It’s funny how books lead to books and authors lead to authors, sometimes. In this case, a lot of different books and authors I had enjoyed all somehow pointed in the direction of Angela Carter and I firmly wanted to make Nights at the Circus my first read. Then, that reading slump got in the way and I picked the short stories over the novel. So fairytale retellings it was, and I have been shown yet another time how diverse and wide the literary field really is.
Published by: Vintage, 2007 (1979)
Paperback: 176 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon – lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
From the familiar material of fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.
Table of Contents:
The Bloody Chamber
The Courtship of Mr. Lyon
The Tiger’s Bride
The Snow Child
The Lady of the House of Love
The Company of Wolves
I stumbled across Angela Carter’s name while looking for writers similar to Cat Valente. Carter kept coming up as a prolific author who based her stories on mythology and fairytales, a feminist writer with deeply strange novels – that all sounded taylor-made for me. I was not disappointed. The book blurb promised dark retellings of Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and – the titular tale – Bluebeard. Ranging in length and style, every story offered something original and most of them kept the promise of being dark and adult.
The Bloody Chamber is the first and longest story in this collection. A young girl marries an older, rich man and is taken to his castle. When leaving for a business trip. the Duke hands over the keys to every single door in the castle, all of which she is allowed to explore – with the exception of one room. Of course, that is the room she goes hunting for and where she makes a terrible discovery…
Two things impressed me immediately. This being my very first book by Angela Carter, I wasn’t quite prepared for her gift with language. The prose is powerful and vivid and conjures up images that create atmosphere. Where other writers spend pages upon pages describing in minute detail a setting or feeling, Carter needs one sentence and no more.
His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.
At first, I simply adored the imagery and atmosphere of the story, but once the heroine finds the bloody chamber, the plot becomes the center of the story and I actually had chills running down my spine, fearing – just like the heroine – for her life. The ending was particularly satisfying because the protagonist does not need any prince to save her life. She is far from helpless but when help is needed, it comes in a rather unexpected shape – at least for a fairytale.
The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both retellings of Beauty and the Beast. They become a lot more interesting in their juxtaposition than they would be each on its own. While the first tale is very straight-forward, featuring a tender, sad, and shy beast slowly winning over the good-hearted Beauty’s heart, the second story is darker. The girl is gambled away by her father and thusly confined to the Beast’s castle. Both stories feature a transformation at the end, but they differ in tone and one of them may not end quite the way Disney envisioned it.
Puss, the Puss in Boots story represented here, was possibly my favorite tale. It is much lighter in tone and theme than the first three stories. What struck me the most was the rhythm of the language. It was poetic, not in the sense that it was flowery or painted elaborate pictures in my mind, but simply in the way that these words wanted to be read out loud. There are no rhymes in the story, it was just Puss’ narration that had a melody all its own.
I also came across this gem of a sentence which demonstrates the overall style very well.
I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats, one leg stuck in the air like a ham bone; [click here for visuals]
The plot made me giggle as much as did Puss’ narration and his utter cat-ness. Like any good fairytale, it features a villain, a beautiful girl, a love-sick hero, and a couple of cats without whose cleverless their love might never have worked out. Whether it was Puss’ preference for certain architectural styles (because they are easier to climb) or his scheming with the tabby cat, this was a delight to read.
The Erl-King was my least favorite story, not because it was bad – the language and description are as impressive as ever. But it isn’t really a story. I am quite familiar with the poem Der Erlkönig (everybody reads it in school) and while this strange being, living in the forest, somehow being the forest, was fascinating, I didn’t really recognise the creature from the poem. This tale is clearly sexual in nature with a girl describing how she embraces the Erl-King on the forest floor, his eyes the color of wet moss, his hair full of fallen leaves. But this story doesn’t really have a plot.
The shortest story, only a few pages long, was The Snow Child. At first, I expected something Snow Queen themed but once the husband, who is riding out with his wife, is wishing for a girl as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as a raven’s feather, it became obvious which tale was being retold. Again, I commend Angela Carter for bringing characters to life on just a few pages, on telling a story and giving us an original ending.
While not strictly a fairytale retelling, The Lady of the House of Love is a vampire story, and a melancholy one at that. The Duchess, damned and living lonely in her darkened mansion, despises her bloodlust but succumbs to it nonetheless. Her cycle of bringing young men to her house, seduce them and feed on them, is weighing heavy on her soul (if vampires have souls, that is). When a young, virgin officer arrives at her house, she is blinded by his purity (and his blond hair) and knows him to be the lover the tarot cards predicted. I loved the imagery of this story even more than in The Bloody Chamber. It is the man who is a virgin and whose blood will stain the bedsheets on their “wedding night”, it is the woman, soothing him by saying she won’t hurt him, she will be gentle.
I didn’t even care how the story ended because being submerged in these themes and that setting was a joy. I wouldn’t have minded reading a longer story or even a novel about the sad vampire Duchess and the English officer.
The last three tales all feature werewolves of a kind. The Werewolf retells Little Red Riding Hood, with the girl being on her guard and defending herself against the wolf only to find out what she had truly done at the end. I loved the set-up of the story, set in this harsh, cold country that sprang to life from the pages – and I equally loved the twist at the end. But my favorite werewolf story was The Company of Wolves, another retelling of the same story with the red-scarved girl meeting a hunter instead of a wolf and making a bet that he can reach her grandmother’s house before her if he goes through the woods, instead of staying on the path. The story follows the fairytale to a large degree, even containing “What big eyes you have” and so on. But I bet even the wolf didn’t expect Red Riding Hood to turn the ending on its head in that way. I loved it!
The last story, werewolf or otherwise, was Wolf-Alice. Alice herself is not a werewolf but a human who has been raised, for a while, by wild wolves in the woods. As she is found by humans they try to make her civilized, put her in dresses, wash her – only to cast her out because she is still a wild beast inside. She is sent to the Duke who suffers loneliness because of his own particular affliction.This tale was both heartbreaking and a little anti-climactic, although it does frame the collection beautifully in mentioning a bloody chamber once more when the little wolf-girl first menstruates and doesn’t know what is happening to her.
That said, it is a rare thing to read about menstruation in fiction at all – as if we were still living in the dark ages, when it is something to be hidden and be ashamed of.
In the end, I found something to love in every one of these stories, most obviously the fantastic language. Carter may not spend a lot of time describing her characters’ surroundings, but by throwing in French or Italian words and phrases, manages to create a sense of place without long expositions. Whether we are in France, in some undefined North country, dealing with Italian nobles or a Romanian Duchess, the atmosphere was graspable and real. Now that I’ve had my sample platter, I am more than ready to read a full Angela Carter Novel. I can’t wait to see what she does when she has more pages at her disposal for character development. I can only imagine it will be quite brilliant.