Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter

Anyone who knows me in some capacity can tell you, without a doubt, that I love fairy tales. I can't say my parents had willingly reared me to love stories with sneaky spindles, lovelorn mermaids, and enchanted bridegrooms. However, I've been told that those were the stories I'd choose to read over anything else. Perhaps a tiny fairy godmother tapped me with her wand while I slept in my crib; she poured fairy tales into my veins.

That being said, I'm not a big fan of the movement to retell fairy tales in their darkest capacities. Blood, gore, adultery, abuse... this list goes on with common themes that make me cringe. This trend is reaching novels, but for the most part I'm talking about fairy tales short stories that tend to get published in literary magazines these days. I completely understand that most fairy tales were, in fact, vulgar and the symbolism involved in each tale bridged the gap between childhood and adulthood. But all these new pieces of fairy tale lore often make my stomach turn. And I'm not a squeamish person (In fact, I watched three Hellraiser movies in a row last weekend and loved every second of it, haha).

The thing is, I want to read retellings that carry me away with creative imagery and inventive worlds. I want quirky characters, plot twists that make my jaw drop, and a playful exploration of the symbolism each original tale carries with it. I don't want to fall down into the cracks of a day-less cave and wonder how many tears I'll shed before finding my way to the end of the book.

These feelings have prevented me from purchasing a copy of Angela Carter's fairy tale collection called The Bloody Chamber. Carter is a heavy-hitter in the literary world, but her writing has always been known to reach the very bottom of darkness and sensuality. I had read her stories over the years from different anthologies and loved them - but I had been worried that I was only seeing some of the more tame stories in the collection. I wondered what I was missing and if reading through the collection would be worth trudging through the trenches of the inner soul. Well, I was ready for it now.

After reading The Bloody Chamber, I can say, with absolute satisfaction, that Carter's retellings were amazing. Each one has its own creative spin and language, and the stories in the collection are arranged to that each one, in some way, naturally leads to the next one. That's expert structuring. Unlike some of the writers whose retelling work makes me shudder in horror and boredom, Carter used these darker themes to create unfettered worlds and character that make you think they have sprung from beautiful, jewel-tone paintings.

But the most wonderful part of The Bloody Chamber is the language. So from some of my favorite stories in the collection, I've plucked sentences that may not explain the plot, but show how intricately crafted each story is, even down to the word choice.

The Bloody Chamber

"I should have liked, best of all, a novel in yellow paper; I wanted to curl up on the rug before the blazing fire, lose myself in a cheap novel, munch sticky liquor chocolates. If I rang for them, a maid would bring me chocolates."

The Courtship of Mr. Lyon

"Before, however, he could announce his presence, the door swung silently inward on well-oiled hinges and he saw a white hall where the candles of a great chandelier cast their benign light upon so many, many flowers in great, free-standing jars of crystal that it seemed the whole of spring drew him into its warmth with a profound intake of breath. Yet there was no living person in the hall."

The Tiger's Bride

"A knocking and clattering behind the door of the cupboard; the door swings open and out glides a soubrette from an operetta, with glossy, nut-brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue, rolling eyes; it takes me a moment to recognize her, in her little cap, her white stockings, her frilled petticoats. She carries a looking glass in one hand and a powder puff in the other and there is a musical box where her heart should be; she tinkles as she rolls toward me on her tiny wheels."

The Erl-King

"The woods enclose and then enclose again, like a system of Chinese boxes opening one into another; the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper; the imaginary traveler walking towards an inventive distance that perpetually receded before me. It is easy to lose yourself in these woods."

The Lady in the House of Love

"The Countess stood behind a low table, beside a pretty, silly, gilt-and-wire birdcage, hands outstretched in a distracted attitude that was almost one of flight; she looked as startled by their entry as if she had not requested it. With her stark white face, her lovely death's head surrounded by long dark hair that fell down as straight as if it were soaking wet, she looked like a shipwrecked bride."


"Although she could not run so fast on two legs in petticoats, she trotted out in her new dress to investigate the odorous October hedgerows, like a debutante from the castle, delighted with herself but still, now and then, singing to the wolves with a kind of wistful triumph, because now she knew how to wear clothes and so had put on the visible sign of her difference from them."


  1. I tried to go and request this, but apparently our library system doesn't have it.

    However, I did finish The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making today, and I loved it. It was so enchanting and hilarious, and modern without losing that fairytale feel. There was something I wanted to quote almost every chapter. Thanks for the recommendation. :)

  2. I really wish I loved fairy tales more. I feel so strange because I believe that I should love them a lot, since I've always been a "fairies exist!" kind of girl, but I don't. That's not to say I don't love them, because I do to a certain extent... Ok, why am I rambling? I don't know. But this is something I often ponder, the fact I prefer general fiction to fantasy.
    Anyhow, I enjoyed the excerpts from the book, though! I may have to try and procure it from the library!

    (Sorry for the rambling, it's getting late. I don't know why I don't just delete all this. Consider yourself special, I guess!)

  3. "beautiful, jewel-tone paintings". that is the perfect way to describe the magic that angela carter can conjure with her words. the bloody chamber is a delicious, dark, inspiring collection of short stories, one of my favourites, and i'm glad you've been introduced to its brilliance. x

  4. @elfarmy17 Oooooooh, yes! I'm so glad you read it. I really think it's one of my favorite books. I had so much trouble choosing a quote for the blog since, as you said, every chapter had something to savor. My favorite chapter was the one with the bath house. Woah. Blew my mind.

    @Melee lol, I like your musings. I think there's a difference between liking fairy tales and liking fairies. I remember thinking fairies were cool when I was little, but I never felt anything stronger than that. I think I was too busy daydreaming about rescuing princes and chatting with magical animals.

    Sometimes I wish I liked general fiction more. To me, it's hard to write, and I'm often impressed when I follow up on a recommendation and enjoy one.

    But I guess, when it comes down to it, I love fantasy way too much, haha. I used to read heavy-duty fantasy all the time, but ever since college, I prefer more urban fantasy / magical realism reads. And fairy tale retellings, haha. Toss in something strange and totally unreal, and you've sold me :)

    Yay! I'm special!

    @Thea Awwww, thank you! I was struggling to find words to match my feelings :D

  5. I totally agree, I love angela carter, and her language is sublime.

  6. This book looks absolutely stunning! I added it to my wishlist straight away! I too have always loved fairytales, but in a way I was bred into it, both my aunt and mother supplied me with endless stories, some written by them and others by published authors. I grew up being nourished with Beatrix Potter and all of the fairytales, even the Grimm Brothers were in the nightly storytellings. It explains why my bedroom is lined with stories and I always live in my own dizzy little world these days. Lovely post!

    xx and hugs