I don't remember when I first read this story. Carter wrote a lot, and a great deal of it is impressive, but 'The Company of Wolves' may be my favourite short story along with Le Fanu's Carmilla.
You don’t read this story; you enter it.
You walk into a room, doesn’t matter how rustic it is, but it does have a fireplace, and you sit down on one side and Granny is on the other.
Maybe you belong to a generation that didn’t have a granny who told ghost stories. Mine told the most frightening ones I’ve ever heard. They were frightening not because they involved multi colour deaths, CGI and a thumping sound track; they were frightening because she believed every word she said. And it was that understated conviction that returned after the lights were off to keep me awake.
But you may not have had a grandmother like that, so enter, sit down and turn your phone off.
Carter takes two risks early on. If you know this is a version of Little Red Riding Hood she makes you wait for four pages (in the edition I’m using) before Little Red makes her entrance. But your average modern reader doesn’t know much about the werewolf, so the information has to be delivered. It’s delivered in a rambling, anecdotal way.
Her second risk is that her opening hops around from anecdote to one liner. You didn’t hear it but you must have asked Granny about wolves when you sat down, or you made some disparaging remark about people who believe in Werewolves and granny is putting you straight.
The narrator is heterodiegetic. Not a participant in the story but an inhabitant of the story world, and the story telling is localized. This happened ‘up the valley a little way’ or ‘in our village’ . The wolf lore is balanced against the mundane: a woman is stirring her macaroni; a man is too shy to piss in a pot. And if, dear listener, you’re impatient or not paying attention, you are not going to understand the ending of the story.
The style is an enviable combination of voluptuous extravagance and precision. If you think of it as excessive you miss the point that excess can easily become meaningless overload. Carter’s language calls attention to itself, but remains precise. A simile moves its bored audience from one thing to another that is similar. But you enter Carter’s similes and they surprise: you can stay inside them for a long time as they create a loop. Wolves are as unkind as plague. Think about for it a while. What does it tell you about Plagues. What does it say about Wolves.
I think Carter understood something primal about Folk tales. I don’t mean she knew them. Obviously she did. She had translated Perrault. I think she realized how old the metaphors and symbols are. It would be easy to use a word like cruel, or unsentimental, but the stories belong to memories of times when terms like ‘cruel’ were meaningless. The world was the way it was in the forest and understanding was the price of survival.
I think Carter knew in her bones we all still live in the forest. Despite the sugary nonsense of Walt Disney and Wedding Planners, relationships are dangerous. It’s why Vampires were such potent symbols. It’s why the werewolf is such an obvious, powerful way of thinking about human beings. That nice young man might become an animal with his clothes off? How to deal with him?
The story offers something missing from Perrault. Perrault’s story is didactic and authoritarian. Men are predators: girls are victims. Step off the path, you die. It’s a frightening moral about obedience, the death of curiosity, and ridged gender roles. (And if it’s a while since you read his version, you should go read it. Little Red dies. End of story.) Carter knew her Freud well. In Perrault, Wolf is Id and Little Red is ego, and they are at war and one or the other must win.
Carter offers a much more interesting ending. Ego accepts Id: Id is tamed by Ego:
You were paying attention to the beginning weren’t you?