Reading Log: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Angela Carter)

Angela Carter’s prose is gorgeous and her masterful style is on full display in this collection of re-tellings of some classic (and some obscure) fairy tales. But while beauty can—and sometimes must—be pointless, Carter’s sensual sentences don’t get lost in self-regard. Take, for example, this from near the beginning of one of her new castings of “Little Red Riding Hood”:

That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition. There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption; grace could not come to the wolf from its own despair…

These aren’t our grandmother’s fairy tales, but ours and our daughters’; Carter’s versions play with flipping the traditional roles of heroic or villainous men rescuing or preying on women in distress. Yet the stories retain their traditional flavor and enough of the plot that to accuse Carter of artlessness in service of feminism is to miss everything that makes these stories both intriguing and engaging. For instance, in the titular opening story—in fact, a novella—“Bluebeard” is transformed but not disfigured. The teenage protagonist is, like most teens, not fully formed. She is neither naïf nor hero, though she evolves over the course of the story from being closer to the former to some version of the latter. There is a vanquishing love interest, but his part can only be played with help from her mother, who she describes in the first pages of the story:

My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?

The source materials that Carter works with range from most common, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Puss in Boots,” to the obscure, such as “Vampirella.” “Little Red Riding Hood” is represented three times, each further away from the original (or perhaps closer to some distant ur-story). But in every case, Carter crafts compelling new experiences whether the end is the one the reader expects or not.

But it’s Carter’s rich, sensual language that sets these tales apart, regardless of the seeds from which the stories spring, and she employs her talent in service of the beautiful and the ghastly:

In spite of my fear of him, that made me whiter than my wrap, I felt there emanate from him, at that moment, a stench of absolute despair, rank and ghastly, as if the lilies that surrounded him had all at once begun to fester, or the Russian leather of his scent were reverting to the elements of flayed hide and excrement of which it was composed. The chthonic gravity of his presence exerted a tremendous pressure on the room, so that the blood pounded in my ears as if we had been precipitated to the bottom of the sea, beneath the waves that pounded against the shore.

I was enchanted, beguiled and aroused by Carter’s masterful blend of voluptuous language and ideas. Highly recommended.

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