Angela Carter’s short story “The Merchant of Shadows” first appeared in The London Review of Books in 1989. Set in Hollywood, the narrator is a young, male student conducting research on a famed but mysterious director. The story bends and twists, ricocheting between dark comedy, deep camp, and Carter’s signature surreal, Gothic sensibility. Carter was an ardent fan of the movies, and “The Merchant of Shadows” is rich with cinematic conceits and allusions. (It also contains some searching, if subtle, feminist critique: another Carter hallmark.) I love it for these reasons, and for its lush, playful prose, its gentle damning of the narrator, and the overall self-awareness and exuberance that Carter brought to her work:
Aliens were somewhat on my mind, however, perhaps because I was somewhat alienated myself, in LA, but also due to the obsession of my roommate. While I researched my thesis, I was rooming back there in the city in an apartment over a New Age bookshop-cum-healthfood restaurant with a science fiction freak I’d met at a much earlier stage of studenthood during the chance intimacy of the mutual runs in Barcelona. Now he and I subsisted on brown rice courtesy of the Japanese waitress from downstairs, with whom we were both on ahem intimate terms, and he was always talking about aliens. He thought most of the people you met on the streets were aliens cunningly simulating human beings. He thought the Venusians were behind it. He said he had tested Hiroko’s reality quotient sufficiently and she was clear but I guessed from his look he wasn’t too sure about me. That shared diarrhoea in the Plaza Real was proving a shaky bond. I stayed out of the place as much as possible. I kept my head down at school all day and tried to manifest humanity as well as I knew how whenever I came home for a snack, a shower and, if I got the chance, one of Hiroko’s courteous if curiously impersonal embraces. Now my host showed signs of moving into leather. It might soon be time to move.