Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Introduction by Helen Simpson
Vintage Books 2006 (1979)
Feminist — Gothic — retellings — magic realism — fantasy. Yes, the short stories in The Bloody Chamber are all these and more, but to label them is to limit them. For me they are simply wonderful expeditions into the imaginary landscapes of the mind. They may, as Helen Simpson writes in her introduction, reflect and refract “a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality — heterosexual female sexuality” and, as retellings of traditional fairytales, allow her to explore “ideas of how things might be different” from the male-dominated world of the past. But, polemics aside — and I in no way want to deny how important it remains to challenge the masculine consensus — the stories must work as narratives in their own right: the reader, whatever their gender or their politics, must be eager to push on to see what the narrative brings us next.
By subverting, or expanding, or reconfiguring familiar fairytales Carter does indeed so change them that we are unsure whether the traditional narrative will survive intact. The ten stories take those old stand-by tales
— Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Puss-in-Boots — plus two European legends (the Erl-King and a Romanian vampire tale) and render them anew. The underlying skeleton sometimes has had radical surgery, the figure is posed in curious postures and the revived corpse clothed in unexpected costumes; sometimes related tales and motifs are alluded to, as if one layer of costume has partially slipped to reveal an underlying garment; but by hints or explicit statements we are left in little doubt as to each creature’s provenance.
Interestingly, the first five pieces are told in the first person. This, because of its sense of immediacy, has the effect of almost making the reader complicit in the action. Two or three of the other tales are narrated in the present tense, or sidle from past to present, also creating that aura of immediacy.
Carter’s language is rich, vivid, incisive; it glints with alliteration, glistens with similes, pulses with onomatopoeia. But to dissect her storytelling further is to do it a gross disservice; you should stop reading this critique and, if you haven’t already, immerse yourself in the real thing. I promise, you won’t be disappointed; and if they linger in your mind a while after you’ve finished them then that’s no bad thing.
In my 2015 Reading Challenge this counted — though I was rather pushing the category’s terms — as a book with a colour in the title