The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter is a set of short stories that parody folk-tale and legend. Let’s not beat about the bush. The bloody chamber in question is the vagina and the capital of these stories is sex. But they also re-interpret and re-work fairy tale, myth and legend so that the stories take on – literally and explicitly – the adult rating they always suggested.
There are wolves that change into men, and men that change into wolves. Now there is versatility. One story, The Company Of Wolves, did in fact become a film in the 1980s, when Angela Carter’s star shone bright.
The Bloody Chamber offers re-thinks on Dracula and Bluebeard. It gives new life to Little Red Riding Hood and a prurient Puss-in-Boots. Here, Beauty meets Beast and, via these time-honoured characters and themes, Angela Carter explores sexuality, both reality and myth, from a female perspective. She describes the insecurity that arises from threat and the fear engendered by anticipated violence. But she also revels in the power to control, to entice, to render powerless through overdosing on ecstasy.
A hint of torture is always near. The Bloody Chamber inhabits spaces in the human psyche that are never far from pain, always flirting with sadism. From the pain of unrequited love, right through to physical mutilation, the whole spectrum of torture appears to lie just beyond the pain of love. The boundary is often blurred in these stories and some characters meet decidedly sticky ends.
But Angela Carter avoids merely gratuitous fantasy. We can all – if we have little imagination – describe women changing colour (for some reason or other), growing green scales, bursting out in fangs or claws and then sucking the life-blood from their lovers. Such fantastical scenarios soon become not only repetitive but also trite and meaningless if divorced from some rooting parallel of symbolism. In Angela Carter’s work that linkage to a form of reality and experience always seems to be present. Folk tales and fairy stories persisted perhaps because of these links. Perhaps people never believed their literal truth, but their imagery did relate to some, often hidden aspects of experience or inner fear. Not all men are Bluebeards who imprison their wives in a state of undying suffering. Not all men change into werewolves and consume maidens. But then not every husband is always gentle with his wife. Not every lad approaches maidens with finesse.
Enhancing these stories is Angela Carter’s very special prose. It is far from silken smooth and rarely even aspires to the transparent. On the contrary, we are presented with a veritable brocade of language, a densely-woven and complex pattern of allusion, pun and metaphor. The texture is always pithy, the sound often dissonant. As ideas clash, so does the language that Angela Carter employs to pick the fight. In places the density may even be overdone, but in general the Gothic dark does lead us up to the vaults rather than oppress with its darkness.
The style may be dated, and the original idea may be somewhat over-stated. But these stories remain beautifully written and still enthrall.