erotica or something else.

This shift in my reading is something relatively new. While I appreciated the goblin market from an intellectual perspective when I was younger, it never touched me the way that raw sex did. Now it’s quite the opposite. It would be easy to say that this shift is the result of getting older, but I suspect it has less to with age and more to do with me. I’ve always had an emotional intensity that I was never completely comfortable with, especially in conjunction with sex. I suspect that my growing attraction to stories steeped in this kind of emotional sexuality is, more than anything else, a sign that I’m finally comfortable with my own goblin market.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite goblin market stories, along with links to where you can find them (some for free!). And if  you have any books you love for this kind of read, tweet me or leave them in the comments!

POETRY:

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

COLLECTIONS:

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen – “The Invincible Slave Owners” and “The Heroine”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Bloody Chamber” (and most of the others, to be honest).

Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (The first story is a really subtle, really sexy adaptation of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”).

The Lure of Dangerous Women by Shanna Germain

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

NOVELS:

Atonement & The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I fangirled the film here. And to be fair, there is fairly explicit sex in this book, but its punch lies in the emotional intensity behind it).

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Angels and Insects & The Game by A.S. Byatt

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (courtesy of Tamsin Flowers, who was lovely enough to give me a copy!)

Death and the Maiden

Woman in Three Stages, by Edvard Munch (1894)

Woman in Three Stages, by Edvard Munch (1894)

Some of my earliest erotic memories are linked to death. I was thirteen when I read Interview with the Vampire and, even then, I was aware of what would become a voracious sexuality. But for reasons to do with personality and upbringing, I had no way to frame my impulses and nowhere safe to explore them.

Books were the lens through which I explored that part of myself, and the books I was drawn to eroticized death in some way. In fact, the first time I gave myself an orgasm, I was thinking about the scene where Lestat kills a courtesan while Louie watches (in tragic, moral conflict). Even now, I remember imagining myself as both the courtesan and Lestat.

That scene, as well as others from Dracula (those brides, Lucy’s transformation, Dracula’s ravishing of Mina while Jonathan sleeps beside her) and Wuthering Heights (Cathy’s gorgeously tragic death), aroused me in ways that teen romances never could. Those eroticized portrayals of death and violence tapped into the striving, subterranean part of me that longed for something more, something darker and deeper. I longed for transcendence in a way that’s almost painful to remember.

Growing up, I was cradled in the sort of security that anyone would be lucky to have, but I knew, without being told, that the security I felt wasn’t foolproof or permanent. I also knew that I didn’t want to be safe, even though the alternative scared me. I wanted to feel everything. I wanted to rip into life with my teeth.

By the time I was in college, I’d discovered Bataille and Nin. I was obsessed with Angela Carter*. I grew restless and impatient with myself and nice young men and civilized sex. Unlike my openly kinky friends who liked being spanked or humiliated, there was no label for what I craved – a deeply eroticized place where death is a tangible presence in an overly sensual world. I couldn’t find access to that in life, so I read about murderous husbands and elegant predators, starving for something I didn’t understand.

So what is this link between sex and death that has always worked so deeply for me? I’ve thought about this for years, and the best I can manage is that there are three different components – defiance, catharsis and power – that work on me to different degrees, depending on my frame of mind at any given time.

The first, and possibly most primal reason for my fascination is that I’m terrified of my own mortality. To age and weaken, to become vulnerable and powerless, to lose agency over my body and, even more frighteningly, my mind – these things genuinely scare me and sex is, in a way, a momentary act of defiance. A rejection of the inevitability of my own decline.

Before the body gives out and becomes in-viable, we use it to wring pleasure out of an existence that is finite and short. (Forgive me that assumption – I’m an atheist. For those who believe in an after life, this may not be the case). Food and sex are two of our primary drives, and as such, the satisfaction of these drives are two of our primary pleasures. But sex does something that food cannot. While food is wonderful (really, really wonderful), sex (at least good sex) can be actively transcendent. Here’s what I mean.

Think about the best sex you’ve ever had; the fucks that were so good you still know what it felt like to bury yourself in that person. It’s the sex that stripped you down to a series of responses, and pinned you to the salty, filling present. Sex like this turns you into a greedy, striving thing. It makes you writhe. It destroys your dignity and twists your face. It dismantles your attachment to the person you think you should be. It takes you past worry. It takes you past death. If only for that moment, you are nothing but a body and you are desperately alive.

Orgasms are sometimes called la petit mort (the little death). This term can be used to describe any sexual climax, but it also refers to a particular sort of orgasm, one that I’ve never experienced – not everyone can. Essentially, the woman passes out in the middle of coming and revives moments later, still at the peak of her pleasure.

Orgasms and, in special cases, la petit mort, are the physical incarnation of a paradox, one that views the peak of sexual pleasure as a sort of crisis – a culmination of sensation that ends in cathartic release. Given that, sexual pleasure can be seen as a metaphor for the interplay between life and death. But unlike true death, which is permanent, we can engage that metaphor as often as we like and on our own terms. In this way, sexual transcendence is a sort of miniature version of the ultimate transcendence between life and death.

Sex and death are both driven by catharsis, and we, as human beings, crave catharsis. It’s one of the reasons we watch films that make us cry. It’s why horror is one of the most popular genres. It’s why vampires were so popular in romantic and erotic fiction a few years back. In fact, vampires have become the erotic personification of death. They are both the threat and the promise of release. They are death and the means through which to transcend it – so much so that a standard tropes in vampire fiction is the question of immortality. Should the mortal allow her lover to make her a beautiful, immortal killer?

Which brings me to the third aspect of pleasure and mortality that has always attracted me. Predation and power. As unsettling as this may sound, there is no greater exercise of personal power that the ending of someone else’s life…unless it is for the intended victim to defy death and live.

This is where vampires and predators become especially useful. Dracula’s brides, succubi, men with a roomful of lovely, dead wives…unlike normal monsters, they seduce their prey, so that the victims experience a paradoxical fear and pleasure. That twining of fear and pleasure combines physical transcendence with the animal will to survive, and the tension between those two instincts is visceral and incredibly hot (all the more so when it’s not entirely clear that the victim will succumb).

In the end, the dance between sex and death comes down to a question of power. Who wins? The mortal or mortality? It’s this struggle with the inevitable, more than any other aspect, that draws me to eroticized portraits of death. It is, quite literally, the ultimate power play with the highest possible stakes.

When I see Cathy dying from a strange, self-induced madness, I see the sensuality of her loss and the ferociousness of Heathcliff’s grief (i.e.: the fact that her death only increased her power over him). When Lestat kills the prostitute, I see a woman dying in ecstasy because she cannot escape. When three female vampires ravish a man, I see an inversion of a power dynamic that is as satisfying as it is dangerous. When a girl escapes her brutally sensual husband, I see the thrill of sexual awakening combined with the literal defiance of death.

So why does death occupy an eroticized place in my fantasies? Because I eroticize power, I crave catharsis, and because I want to live. I want to defy what cannot be defied. I want to use my body to its full capacity as often as I can. I want to feel alive. I want this desperately, and nothing makes me feel more alive, more sexual, more aware and more powerful than being confronted with the knowledge that some day, sooner or later, all of it will end.

*N.B.: The Angela Carter story I reference in this post is called “The Bloody Chamber” from the collection of the same name. It’s a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale, and if you’ve never read it it’s worth picking up. In fact, the entire collection is incredible. You can find it here.