Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

From the favourer: "This collection of reimagined fairy tales has stuck with me because of their dark, visceral, beautiful, comical and subversive qualities. It stands out as my favourite of her works. I discovered Angela Carter as an impressionable Arts undergraduate, and devoured the majority of her oeuvre in a matter of weeks."

Somehow, I managed to do an entire Arts degree without ever reading or studying The Bloody Chamber. (I also managed to never go to Goo on Thursdays at the Metro, but that's something I believe works in my favour.) As such, my post here is going to attempt to avoid all forms of undergraduate-essay-style-analysis - I'm sure there's enough of that out there if you want more information on role-reversal of 'the hero' and symbolic reinforcement of oppressive social mechanics. In fact, if you just read the marginalia in the copy I got from the library (with its somewhat unsubtle cover), it's pretty much all there for you in pink pencil*.

My vague (and largely incorrect) notion of The Bloody Chamber was that it was a collection of feminist re-writings of traditional fairy tales. You know: girl escapes wolf, the end. The stories are in fact much more varied and amorphous than that - they pick up undercurrents in the original tales, what Carter calls the "latent content", and use them as a jumping-off place for stories that are sometimes reworkings, sometimes diversions, and sometimes only have a vague family resemblance to the tale that gave birth to them. It can be like looking at a long lost cousin who you only know is related to you because of the unfortunate genetic dominance of Uncle Barry's nose.

The title story is the longest and probably the most recognisable as a fairy tale (Bluebeard) treatment. Now that we've mentioned the title 'The Bloody Chamber', let's just all say it loudly: VAGINA VAGINA VAGINA. There. Can we move on now? The young bride is brought to her new husband's house, given the keys to the castle and told to explore while he is away - except, of course, for That One Room. We all know what's in that room, but Carter gives it a lush, torturous treatment that is far more interesting than some decapitated lasses who could have used a haircut. The story isn't left there, however, and in an abrupt (possibly too abrupt) turn of events, the new bride's mother steams in on a horse to take on the brutish husband.

In some cases, such as Little Red Riding Hood, there are multiple stories that spring from the one tale. In 'The Werewolf', the girl defeats the wolf but discovers her enemy is not who she thinks it is, and in 'The Company of Wolves' the girl faces down the Granny-imposter with an animal sexuality that matches his own: "The girl burst out laughing: she knew she was nobody's meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire".

The stories range from humorously farcical ('Puss-in-Boots') to stark and shocking: 'The Snow Child' inherits its colouring from Snow White but in two short pages fills it with incestuous necrophiliac grief.

Perhaps my favourite tale is 'The Erl-King', which is inspired by a German mythical creature (not a commonly known tale - which explains why I couldn't see Uncle Barry's nose anywhere in it at all). Of all the stories this one is the most uncanny and abstract. It feels like the ancestor of a fairy tale, a primal gestation among dirt, beasts and spirits of what will grow into a linear tale as it is passed along through centuries of mouths. It's an odd comparison to make, but it reminded me of how Robert Holdstock treats fairy tale characters in books such as Mythago Wood and Lavondyss - the wild, undependable creatures who bear only a vague resemblance to their later incarnations (and that's even without mentioning Disney).

The tales are often intensely sexual and richly described, but as these are still 'tales', as opposed to what we think of in terms of 'short stories', the language is more dry and formalised (you won't find any references to Cinderella's or Dev's 'slippery cave', thank Christ). I think this is why while I appreciate these tales and find them vastly interesting and accomplished, I don't find myself immersed in them in the way I prefer. As readers, Carter's choice of 'tale' format doesn't so much give us characters, it gives us figures. As the favourer notes, I think it would be a hugely formative book to read or study in undergrad, perhaps before you have experienced parallel newer treatments (Jeanette Winterson springs to mind) or research. The book's huge reception when it was first published (especially compared to Carter's previous work) probably has a lot to do with this too - this sort of revisioning hadn't been read before. As a feminist way of reclaiming traditional tales, they work beautifully, and it's no wonder they caused a stir. I was a little surprised at the heterosexuality of Carter's imaginings - there's all manner of sexual encounters from consensual to bestial to incestuous to rape, but Red Riding Hood is never going to jump into bed and ravish Grandma. But this is also to do with when the book was written, I think. Probably lucky for Grandma, too.

Favourite books are often ones that come to us at the right time and the right place in our lives (I know mine have). Sometimes it's childhood, adolescence, undergrad study, or when something is happening in our lives that just makes a book click into Favourites Territory. Sometimes we don't re-read them because we don't want to spoil the memory of the feeling they created, and I think that's fair enough. But sometimes we re-read them over and over, and the way they make us feel never changes. I think The Bloody Chamber is definitely one of the latter sorts, for people who strike it at just the right time in their lives. Which is pretty damn brilliant, really.

*It's occurred to me later this might sound facetious, but my copy actually was annotated in pink pencil.


Tim Sterne said...

Great post!

Anna said...


*emoji thumbs up*

David Witteveen said...

I was obsessed with this book for a long time.

It started with Neil Jordan's film adaptation. I saw an ad for "The Company of Wolves" on TV late one night and it blew my mind. I pestered my dad to take me to see it at the Valhalla in Richmond.

Wolves. Weirdness. Pale girls with English accents.

It was a rich and visceral feast for a thirteen year old. I'll admit the feminist angle went right over my head. But this was like Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings, all the fantasy stories I grew up on, only stranger and darker and brimming with sex.

I was hooked.

I can't remember exactly when I first read the book, but it had a similar effect. I was your cliched shy, awkward teenager obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy, and The Bloody Chamber seemedd to validate that, to prove that my interests could be grown-up and serious.

And of course, I heard her read at the Rowden White Library a year before she died.

I haven't reread this book or rewatched the movie in over a decade. I'm really hesitant to, because I'm afraid they'll be just as embarrassing to me now as old episodes of Doctor Who. What the book and the movie meant to me at the time is more important to me than what they actually are.

I lent a copy of the Bloody Chamber to my partner when we were first courting. her response was that it was too flowery.

Anyway. Great post. I should get back to work.

Anna said...

Thanks David :)

I'd forgotten she read at the Rowdy! Before I was here, I think?

I haven't seen the film, but it was one of the stories I liked the most out of the bunch, maybe I should seek it out.

(Working is overrated.)

David Witteveen said...

Angela Carter died in 1992, so I'm pretty sure she read at the RWL in 1991. I know I was a student at the time.

Anna said...

Ah right - I didn't start uni til 1999 so I missed her by a fair few years.