While I had heard of Angela Carter through various lists and from a number of blogs (for instance, here, here, and here; not all on The Bloody Chamber), I had not read any of her work. This collection of short stories, however, seemed perfect for my wife. I gave it to her as a gift. After reading it, she called this collection of gothically re-imagined fairy tales a “must read”, wonderfully written, and brilliant. The exact words are lost in the abyss of the past (or abysmal past, I am not sure), but she praised it lavishly. Well, most of the lavishing was directed at the title story, but she enjoyed the others too. I scored a hit. (Pat, pat, pat.)
You see, I was confident Marky would like these “dark, sensual, fantastic” stories because she likes dark, sensual, fantastic stories. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Beasts is one of her favorite books. There is less fantasy in that work, but it is certainly dark and sensual. So, I knew the subject matter could entice. And Angela Carter is a literary goddess. How could things have gone wrong? There was a way, but it was only a minor problem. The title story was only a story rather than a novel. I share the disappointment, as “The Bloody Chamber” is phenomenal, but I know Angela Carter has a number of novels waiting for us.
If you do not know, these are fairy tales with a darkly feminist twist. The female protagonists step out of their timid, helpless gender-cast roles and turn expected events on their heads. Carter sometimes retells the same fable several different ways, each to good effect and each with its own pleasing surprise.
“The Bloody Chamber” tells of Bluebeard from the perspective of his fourth wife. At the start of the story, she is seventeen and recently betrothed to Bluebeard who, in this telling, goes unnamed. He is mysterious and wealthy. The corpse of his last wife has only just cooled, but the girl is poor and has taken her chance to escape. She bats away her mother’s questions about love, she has learned better than to rely on gossamer threads of feeling as a bridge to happiness:
For my mother herself had gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love, and, one fine day, her gallant soldier never returned from the wars, leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never quite dried, a cigar box full of medals and the antique service revolver that my mother, grown magnificently eccentric in hardship, kept always in her reticule, in case – how I teased her – she was surprised by footpads on her way home from the grocer’s shop.
The young bride tries a different route. Lessons learned from mere anecdote are more often false than true and always incomplete. The groom allures, but he is as frightening as charming.
I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curlved out of flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum.
The bride has gone too far to turn back by the time she would consider it. As wife to a powerful man with criminal secrets, there are obstacles to a successful flight.
The imagery of lilies continues throughout the story. The lilies and portents of horror. Angela Carter slowly builds the tension from “[a] choker of rubies…like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” to the narrator’s sense in herself of “a potentiality for corruption that took [her] breath away.” The narrator is a naïve young girl, but she has made a very calculated bargain. Things cannot, of course, be quite so easy. This is not a happily ever after fairy tale, nor is Carter’s re-telling. Carter builds the tension to plateau after plateau, until the final riveting climax that feels entirely satisfying and not at all inevitable.
In each of the stories, including this one, Carter deftly manages the psychology of the characters and the setting in which the action takes place. Everyone has an original take, even when Carter reworks a classic twice or more. The story of the beauty and the beast is twice told. In one, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, the father of a girl gets stuck in bad weather. He happens on a mansion where he receives shelter and assistance. The trouble in this story begins when the father is on his way out:
But still, because he loved his daughter, Beauty’s father stole the rose.
The minor theft leads to the conflict and intrigue, the meeting of Beauty and The Beast.
The second re-telling is no less original and begins very differently:
My father lost me to The Beast at cards.
Familiar touchstones from the original provide a strange reassurance despite the reader knowing twists are coming. And the collection has a nice coherence to it. The multiple re-tellings of “The Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Red Riding Hood” mysteriously pulls you more deeply into the experience despite the obvious signal of a re-telling that these are only stories. The stories themselves are linked in other ways too, both to each other and to fairy tales generally. In the first story, the title story, the groom responds to his bride’s objections to going to bed in daylight with: “All the better to see you.” The final story is “Wolf-Alice”, a nice conclusion to the arc of the collection. In another story, the narrator notes that things get “curiouser and curiouser”. In other words, these stories are not just mashed together, but do constitute a cohesive work of art that fits comfortably in the larger body of literature. The collection is so well-conceived and written, it feels essential.
As engaging as the stories are, as surprising as they each are, as snugly as they fit together, it was the prose that knocked me over. Carter writes sentences as pleasing as anyone. The lilies in “The Bloody Chamber” do recur and provide one of my favorite passages:
And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers’ lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in tumeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.