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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Book Name: The Bloody Chamber (and Other Stories)
Author: Angela Carter
Publisher(s): Penguin Classics
Formatt: Paperback
Genre(s): Short Story Collections, Fairy Tales, Dark Fantasy
Release Date: 1979

Recently, it seemed that no matter where I turned on the internet, someone was mentioning—and praising—Angela Carter. Maybe it was because of the recent biography, or maybe it was just the universe’s way of pointing me to a new writer and a crucial text I somehow hadn’t read yet. And after a little digging, I learned that writers like Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, J.K. Rowling, Jeff VanderMeer, and Kelly Link all cite Carter as an inspiration, so how could I resist the universe?

The Bloody Chamber by Angela CarterSo I picked up The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Although the collection originally came out in 1979, this is the anniversary edition published to coincide with what would have been Carter’s 75th birthday. And it certainly lives up to the hype.

These aren’t simple retellings of fairy tales driven only by a gender swap or a change in setting. These tales are transformed. Carter disassembles, swaps out parts, and reassembles the stories into things never seen before. She cuts and pastes, and she slashes and burns through your childhood notions of Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. And she tells them in voluptuous, visual language tinged with sex and violence, darkness and rot.

The collection begins with the novella, “The Bloody Chamber” (remember what I said about sexual and violent imagery?), Carter’s take on the Bluebeard tale. But unlike the more traditional telling, Carter’s protagonist doesn’t rely on a male savior, and she frees herself from the Marquis’s inheritance. Oh, and that rank isn’t a coincidence. There are plenty of nods to the Marquis De Sade here.

Next follow a trio of cat stories. The first two are large cat versions of the Beauty and the Beast narrative (one a lion, the other a tiger). In one, Beauty transforms the Beast, and in the other, the Beast transforms Beauty. The third is the story in this trio is the tale of Puss in Boots. Carter’s telling is bawdy and comedic—think the Barber of Seville, not the cat from Shrek.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela CarterAt the center of the book is a brief interlude. “The Erl-King” is Carter’s twist on a German story about an evil hobgoblin that lures in wanderers (a less saccharine Hansel and Gretel variant, perhaps?). And “The Snow Child” is a Snow White variant the Grimm brothers chose not to publish. Carter packs a heck of a shocking story into just a few hundred words. If it’s anything like the original tale the Grimm brothers heard, I can understand why they went in a different direction.

The collection ends with four tales of monsters: vampires and werewolves, to be specific. “The Lady in the House of Love” is a Kelly Link favorite, and it is the story of a young, blond soldier stumbling into the lair of a vampire that would feel at home in an Anne Rice tale. Here, the man is the innocent, and he has fallen into the clutches of an undead woman. And yet, it’s perhaps the last line that packs the biggest punch—as vivid and dark and intense as the story’s imagery is, it’s what the soldier faces the day after his encounter that is the most tragic, the most terrifying.

The book closes with two riffs on Little Red Riding Hood and a story about a feral girl and a ghoul. Carter plays with the traditional roles of the girl, grandmother, and woodsman to very clever effect. In “The Werewolf,” both the girl and the grandmother are more than first appears, and the woodsman is not needed to save the day. In “The Company of Wolves,” the girl traditionally lies down with the wolf and is eaten. In Carter’s version, the girl is fearless and survives, seducing and besting the wolf.

Carter’s stories appear in batches, and throughout certain themes echo and repeat, weaving in and out of the stories, twisting and showing a new facet with each appearance. Issues of class and wealth (and it’s slow, fading loss), issues The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carterof power (and it’s quick, precipitous loss). Darkness, violence, lust. Smell and sound and taste—the senses and organs that guide the predator. These aren’t black and white morality tales. These are gothic, romantic, even baroque tales. Rich indulgences like dark chocolate mousse or that first sip of an aged and expensive liquor.

I ended up reading Kelly Link’s introduction twice: once when starting the book and once again when I had finished. Like Link, I was struck by Carter’s boldness in her writing. She constantly dares the reader to look away or put the book down. The descriptions are visceral (and sometimes describing actual viscera). The romantic love is often more sexual. I know it seems trite to say “these aren’t your children’s bedtime stories,” but there is a reason Carter’s stories have been read and studied since publication. There is a reason her work has inspired authors who have published pioneering, weird, and luscious tales. It’s her boldness. She dares you to keep reading. She dares you to push boundaries and write better stories. I guess the universe was right. I should have started reading Angela Carter ages ago. And you should too.


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