If you are interested in gender, gothic writing, and fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a book that should be at the very top of your To Read list (as well as Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming The Villainess - write that down). It is one of those titles that cannot be avoided in certain circles and frankly, it is a miracle that I didn’t read it sooner.
For this collection, Angela Carter drew inspiration from European fairy tales, commedia dell’arte, and German folklore. She explains that her intention “was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and use it as the beginnings of new stories.” As a result, The Bloody Chamber manages to feel ancient while incorporating more modern elements in these deeply familiar tales at the same time. For example, in “The Lady of the House of Love,” a young man will survive his encounter with a vampire only to end up fighting in World War One:
[Though] he feels unease, he cannot feel terror; so he is like the boy in the fairy tale, who does not know how to shudder, and not spooks, ghouls, beasties, the Devil himself and all his retinue could do the trick.
This lack of imagination gives his heroism to the hero.
He will learn to shudder in the trenches.
In this old world, where young virgins get lured into traps by dangerous men and monsters, Carter gives her female characters a level of agency they do not always have in traditional fairy tales. For example, the climax of her take on Little Red Riding Hood, “The Company of Wolves,” ends with the girl sharing her late grandmother’s bed with the wolf:
What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.
Instead of accepting her fate, she takes control of her own story and rewrites the ending, and The Bloody Chamber is full of similar instances where men are either defeated or tamed by the women they have seduced or claimed as their property (or both). It brings to mind a quote from one of Carter’s other works, The Sadeian Woman:
To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case.
To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case – that is, to be killed.
The Bloody Chamber now shows us women who are both; they are objects of desire who break out of the passive case they have been put in.
As for the writing, Carter’s language is incredibly rich and physical. With each sentence she appeals to your senses, describing colours, scents, flavours, and other sensations until it gets almost overwhelming. Her pages drip with blood and she lets you taste the iron on the tip of your tongue. Carter knows her craft and the form she has chosen to work with. In an interview, she has said:
The short story is not minimalist; it is rococo. I feel in absolute control. It is like writing chamber music rather than symphonies.
If any of the things I have discussed in this review appeal to you, I would definitely advice you to give The Bloody Chamber a try. It is a short book that is positively bursting at the seams and reads the way I wish Disney’s Into The Woods had looked: shadowy and mysterious, yet lush and full of colour.
The road may be long and dark
and full of terrors, but don’t worry.
You’re in the hands of an expert.
(Seriously though, “the short story is rococo”? That is so good, I could cry.)