Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House)
Pages: 149 + Introduction (Paperback)
Form: Short Stories
From familiar fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of short stories based on fairy tales. Some stray closer to simple retellings than others (The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon) but they’re all original works rather than just an update of Grimm/Perrault.
I haven’t read much Angela Carter before – just Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, which she compiled rather than wrote herself – but I had heard a lot about this collection from friends who studied it at school or university, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In the end I loved it. Not all stories quite hit the note for me – The Erl-King was probably my least favourite – but each had such an interesting idea behind it, or style of writing, and I could see what Carter was aiming for that it didn’t cause me to feel I should deduct a star. And even if some stories were superior to others they all worked together as a complete collection very well. Almost every story contained a female character that subverted the traditional ‘fairy tale female’ role in some way, however subtle, and was a theme of female sexuality running through all of them that united the collection just as much as the fact that they are all based on folklore and fairytale.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s what put a few of my friends off the stories – that there was so much sex and focus on sexuality, virginity and menstruation in something that was meant to be a ‘fairy tale’. But as someone who frequently finds myself objecting to passive female roles in both fairy tales, novels, and TV and film I found myself really enjoying this book, even if parts of it did seem a bit heavy handed. I also tend to agree with Carter in that these things are there in the original stories if you just look and think for a few moments, she’s just highlighted them and given the women a bit more agency. So for me it didn’t seem like it was ‘ruining my favourite childhood stories’ at all, but merely offering a different perspective on them.
The book opens with the title story, The Bloody Chamber, by far the longest story of the collection and quite possibly my favourite. Based on the tale of Bluebeard, its plot sticks very closely to that of the original, but is told in first person from the perspective of Bluebeard’s latest wife and updated to mid 20th century France. Instead of being an anonymous woman in a fairy tale the unnamed narrator becomes a real person, easier to relate to – a young woman not forced into but willingly marrying a much older man she feels nothing for, and is a little intimidated by, in return for his money. I have to admit this characterisation did not endear me to her at first but being able to read her thoughts, why she had done it, how she had had to rebel against her more sensible mother, and the slow realisation of what the marriage actually entails helped me to feel for her as a person who had made an understandable, if very unfortunate, decision. By telling it through the teenage bride’s eyes Carter highlights the more subtle everyday horrors that are there but very much brushed over in the original – the terror of a young girl getting married, the fear of her wedding night, anxiety about disappointing her more experienced husband, the realisation she’s trapped in a relationship with someone she doesn’t want to be with, having sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, enjoying sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, the irrational jealousy of a man’s previous partners and inferiority complex that comes with that. It’s all very relatable, even though I haven’t exactly been there myself. The discovery of the ‘bloody chamber’ itself is just the culmination of a growing sense of unease and ‘wrongness’ about the husband that has been building up from the beginning. As well as bringing out these overlooked themes I also prefer Carter’s ending to the original. It’s arguably still a bit of a deus ex machina but it is a better foreshadowed one.
The next two stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Mr Lyon again stays pretty close to the original in terms of plot, updating it to an era of motorcars, while Tiger’s Bride is more of a subversion. Of the two I preferred The Tiger’s Bride, perhaps because it didn’t feel quite so familiar. The ‘Beauty’ character’s father being a compulsive gambler who loses their fortune, drags her through Europe, and finally gambles her away to ‘la Bestia’ was a refreshing twist on the kindly old man of most versions, struck by misfortune through no fault of his own. Again this story is told in first person by the heroine but she’s a much more feisty character than the narrator of the Bloody Chamber and reacts in quite different ways to their broadly similar situation, quietly refusing to be dominated by the men in her life and offering no compromises to them until they compromise themselves.
Puss-in-Boots is a very different story in many ways from the rest. It’s a comedy for one, not as gothic in tone as the other tales, and the female character stays fairly firmly on the sidelines. It’s told rather brilliantly through the eyes of Puss in Boots, which makes for great lines such as ‘I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats’ and tells the story of the trickster cat trying to secure the beautiful, married, woman his whoremongering master has fallen for. It’s a humorous, bawdy, little story that doesn’t require thinking too seriously for.
The Erl-King and The Snow Child I’m honestly still not sure about. I know what Carter was trying to do with The Erl-King and I actually really like the concept but, for whatever reason, I found this story a lot harder than the others to get sucked into and enjoy. I think it’s one I might have to give a reread at some later date to get full enjoyment from it. Meanwhile The Snow Child is such a short and odd little vignette writing up my thoughts could only spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it – but it’s the story most of my friends studying this book had the most trouble with and I can see why.
The Lady in the House of Love then plays off vampire mythology rather than fairy tales, telling the story of Dracula’s lonely descendent stuck in her crumbling mansion unable to see the light of day, and the arrival of a bicycling soldier there on the eve of the First World War. It’s the most original of the stories and, I think, a beautiful example of vampire fiction – haunting, lonely, and gothic. Possibly not what one would really expect in a book that’s meant to be based on fairy tales, but as a lover of gothic literature as well I wasn’t complaining. It was one of the highlights of the book for me and I think would stand up well in any compilation of vampire short stories as well (in fact I spotted several people here recommending it for consideration as one of the best works of vampire literature since Dracula).
And from vampires to werewolves, the last three stories all play off Little Red Riding Hood and similar stories. The first, The Werewolf is again so short saying much at all would spoil it so I’ll content myself with saying that I liked it, but that the story seemed very familiar – though that could easily be the result of pop-culture osmosis, (this book being published in 1979 and having a fairly big impact) I think I’ve read almost identical stories in collections of folklore. The Company of Wolves is more strongly linked to the original Red Riding Hood tale, with the girl being lured from the path by the ‘wolf’ who beats her to her grandmother’s house. To be honest though I’ve heard so many interpretations and retellings going ‘Red Riding Hood’s really just about sex – didn’t you know? The Red Hood totally symbolises menstruation’ that I just don’t particularly care for hearing it again. Angela Carter was probably one of the first to do so and it’s possibly this story that has influenced so many others to bang on about it though so I will cut her some slack. It’s a very well written piece but for me the standout part was the first third or so, before it gets to the Red Riding Hood narrative, and is just giving lots and lots of lovely folklore-and-mythology-like anecdotes about wolves and werewolves and the stories of people who have been turned into wolves.
Wolf-Alice is the final story based, apparently, on a version of the Red Riding Hood tale I’m not familiar with, tells the story of a feral child raised by wolves. ‘Rescued’ after her adoptive mother is shot dead she goes first to a convent, where they despair at her wild ways, and then sent off as a servant for the mysterious Duke – who has no reflection and likes to cannibalise the corpses from graveyards. I had a bit of trouble trying to work out what exactly the Duke was meant to be – a pre-Dracula type vampire or werewolf perhaps, when the two were more similar and a lot less romantic, or possibly a ghoul. But in the end it doesn’t really matter – whatever he is he’s lost enough humanity that he no longer has a reflection and humanity itself is disgusted and fearful of him. The story’s not really about him anyway (I just found him fascinating) but a coming of age story for Wolf-Alice who, raised by wolves, has no understanding of either time or puberty but has to grow up and develop from a wild dog-like child into a young woman, with only her own reflection in the Dukes mirror to guide her. It’s a powerful little story, but for me not quite as good as The Bloody Chamber or The Lady of the House of Love.
Although I didn’t love every individual story in this book I think it is a great collection, well worthy of five stars, and one I am sure I will be returning to frequently when I want a short and familiar read. The sex and feminism probably isn’t for everyone, I’m ready to allow that, but I quite like a bit of intelligent feminism in my literature, especially if it’s challenging the predominantly passive role of women in fairy tales and giving them back a bit of a voice. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber may do almost exactly the same thing as she does in the traditional stories, but here there’s a sense of her being a fully realised person, not a generic woman who does what she does because women are all fundamentally the same.