The Bloody Chamber by Angela CarterThe Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories by Angela Carter

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAngela Carter’s style is rich and dense. Her short stories are the most sumptuous of literary feasts. In The Bloody Chamber Carter reworks a number of fairy stories and folk tales, from “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast” to “Puss-in-Boots”. But Carter never intended to do “versions”. She created brand new stories using the basic premise of the originals as her starting point. In her formidable hands the familiar elements of the tales are moulded into an altogether different beast.

The Bloody Chamber shocked when it was first published in 1979, and is certainly capable of shocking now. At their heart the stories are about sex, violence, and the reclamation of power. Carter’s beasts are disturbingly handsome in their murderous intentions. Her women are at the heart of the stories, claiming them for themselves. These are women who often start out as delicate as their original inspirations, with skin so pale it just begs to be ravished. But they go on to reclaim power in unexpected ways. For Carter the very act of submitting can also be an act of free will.

The opening story, after which the collection is named, sets the tone of those to come in perfectly gothic style. It tells the story of a young girl who recently married an extraordinarily wealthy older man. Torn away from her childhood, she is left to delve into the chilling mysteries of the house and her husband’s previous wives. Carter is lavish in her description and painstaking in the building of tension. The reader revels in the richness of the surroundings; the feel of silk against skin, the glint of a gilded mirror, the heady smell of a dangerous man.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNext come two “Beauty and the Beast” tales, but not like any you’ve read before. The focus is on transformation. These beauties are able to move from passive victims to masters of their own fate. Beauty in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” may start out a “tender herbivore… Miss lamb, spotless, sacrificial” in front of the huge, leonine Beast, but as the story progresses she develops into a powerfully transforming influence. Familiar motifs crop up again in “The Tiger’s Bride”. We recognise the exquisite white roses and the frightening, cat-like man. But the premise is different. This girl is lost by her father to the beast in a game of cards and handed to him as a possession. Her “tear-beslobbered” father is an entirely pitiful figure and her new home is suitably inhospitable:

The mist lifted sufficiently to reveal before me an acreage of half-derelict facades of sheer red brick, the vast man trap, the megalomaniac citadel of his palazzo.

But this beauty is particularly strong and proud. She muses on her fate, concluding that her position among men is no better than that of the bizarre clockwork maid she is given for company. The beast’s one wish — to see her human form unclothed — is at first degrading and intolerable. But she begins to realise that the beast is more animal than man and his own weakness puts power into her own hands. In this incarnation of the story it is the girl who is able to transform, remarking in a particularly brilliant passage:

The tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers.

Halfway through the collection, Carter flips her style on its head, treating the reader to the badinage of a particularly cheeky Puss-in-Boots. It is a perfectly saucy centrepiece to show off her versatility. Puss’ observations are lewd and outrageous and, in surprising contrast to the darkness of the previous tales, the story is laugh-out-loud funny.

The mood changes once more with “The Erl-King”. This story of a demonic woodland creature with a penchant for young girls stems from a German folk story. The shortest story of the collection is “The Snow Child”, an especially disturbing take on “Snow White”. There are no chirpy dwarfs here; Sleepy and Happy would run screaming. Next, “The Lady of the House of Love”, a Transylvanian vampire story, brings the theme of transformation full circle when the vampire asks, “can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?”

The Bloody Chamber ends with a focus on wolves that spans three very different stories. “The Company of Wolves” is closest to the “Little Red Riding Hood” we know, but with a startlingly new ending. This Red Riding Hood has passions of her own. Carter’s descriptions of the wolves and the frozen woods in which they reside are some of the most evocative and memorable in the collection. She conjures in all its horror the dangerous, beguiling wolf.

Reading The Bloody Chamber can feel like an experience on two levels. The stories do not come free of baggage. Each story contains a commentary that demands to be heard. So rich and intriguing are these undertones that it is little wonder that much of Angela Carter’s work is widely studied and philosophised. On the other hand the stories are a pure joy to read on the surface level. Carter is a gothic queen. Her stories are resplendent with towering castles and woods brimming with wolves. There is plenty of red blood on white lace, guttering candles, dust-laden chandeliers and all the gothic imagery you could hope for. For anyone who revels in the pure beauty of language Carter’s writing is unparalleled, every sentence a sensory delight.

You don’t need an interest in fairy stories to enjoy The Bloody Chamber. The stories are Carter’s own in all their seductive wickedness.


  • Katie Burton

    KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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