In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter put her own spin on horror, the gothic, and old fairy tales, expanding the limits and possibilities of fiction.
From the cover of the new edition to The Bloody Chamber, originally released in 1979.
By Kelly Link
From The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories: 75th-Anniversary Edition by Angela Carter, with an introduction by Kelly Link. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Many of the elements of Angela Carter’s stories are now commonplace in fiction and in popular culture. Sexy vampires? Sure. The exploration of female desire? Yep. Fairy tales reworked in contemporary settings? An embarrassment of riches. What we don’t have, of course, is any more Angela Carter stories: Carter died in 1992; this year, more than twenty years later, she would have turned seventy-five. How I yearn for more of her. What would she make of the stories we tell now? What new thing would she make?
It is impossible, as it turns out, to put my finger on the place and time when I first read her. I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out that she had died. I was in the second year of an MFA program, living in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was working part-time in a children’s bookstore. I was trying to figure out how stories worked. The main business of the MFA workshop was, in the nineties, the business of figuring out how to write domestic realism. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to do this. If I had figured it out, I suppose I would be a different kind of writer. Mostly I wasn’t writing. Instead I was reading.
I read anthologies of ghost stories, heaps of science fiction and fantasy, romance novels, and children’s books. I read Carter’s Wise Children, Nothing Sacred Selected Writings, Sadeian Woman, and, over and over again, The Bloody Chamber. Reading Carter, each time, was electrifying. It lit up the readerly brain and all the writerly nerves. What she was doing, of course, was rewiring some very old stories. But it felt as if it were me, the reader/writer me, who was being reconfigured in some necessary way. Carter’s versions of these fairy tales, the way she approached them—with joy, with intelligence, with irreverence, with love, with fearlessness—made me look again at the ghost stories and children’s books that I read for pleasure. It made me see how necessary that joy in reading was to how I wanted to proceed as a writer. Carter took the stories that she loved and with that love she made new stories out of them. I wanted to do the same.
I was struck, too, by the conversational tone of her narrators, the knowing, conspiratorial effect of her prose. I see you, Carter always seems to be saying, even as the story itself continues to move forward. Do you see me?
It seems possible that I first read The Bloody Chamber in the one-room branch of the New York Public Library just off Broadway, down the street from Columbia University. I spent a lot of time there, looking for things to read that I wasn’t supposed to be reading. I read Georgette Heyer for the first time there, and Simon Raven, and it seems very likely that I found Angela Carter there as well. I had a part-time job in the basement of the Columbia library, too, in Gifts and Acquisitions, where all the books that I cataloged were written in High German. Who read those? Not me. It made me anxious, not knowing whether they would be read. I was much more at home in the public library.
The public library branch wasn’t a very nice one. It smelled bad. It was too warm in winter and too warm also in summer. It was usually crowded. But I liked it better than my dorm room. I could sit at one of the long wooden tables and read, ignoring the other patrons and being ignored by them.
Since I first came across The Bloody Chamber, I have kept a copy with me wherever I have been living. I keep extra copies in the cupboard where we stockpile books that I can then, extravagantly, give away to whoever seems most in need of them.
Or perhaps I found The Bloody Chamber—and then, later, Carter’s novels—at the Strand, where I went almost every weekend while I lived in New York. I would walk the hundred blocks down Broadway, and then come home on the bus or the subway with a backpack full of books.
I do know that since I first came across The Bloody Chamber, I have kept a copy with me wherever I have been living. I keep extra copies in the cupboard where we stockpile books that I can then, extravagantly, give away to whoever seems most in need of them. For the next decade or so, all the work that I did revolved around books, bookselling, and writing workshops, either as a student or as a teacher. All the bookstores where I worked are now gone, but I still give The Bloody Chamber away every single time I teach a workshop. When I assign reading, I assign “The Lady of the House of Love.”
I usually put a ghost story by M. R. James on my workshop reading lists, too; also Lucy Lane Clifford’s “The New Mother,” James R. Tiptree’s “The Screwfly Solution,” George Saunders’s “Sea Oak,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Poacher,” Joe Hill’s “My Father’s Mask.” What I hope for, when I assign these stories, is of course not that the writers in my workshop will figure out how to write Angela Carter stories or Joe Hill stories, but rather that they will figure out something about their own approach to storytelling, point of view, and boldness. The literature of the fantastic is peculiar in that stories are necessarily in conversation with other stories, dependent on other stories to achieve their effect. There is no such thing as a vampire, except in stories, because of stories. If the writers in my workshops go on to introduce the fantastic into their own work, I want to make sure that they, too, have encountered Carter’s countess, descendant of Dracula and Carmilla, and so on. I want them to see how it’s possible to blend together in one story the gothic, the comic, the camp, and the cataclysmic. Writers will go on to achieve their own blends, their own effects, and yet there will be a mustard seed of Angela Carter in there as well, I imagine. How could there not be?
What a relief to see how much stretch there was to stories. What a relief to see that you, too, as a writer, could be serious about the things that mattered to you, no matter whether they seemed significant to anyone else.
The things that I needed, when I was beginning to think about writing short stories, were the things that I found in The Bloody Chamber. I needed to see how stories could be in conversation with other stories. I needed to see how playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in language, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the psychologically realistic—were engines for story and structure and point of view. It didn’t hurt that I was working in a children’s bookstore. Every week we got new boxes of picture books, new picture book versions of “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Such multiplicity! Such mutableness! The stories remained themselves, and yet they could be reworked over and over and over again. You just had to pick the patterns, the archetypes, the bits of fairy tale business to which you felt most drawn. Or, perhaps, the ones where you saw something that you wanted to quarrel about. What a relief to see how much stretch there was to stories. What a relief to see that you, too, as a writer, could be serious about the things that mattered to you, no matter whether they seemed significant to anyone else.
If I tell you what I see in The Bloody Chamber, the things in it that I love and admire and think about, of course I’m telling you about myself as much as I am telling you about Angela Carter. There are ten stories in The Bloody Chamber. They overlap one another. There are stories about beastliness, about wildness, about marriage and sexual awakening, decay and transformation, about house cats and big cats, about wolves and people who behave as wolves. There are retellings, or, sometimes, more occulted echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bluebeard,” and “The Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear.” Carter was an admirer of Charles Perrault’s. There’s a bit of Boccaccio, whom she also loved, and whom I love, too, in her version of “Puss in Boots.” There are counts and countesses, dukes and a duchess, a marquis, an Erl-King, a young English officer, brides and husbands, fathers and mothers and grandmothers.
There are only a handful of named characters. Mr. Lyon and Beauty, of course, are hardly names at all. They are signifiers. There is Wolf Alice. There is Carmilla, the former wife of the marquis, whose name is a wink to the reader of vampire stories. There is the blind piano tuner, Jean-Yves, the only person in the book to be given a name that is only itself, without the least bit of symbolic weight. And, of course, he is the particular invention of Carter: her own bit of business. So I notice him, particularly. He is kind, gentle, has a good ear and a pure heart. Like the English officer in “The Lady of the House of Love,” he seems to be a real person who has wandered, or been enticed, into the very old structure of a gothic or fairy tale. Whereas the mother in “The Bloody Chamber” comes into view in the most dramatic fashion possible, hair streaming, half undressed, riding a horse through the waves, a revolver in her hand. She shoots the marquis just as once she shot a tiger. (I remember the shock of this change, mother for brothers, this other bit of new business. I thought: Can you do this? Which is a question I still ask myself when I write: Can I do this? When I realize that I’m asking myself this question, I feel happier than I usually do when I’m writing. Be bold, be bold.)
Tigers and lions and wolves—husbands, lovers—fare better in the other stories. Mr. Lyon must become a man again, but in the next story, the tiger’s wife herself becomes a tiger. Desire remakes the beast, or the bride as she best pleases. We discover ourselves in what we desire.
Carter gives us all the trappings of the gothic, the vampire narrative, and then briskly, explicitly dismantles the gothic stagecraft the next morning. Here the shadow of real horror hangs over the painted backdrop of the unreal.
My favorite of all the stories in the collection has always been “The Lady of the House of Love.” I love it for the luster of Carter’s language; the tensile strength of the prose; its luscious, comical, fizzing theatricality. The handsome and wholesome boy on the bike, the decayed wedding dress, the bird in the cage, and the countess herself, who would like to be in a different kind of story from the one in which she eats rabbits and men. I am troubled by the dreadful clamor of the refrain: “now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation.” Of course, if you are brave enough and good-hearted and do not realize you have stumbled into a vampire story, you might escape.
In a fairy tale, innocence is a key that opens a door through which you can flee—without ever realizing that you were in any danger. (Experience is another key entirely.) In the real world, of course, there are worse things than vampires. The English officer gets back on his bicycle and rides off to join his regiment. It’s the eve of the First World War. “Next day, his regiment embarked for France.” Carter gives us all the trappings of the gothic, the vampire narrative, and then briskly, explicitly dismantles the gothic stagecraft the next morning. Here the shadow of real horror hangs over the painted backdrop of the unreal.
How the stories begin to bleed into one another: the perverse and murderous desire of the husband in “The Bloody Chamber”; the masked beast of “The Tiger’s Bride” who wishes, diffidently, only to see his not-bride stripped bare, and in the end, strips her of her human shape with his rough tongue; the girl in “The Company of Wolves” who, naked, throws the clothing of the wolf into the fire as well, knowing that she “is no man’s meat.” So much nakedness in these stories! And then at the end we have another of my favorites: we have another titled monster, the Duke, and another girl, Wolf Alice. Both of them are fully human, and yet also wolfish: the Duke in his madness, his nature; Alice by nurture. Both bleed. And of course, the things that, above all, make the collection cohere: Carter’s ferment of ideas about gender and sexuality and story; her voice, her unruly, triumphant, remarkable register, now raucous, now luscious, always pulling at our attention.
Angela Carter published two books in 1979, the same year that Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister: The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman. In the same year, Jack Zipes’s Breaking the Magic Spell : Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Talescame out. It was a good decade for fairy tales, both scholarship and retellings. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales had been published in 1976; Anne Sexton’s poetry collection Transformations in 1971. On the other hand, Disney had moved away from fairy tale feature movies, instead making features about anthropomorphic cats, mice, foxes, and cars.
A bit earlier, in 1961, Stith Thompson had translated and added to Antti Aarne’s Tale Type Index, in which story types are clustered together under motifs like “Supernatural helpers” and “The clever fox and other animals,” then broken down further into categories like “Big Fight over Magic Things” and “Unnatural Love.” Carter herself would later put together two anthologies of folk and fairy tales from around the world: Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book, and then Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen: Fairy Tales from Around the World (a title that I borrowed, more or less, for my first collection).
On the music scene, there were bands like Fairport Convention, and Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s Silly Sisters, who were putting out albums of traditional ballads like “Tam Lin” and “Sir Patrick Spens” on sometimes very untraditional instruments. Fashion, which Angela Carter wrote about, had a storybook quality to it: glam rock, punk, peacock-y and playful, and transgressive. Transgressive, too, at that moment, was the idea of taking folk ballads and children’s stories and sexual desire—especially women’s desire—seriously.
I listened to this music, found these stories, much later on. In the 1970s I was reading Andrew Lang and the Grimm brothers and Perrault and d’Aulaire for the first time. I was a child. I read like a child, for pleasure, and in order to figure out what the rules were, and what price you paid when you broke those rules. And again, as an adult, it seemed to me that I was breaking the rules by continuing to read and reread the things that pleased me best.
When I teach now, I ask the writers in my workshop what their guilty pleasure read is. (A better way of phrasing it, no doubt, is to ask what they read that seems most removed from the kind of writing that they do.)
Pleasure—the things that give us pleasure—is subversive, Angela Carter says in the introduction to Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book. We are thrown off balance (out of bounds, outside the normal rules) by delight, by terror, by beauty, by humor. And sometimes we dismiss the kind of work that evokes these responses in us, because it seems undignified, out of our control, unserious, unadult. Unruly. The rules upon the stairs in Mr. Fox’s house tell the trespasser, “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest that thy heart’s blood run cold.” But the girl goes up the stairs anyway. Boldness is the point of the story. The girls and women in The Bloody Chamber remake the rules of the stories they find themselves in with their boldness. And Angela Carter, too, was bold. I tried to learn that lesson from her.
Kelly Link is the author, most recently, of Get in Trouble: Stories.