Sunday Story Society: “The Merchant of Shadows” by Angela Carter

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After three relatively recent stories, this time we’re going a little further back. Angela Carter’s “The Merchant of Shadows” was first published in the London Review of Books in 1989, and is available to read here on the LRB website. Normally, at this point, I’d link to some online commentary, but there’s not a lot out there for this story. The only treatment of any length that I could find was in a piece by Kate Webb, written for the occasion of what would have been Carter’s 70th birthday. Webb describes  “The Merchant of Shadows” as ‘containing Carter’s most playful writing on film’, and notes ‘many vertiginous moments [that] Carter achieves through narrative twists but also by stylistic effect: the writing here is pathetic fallacy played as camp, the California landscape is flooded with cinematic meaning’.

What did you make of “The Merchant of Shadows”?

(On a side note, I’ve been wondering about including a couple of questions in these discussion posts as ‘conversations starters’. Let me know if you think that’s a good idea.)


  1. Angela Carter is one of those authors I know I should read more of but then never do. I’m not sure why. Actually I do – it’s that magical realism tag that puts me off even though I thoroughly enjoyed Bluebeard and other stories (the pocket Penguin) published last year. So thanks for giving me the push I needed to get started.

    I was struck by the rich prose and the plethora of similes and metaphors in the first third of the story. Almost too many in a way but then they calmed down once the meeting began.

    I must say the precision of Carter’s prose is admirable – the vividness of the scenes painted, even those in the past. Just a second’s flashback to the corpse in the shimmering swimming pool, but I could see it. What I didn’t see was the associated twist … is that the “pathetic fallacy played as camp” mentioned above?

  2. David, I think a few ‘conversation starter’ questions is an excellent idea.

    I appreciated reading the Webb piece you’ve linked to, really useful in thinking about The Merchant of Shadows.

    This is my favourite of the stories we have covered so far. Loved the atmosphere, the use of light, the cinema vs reality vs myth vs deeper, sui generis truth, the humour and, above all, the lion with its ‘face like like a boxer with a broken nose’.

    Difficult to articulate much about the story having just read it earlier this week and having adored it so much. I’ve noticed that an initial numbing of my ability to respond to/criticise something is often the result when a piece of art hits me as squarely as this story does.

    Like Lizzy, I haven’t read as much of Carter as I always mean to – a few short stories and her novel The Magic Toyshop. I have enjoyed all of them but haven’t read further. I feel a bit like I’m saving her other work because I know it’ll be good. I’ve a copy of The Bloody Chamber waiting on my TBR pile right now.

  3. Having just read the story I’m probably going to comment here now, and then come back later and comment again once I’ve digested it a bit better. But, for now, I have to say that I really rather loved it. And that’s despite tripping over what struck me initially as a rather untidy narrative voice. I had no problem with using a conversational tone to tell the story, but felt there were so many parenthesised inserts that the reading rhythm was – at least to begin with – ungainly and that made it more difficult to discover the story than it needed to be. But as Lizzy says, it settles down once we get to the actual meeting, and from then on it’s a joy. Loved the Lion as the most obvious embedding of the iconography of the Hollywood unreal. Loved the two ladies (although it made me think of Davis and Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane more than the alluded to Sunset Boulevard). I also loved the assumption of character roles: Spirit and the Sister. The twist was nicely handled, too, and apt.

    The only thing I’ve not really sussed yet is the final exchange with Hiroko, and the last paragraph in particular. Not really sure how that caps the story… but I say, I’ll digest it a bit more and return.

    Like Eva and Lizzy I’ve not read nearly enough Carter in my life, so thanks for the nudge.

    (Also – starter questions, I have no problem with that, but I’ll probably ignore them (as I do the review quotes) until after I’ve contributed my own crit.)

  4. I love Angela Carter, and had somehow missed reading this story before. Thank you for pointing it out!

    I loved this story. While Carter wrote some fiction in a lighter vein – ‘Nights at the Circus’ and ‘Wise Children’ it seems to me that most of her short fiction is dark.This piece starts like it will be dark, but the twist ending actually made me laugh! It’s such a happy, unexpected, ending. Only she could blend dark and light together like this!

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    2nd September 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for your comments, folks.

    Lizzy – Sorry, I should probably have added more context to that Webb quote. The ‘pathetic fallacy’ she’s talking about is all the cinema-related imagery at the beginning (she gives ‘The ocean shushed and tittered, like an audience when the lights dim before the main feature’ as an example). I suspect it’s deliberately over-the-top.

    Eva – To be quite honest, this was the first piece of Carter’s fiction I’d read (one reason I chose it, because I thought it was about time I read her). Now I’m curious to know how “The Merchant of Shadows” fits in thematically with the rest of her work.

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    2nd September 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Neil – I read the ending as the narrator having another of his Hollywood dreams dashed (and possibly another play on stereotypical gender roles, as the stereotype would be the male having control of ending the relationship). When he longs for ‘television, that secular medium’, he’s giving up on cinema as a source of wonder.

    Laurie – It’s an interesting mixture of tones. That’s another reason I need to read more of Carter’s work, to see the range of her style.

  7. I think I’m going to have to come back to this when I’ve read it again. I love Carter – I’ve both read her for pleasure and taught ‘The Bloody Chamber’ at A Level – and I find that makes it difficult for me to look at a piece of work from a critical angle initially.

    I enjoyed the over-the-top-ness of it all – very Hollywood, darling – and the twist was superb. I thought the end was a nod to the mundanity of most people’s lives, that the Hollywood bubble is difficult to penetrate, hence the narrator finding himself outside the gate in his own car the morning after he’s interviewed the spirit and the sister.

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