The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories
by Angela Carter
Penguin Classics; 176 p.
It’s nothing new. For centuries there have been folk tales to moralize and instruct, to frighten and warn. In early Celtic poetry for instance, there are odes spotted with sententious rhetoric, some of it dull (“the worst blemish is bad manners”), some of it true (“usual with the wanton is excessive laughter”), but all of it about the ways of people and things (“boys are nimble and grimy”). There is sureness in the simplicity. People in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were collectors of quasi-proverbs like these, and centuries later I have collected two in particular. One is “nature is stronger than precept.” The other is “a bad woman has frequent scandals.” We are taught to fear ourselves in the most transparent ways sometimes. Fairy tales, of course, also moralize. The pirate is going to capture the virgin to be his bride; the leonine beast wants to tear that beauty to shreds; and the wolf is going to follow that girl walking alone through the woods. But, as Angela Carter wrote in her 1979 essay on the Marquis de Sade, “all archetypes are spurious.” We live in a post-Butler, post-Mulvey, post-Paglia world, so we are also taught to deconstruct these sexual myths, to look at them from all angles. The virgin, you see, craves it; that beauty wants it; and that girl has always been waiting for her big bad wolf. Men are like this, but women are like that. Look at them from all angles: it’s no accident of soft erotica that Carter, rightfully more famous for her horror fiction than her feminist criticism, gave her version of Bluebeard a bedroom with “mirrors on all the walls, in stately frames of contorted gold, that reflected more white lilies than I’d ever seen in my life before.” Morgue-ready flowers, to greet a recently doomed bride, made multiple and illusory by a pervert who likes watching himself do his worst.
Carter’s book of short stories that reconfigured old favorites like Bluebeard and the rest, The Bloody Chamber, is newly reissued by Penguin Classics this month. The book’s design is enchanting and baroque, much like the prose it contains. Nobody could blame Angela Carter for not knowing how to use the English language. Her dexterity is almost obscene, at times calling for a fainting couch. In the titular story, she jumps, nimble and grimy, from a church belltower to a carnival to Freudian melodrama:
“Soon,” he said in his resonant voice that was like the tolling of a bell and I felt, all at once, a sharp premonition of dread that lasted only as long as the match flared and I could see his white, broad face as if it were hovering, disembodied, above the sheets, illuminated from below like a grotesque carnival head. Then the flame died, the cigar glowed and filled the compartment with a remembered fragrance that made me think of my father, how he would hug me in a warm fug of Havana, when I was a little girl, before he kissed me and left me and died.
The first-thought-best-thought here is that you can see echoes of this tyrannical daddy in all the Wuthering Heights reboots of the last decade. In “The Company of Wolves,” another example out of many, Carter summarizes your Twilights and your 50 Shades of Greys in one sympathetic sentence: “That long-drawn wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.” And that’s not even the best line. Those blockbusters are like unimaginative Carter tales, not so much diluted as stripped for parts. I’m not one for bemoaning the popular, but at the very least there’s some intentional irony to Angela Carter’s sexy vampires.
There are plenty of other pleasures in The Bloody Chamber besides the brutes. There’s Carter’s rich and funny tone, her obsessiveness, her class criticism. Socialist that she was, Carter wrote in circles about wealth, with an eye on the easily persuaded. Her female protagonists are not above accepting rubies or lying beneath satin coverlets. After all, Lucifer was the most beautiful of all the angels: persuasion can take the form of massive feasts fit for kings, the aroma of Russian leather, and jeweled chokers made to mimic arterial blood. By taking seriously the sententious claims of these folk stories—that men are monsters, that money corrupts, that virgin skin is snow white—Carter gets to indulge in her more potent idea: that the structure of these stories is a gateway to more complex truths about women. And applying this methodology can show us the limitations of our contemporary fairy tales, the “zomboid creatures of Joan Didion’s novels” or the “dippy dames of Jean Rhys,” as Carter called them. We can find antidotes in darker expressions of femininity: vampires with whore mouths, wolf children, or a courageous mother wielding her dead husband’s revolver.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge this book on today’s expectations of the new and exciting, but I’m bored saying something is just as fresh today as it was yesterday. There is an essay by Vivian Gornick that gets at why I find The Bloody Chamber ultimately a curiosity and personally not a life-changer, however beautiful Carter’s worlds and wit are. “The End of the Novel of Love” explains what Gornick sees as the irrelevance of love-as-catalyst narratives. About Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief she says, “the story moved me to sadness and regret, but it could not persuade me to the tragic or the inevitable.” She then goes on to argue with the premise of Smiley’s novel, insisting that the protagonist should have known better, should have known not to trust in her feelings. Because, you see, feelings are insufficient; “the panic,” she writes, “with which people discover that the life they are living is the only one they are able to make—this panic cannot be addressed if the major event in the story is going to be a new affair.”
I think that was the way I found myself reading The Bloody Chamber. Call it the Leda-as-catalyst narrative: I’m moved, but I’m not convinced this is tragic. The panic that comes from realizing one’s oppression cannot be addressed if the major event in the story is going to be a morally ambiguous defilement. Maybe it’s because that tale keeps getting told for titillation and entertainment, long after it’s been deconstructed (sisters are perpetuating these myths for themselves). Maybe it’s because that tale has been overshadowed by mainstream true crime stories that are far more troubling and consequential. Maybe it’s because romances like these, even when they are critical, are nostalgic for purity, and I just don’t relate.
In any case, it wouldn’t be Angela Carter’s fault. She would have been 75 today, and who knows, as Kelly Link says in her introduction to this edition, what she would have come up with beyond middle age? Her stories are still tasty confections, her mastery of language not to be denied, and who am I to dismiss the satisfaction of yelling, “don’t go in there!” But the more illuminating fantasies, for me anyway, exist elsewhere. To be more revelatory, they would have to be dependent on a world that is not static like the world in which Carter found it necessary to say archetypes were spurious. The center of the story would have to teach me something important, as Gornick says, “about how we got to be as we are, or how the time in which we live got to be as it is.” There are new folk tales, I imagine, and I want to read those.