The vagaries of finding the moving box with the right book means a couple of delayed reviews of weird fiction discussed in the recent past over at LibraryThing. This is the first one.
Review: “The Snow Pavilion”, Angela Carter, 1995.
This weird story is one of those long on atmosphere and simple in plot though it has its mysteries as we’ll see.
Our narrator is the “minor poet” possibly named Colin Clout. He’s bad with husbands but good at sleeping with their wives.
While her husband is out of town, he visits the rich Melissa for a tryst. But her perfect house, her perfume, and especially her doll collection makes him claustrophobic, so he borrows her husband’s Jaguar to drive to the pub though he tells Melissa he’s going to buy a book of “snowy verses.
On the way back, he goes off the road in a snowstorm and seeks aid at a house.
Right away, that house seems enchanted (it’s like something out of Debussy, we’re told). Lights blaze in the house; the door is open, but there are no footprints in the snow leading up to it.
Inside the house – where everything is white and very opulent like a superb English country home, no one answers his queries. Then he sees a flash of a blonde woman and follows glimpses of her, chasing her through the house and into a nursery room full of dolls. There the woman seems asleep, a young woman in a crib. Her skin is so white she seems like a doll herself.
The poet remarks that
at last I was surrounded by beautiful women and they were dumb repositories of all the lively colours that had been exiled from the place.
He’s referring to the various elaborate and well-dressed dolls in the nursery.
Then he gets knocked out and awakens. The chandelier seems to have fallen on him.
Then he hears the cackling voice of a woman who is described as being like a crone though he doesn’t get a good look at her.
The house is suddenly all decayed. He explains his situation to her. She even seems to have heard of Melissa.
The woman shows him the doll collection. Each doll has a name and a “murky history”, biographies filled with bad ends and disappointments. When the woman mentions the parties that used to be in the house, he wonders if the young Melissa ever went to them. Finally, the woman tells him “You shall sleep in the bed”.
She leads him back to the nursery which is as before. Even the girl, Lady Lucy, is there in the bed. The crone picks up a Pierrot doll which cries real tears, and Clout recognizes his own face in the doll, the face of someone “that had eaten too much bread and margarine in its time”.
The penultimate paragraph is simply “Tell Melissa the image factory is bankrupt, grandma.”
The young girl seems to transform into the crone, and the poet will be her lover.
On second reading, it’s still not entirely clear if the narrator has been turned into another doll. Is that the reason the so many of the dolls have biographies? Were they once real people?
Carter was a feminist. Is this a story about treating woman as just dolls? Or is it that and a woman reciprocating the favor?
Clout beds beautiful women but the final sentence is
The sleeping child extended her warm, sticky hand to grasp mine; in terror of consolation, I took her in my arms, in spite of her impetigo, her lice, her stench of wet sheets.
There is an implication, when he touches the Pierrot doll, of something magical happening “as if there were an electric charge in his satin pyjamas.” Perhaps his merely looking at women for their physical attributes has been rewarded by possession by a crone.