The Bloody Chamber

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.

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24 Responses to The Bloody Chamber

  1. litlove says:

    Big Angela Carter fan here and I love this book. I read Wise Children just the other week and enjoyed it very much. I can’t quite decide, though, whether I still like Nights at the Circus more. Perhaps I do, a little bit. Nights at the Circus has a slightly messy structure, but I love the story. Wise Children is tight and smooth, but can be a bit farcical in places. Well, both are brilliant really, and if you like Carter, you’ll enjoy them.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the advice — I will put Nights at the Circus on my list as well. I’m really looking forward to more. It’s always a pleasure to read something wonderful when you weren’t sure what you were getting into.

  2. bibliolathas says:

    I *loved* Nights at the Circus: quite magical. I must read The Bloody Chamber – sounds excellent and just what I feel like tackling at the moment.

  3. Retellings always sound nice. I noticed the fun aspect, turning things on its head to make a statement. Love it. Besides, the period within which the story was written has the capability of making the women the recipients … or better still those needing pity.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right that the original stories (mostly Grimm or Andersen) don’t give the women much agency, and Carter takes the latent content from a society where women told most of the stories and brings it back out. She also de-bowdlerizes them!

  4. I LOVE Angela Carter… her writing is beautiful. The Bloody chamber is a wondeful collection but I do prefer her longer novels. My all-time favourite is The Magic Toyshop which I would definitely reccommend with your taste for “dreams, myths, fairy tales…etc” It is a wonderfully dark and surreal tale with some fantastically twisted characters. Heroes and Villains is another great one!!

  5. I’m not a fan, but I think I’m primed and ready to be. The idea of a retelling of “Bluebeard”—a fairy tale I’m not all that familiar with—with the female bride having her own potential for cruelty sounds absolutely fascinating. This one has been on my list for a while; perhaps for my next short story collection.

    • Jenny says:

      I read a few reactions to the Bluebeard retelling that didn’t think it was all that, but I thought they missed the point. The latent potential in the girl herself was the whole heart of the story, in my opinion. See what you think!

  6. JoAnn says:

    Claire (Paperback Reader) is a big fan. In April 2010, she hosted Angela Carter Month on her blog with many excellent reviews and posts. You might want to check her archives.

    • Jenny says:

      I remember seeing that — I’m pretty sure that’s what put Carter on my radar. I should go back and see what she thought of The Bloody Chamber! Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Jeane says:

    Not a fan. This book gave me the creeps! In that, it was wildly successful. I just don’t like scary stuff, I guess.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, the frightening stuff didn’t faze me much, though I admit there were some genuinely chilling or gruesome moments. But for someone who is very sensitive to that sort of thing, it might not be your bag.

  8. gaskella says:

    I read this last year and loved them, after having previously not got on with Angela Carter. My favourite in this collection was the Erl King which I found very creepy, I didn’t care for Puss in Boots. I would love to read more (when time permits).

    • Jenny says:

      I loved “The Erl-King” for its atmosphere, but I’m not sure I understood it completely. “Puss-in-Boots” I thought was amusing enough, but not as complex as some of the other stories. I’d so much like to read some more of Carter’s work!

  9. Jenny says:

    I read one Angela Carter book — Wise Children, I believe? — a while ago, expecting to love it, and I liked it not loved it. I read a few of the stories in “The Bloody Chamber” as well and expected to truly truly love them and I didn’t. And I don’t understand! She ticks so many of my love boxes! But I have The Magic Toyshop on my list and I’m trying to get my book club to read it some month soon.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’d actually say I liked or enjoyed this book a lot rather than truly truly loved it, though it ticked my love-boxes as well (that sounds dirty.) But that doesn’t bother me. If I like a book a lot, I’m happy!

      • ithinkisawsomething says:

        I know what you mean – same for me. I know I should really like her but don’t find her somehow much fun. Shame as I respect her a lot. I use some fairy tale elements in my writing but the idea of following a prescribed structure from a long establiShed story would feel a bit restrictive so maybe that’s what I am having trouble with here.

      • Jenny says:

        I don’t think it was the structural elements that troubled me, I think it was the way it didn’t mess with the story enough. I wanted it to be more radical, and while it did add some disturbing themes and some sexuality, in the end it didn’t go that far. But I think some of her other books are supposed to be odder, so I plan to try them!

  10. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I’ve never read this author before, but I’m all up for fairy tale retellings! Thanks for posting this review.

    • Jenny says:

      I like fairy tale and ballad retellings, too — some of my favorite books fall into that category. I think it can add depth and history.

  11. Steph says:

    I know that most people seem to love Carter’s short fiction, and indeed, that’s how I first encountered her when I read one of the stories from The Bloody Chamber for a class in college. BUT whether it’s just because I tend to like novels better than short stories or some other reason, I haven’t really been able to get into the rest of Carter’s short stories, but really loved Wise Children. It’s so funny, yet dark, and very clever… that’s the thing that makes me want to read more Carter!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Steph — I know you sometimes have trouble with short fiction, and I don’t, but I’ll take your opinion on Wise Children with pleasure!

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