The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Angela Carter is a master fabulist – a remarkable teller of tales. This, her second collection of ten gothic short-stories are spin-offs of traditional fairy tales like that of Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots. The many worlds she weaves are magical but they are also dark, gruesome, fatal.
Angela Carter has an intense visual imagination which makes for a sensual evocation of the supernatural habitations of her imagined beings. They are intensely supernatural – unbelievable – yet, intensely real.Carter's inspiration does lie in Gothic literature’s rich heritage, adapting themes and motifs from classic tales of terror and giving it a unique twist of her own.
The first tale, The Bloody Chamber is her version of the Bluebeard’s story – of a man who marries and then kills off his wives, leaving their bodies in a hidden room. However, his most recently married young wife opens the door of the forbidden room and finds his secret.
The story has typical Gothic settings with the dark, broodingly evil castle where the Marquis takes his young pianist wife being cut off from land whenever the tide comes in. A melancholy castle situated in the sea, it is “at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place.” Every detail is drenched with the atmosphere of impending doom. For instance, a stark image that will leave an imprint in one’s mind is the wedding gift he has given to his young bride:
“His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”
It portends the way in which she will be chosen to be killed by her husband after he finds out that she
|Retrieving the key from the pool of blood - literally, a bloody chamber.|
However, in a twist to the classic tale, as the Marquis readies to behead his latest bride, it is her widowed mother who comes riding across the low tide, toting a pistol of her deceased husband and fires the fatal shot that brings the end of the gruesome but gripping tale. Also, since our nameless narrator inherits her dead husband’s wealth, she lives happily ever after.
The next two tales are both a subversive take on the timeless classic Beauty and the Beast. While the first tale, The Courtship of Mr. Lyon, stays quite true to the tale as we know it, it is the second one that will excite us with the idea of possibilities. In The Tiger’s Bride, it isn’t the beast that is transformed, but the girl. Her father loses her to the Beast in a game of cards and she is forced to live with him, but as she comes to finally accept him, it is her skin that sheds and reveals the fur underneath.
“And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world….my earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.”
In the three stories based on Red Riding Hood we have the wolf, the grandmother and little red herself taking on different dimensions. It is not advisable to think of them as re-tellings of fairy tales, rather it seems like they are a tale in themselves, with a life of its own. But the fairy tale narrative gives it a familiar structure that keeps us spellbound.
For instance, in The Werewolf, a brutal and short tale, Little Red Riding Hood goes to meet her ailing grandmother, is met by a werewolf on her way, but being a child who knows how to use her father’s hunting knife, slashes off the wolf’s right paw. “The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron, wrapped up the wolf’s paw in the cloth…..and went on towards her grandmother’s house.”
Clearly it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Nor will you expect the ending as it happens.
But, my favourite story by far would be not based on any fairy tale but the decadent and deathly tale of Vampirella (as it was first named for a radio play) - The Lady of the House of Love. It is a Transylvanian vampire tale which tells the story of last of the descendants of Nosferatu, a flawless and beautiful vampire continues to live in her ancestral home with only a governess to look after her, whereas the entire village has been deserted for a long while.
“Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors.”
Though she has to drink blood in order to satisfy her hunger, she seems disgusted and tormented by it. She asks as she drags her rakish fingernails over the bars of the cage of her pet lark, “Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?” She reveals her contemplation on a possibility of a different way of life. Even as the story progresses, the readers devouring each word, we will probably not see the end coming.
Gender and power relationships & structures, fantasy and folklore are all explored in these series of tales that excavate, question and challenge the 'latent content' of traditional fairy tales. As Vampirella questions, can a bird learn a new song? - Angela Carter both asks and answers that question for us.