Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories feature jarring short stories that reimagine and repurpose fairytales, highlighting the sexism, sexuality and unspoken elements of the classic tales of our youth. I am not familiar enough with fairytales in their original forms to be able to speak of how the violence was always part of the stories, but here Carter specifically highlights the violence against women, physical and emotional and social, that underpins the original tales.
I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
There are recurrent images at work here, visual motifs, that are haunting in their simplicity, and how neatly they fit as fairytale tropes while suggesting something else entirely: blood, snow, fur, jewellery, skin, flesh. Carter takes these images and shapeshifts them, highlighting both the sensuality and horror apparent in each. Glittering rubies suggest a cut throat, the fur of the beast is tactile and suggests the otherness of, well, the unknowable other. Masculinity is written in these stories as being almost always beastly, powered along by irrepressible urges that are heightened by the presence of the young women who arouse them. These stories are about how fairytales reflect on the position of women both in social and personal terms.
One beast and only one howls in the woods by night.
The wolf is carnivore incarnate and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do.
The longest and best story in the collection is “The Bloody Chamber”, where a poor, innocent virgin is whisked away upon marriage to her husband’s isolated castle, and she begins to uncover a past and identifying features of her new husband’s personality that strikes fear into her heart. “The Lady of the House of Love” is a melancholy take on the vampire story. “The Snow Child”, while only being two pages long, is perhaps the most striking and violent story of the lot. Carter’s writing in these stories is absolutely gorgeous, rich and visceral, often cheeky, always sensual.
If there is one, minor, issue with these stories, it is the way they are set in the collection. A retelling of the Beauty and the Beast, or Red Riding Hood, tale is followed immediately after by another, although it takes a slightly different perspective, it did feel a little repetitive when reading. Perhaps this is a comment on the nature of stories themselves. That the retelling reveals a different aspect, even if the core subject matter is similar, even if we think we have heard the story a thousand times before. The stories persist because they reveal something about ourselves, and sometimes that revelation isn’t always a happily ever after.