Historical events and personages viewed as in a distorting mirror, and beasts of prey endangered by encounters with their chosen quarry, are representative of the charmingly deranged fiction of the late Carter (1940-93). Carter's impertinent revisions of cherished conventions and beloved traditional stories do not elicit mild or neutral reactions from readers. As her friend Salman Rushdie suggests in his warm introduction to this rich collection of 42 stories (spanning the years 1962-93), one is either pleasurably seduced by her languorous imagery and overripe vocabulary, or made slightly ill by her intemperate romantic sensuality: you love her or you hate her. Even those attuned to Carter's perfervid imagination will have to pick and choose their way through a minefield of knotty prose and naughtier conceits, from several decidedly precious early tales through the contents of her acclaimed story volumes (such as The Bloody Chamber and Saints and Strangers) to a final three uncollected pieces that are even more hothouse-baroque than her usual work. If you can bypass the gamy contes cruels that show Carter at her worst, there's much to enjoy in her wry feminist response to the smug mandates of sexism, racism . . . come to think of it, most -isms. ""The Bloody Chamber"" amusingly reinvents the Bluebeard legend, featuring a virginal bride reluctant to become yet another passive victim; ""The Fall River Axe Murders"" examines Lizzie Borden from a sardonic female perspective; ""Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream"" retells Shakespeare's comedy from the viewpoint of the changeling child for whom fairy rulers Oberon and Titania contend. And in the amazing ""Our Lady of the Massacre,"" Carter employs the familiar narrative of (American) Indian captivity to create in a mere 14 pages a brilliantly compact near-novella. A book of wonders, then, even if too cloying for some tastes--and a welcome occasion for reassessing the work of one of the most unusual writers of recent emergence.