Short Story Month, Day 5: "The Fall River Axe Murders"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Alison A. Balaskovits

On this burning morning when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents, she will, on rising, don a simple frock that, if worn by itself, might be right for the weather. But, underneath, has a long, starched cotton petticoat; another cotton petticoat, a short one; long drawers; woolen stockings; a chemise; and a whalebone corset that takes her in an unkind hand and squeezes them very tightly.

There is also a heavy linen napkin between her legs because she is menstruating.

Angela Carter was a master at taking stories to which we already knew the ending – at her most frenzied, the fairy tales, where the monsters become lovers and mothers ride in with shotguns to save the daughters who wept over gold bath taps – and twisting them into strange beasts that we must look at sideways, fearful that she might be onto something there.

In “The Fall River Axe Murders”, Carter spins the story of Lizzie Borden, that famous murderess who chopped up her family one hot day and was acquitted of the crime. While it would have been easy to focus on the ultra-violence of the murders – both parents were whacked several times – Carter extends her narrative out, capturing the violence of the father, Andrew, whose hobby was “grinding the faces of the poor” and who did not believe in plumbing or bathing, for fear it would rob the body of its “natural oils”. But it is not only her father, but the clothes upon clothes she must place on her body to be proper. But it is not only the sticking clothes, but the tension of a previous robbery that made her house into a pull of manic-despair. But it is not only a robbery, but also the oppressive stepmother who Lizzie hated. Or perhaps it is that “Lizzie is not herself today”, if she was ever whatever Lizzie Borden was supposed to be.

We see the family on the day of the murder, but we see nothing of what we understand to be violence; Carter knew that violence was not random, not for Lizzie, but a kind of relief that folded over the mind and body until all that’s left is that moment of tension. We know the murders will happen, but that is not the violence she cares to focus on. It is the small, every-day violence of civilized life, propriety, industry and imperialism that flare together over the Borden household.

Perhaps this story is so powerful because it fulfills the desire that is born within whenever violence strikes; we must know how it happened. But Carter delivers us an answer that is so large and so positioned in a small household that unweaving it would threaten the layers of enlightened living we believe we must cling to, like that grey and gristly piece of sword-fish that goes in and out of the icebox, and makes them vomit all night long.

Angela, Angela, Angela; I miss you.

Alison A. Balaskovits loves Angela Carter.