When you look at the way people describe the prose of Angela Carter, it’s obvious that she couldn’t be more suited to my taste: dreams, myths, fairy tales, dark sensuality, feminism, surreal humor. So why did it take me so long to read her work? I read The Bloody Chamber, a collection of her retellings of fairy tales, and found it rich, biting, and deeply enjoyable.
All the stories are retold by updating them, twisting them, adding a strong dose of sexuality, and bringing out the female character at the heart of them. Sometimes this comes off as a mere “fairy tale for adults,” the kind of thing you get a lot, and while the prose is lovely, there isn’t much that’s unexpected. “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” for instance, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” is pretty straightforward, with only a couple of differences in time period and characterization to give it flavor.
Other stories, however, are quite different, darker, and much more complex. The title story, for instance, a version of “Bluebeard,” offers the possibility that the virgin bride who unlocks the chamber of horrors may have been chosen as wife and victim because she, herself, has undiscovered potentiality for corruption and cruelty. “The Tiger’s Bride,” another retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” twists the usual beast-turns-prince ending on its head: if a woman has no rights in society, and neither does a beast, then they are equals, aren’t they?
Perhaps my favorite two pieces, though, were the shortest in the book. “The Snow-Child,” only a few hundred words long, with its echoes of incest and murder, was brief and cold and shocking. And “The Werewolf,” one of three pieces that circle around “Little Red Riding Hood,” is also only about three pages long, but it bites, oh yes it bites.
All these stories echo each other, as fairy tales do: roses, fur, snow, feathers, blood, tears, meat, thorns. They bear each other a family resemblance. But they are also original and sharp, with a sense of mastery and occasionally even of glee (like “Puss-in-Boots,” which is out-and-out slapstick.) They have morals to impart: beware of subservience. Don’t be passive. If you’re bitten, bite back. I laughed at several of these stories, and it was a knowing laugh, and occasionally even a nervous one.
Are any of you Angela Carter fans? I have Wise Children on my list to read next by her, but I’d love some advice as to what’s best. I’m really looking forward to more.