“Okay, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?” – Angela Carter
Dark reworkings and reimaginings of fairy tales have become en vogue within the speculative fiction field in the last few decades as writers and other artists seek to take the sun-dappled, enchanted scenery that we heard of whilst being put to bed and transforming it into a nightmare landscape of blood and terror.
The millennium has contained enough of these insidious variants—covering everything from Todd McFarlane’s Twisted Land of Oz toy series to gloomy revamps like SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012)—to fill an encyclopedic compendium of household tales in of itself.
This movement is not a devolution (or demonization) of the saccharine stories of our youth but something more akin to a homecoming. For the tales originally transcribed by Messrs. Grimm, Anderson, and Perrault were not the aestheticized replicants that Disney has built its reputation on, but strongly-affecting parables of biting morality and fevered imaginings that set their mandrake roots deep in the minds of generations of storytellers. Angela Carter (1940 - 1992) was one of the first to fully confront and exalt these murkier aspects of our fairy tale culture, and her collection The Bloody Chamber remains perhaps the best and most accomplished demonstration of this feral power.
Having studied extensively in medieval literature and translated Perrault’s works of fantasy, Carter had an intimate relationship with traditional European folklore that shows through brilliantly in her volume, worlds away and far richer than any of the vacuous “gritty” products that are routinely pressed out by the Hollywood dream machine. Carter understood the latent shadows of the fairy tale and sought not so much to cast them over her stories as to show the world that she was bringing to the surface what had always lied beneath.
The tales in The Bloody Chamber are charged with potent eroticism and a baroque style sent into overdrive. Carter always had an affinity for the Gothic tradition, and that love is in evidence in every sentence. Her writing kindles the flame of the unconscious, stirring up the fugue visions that arouse and haunt us during our sleep. Carter delights with her grand style and wit as she weaves intoxicating tales of adventure, sexuality, and unrelenting horror.
Carter is at some of her finest here, creating a rich atmosphere of cobweb-veiled dreaming that will have the reader feeling as if the vertigo-inducing perfume of the Lady's rose garden has overtaken them as well. Though the whole story is quotable, Carter's luxurious, descriptive passages are the ones where her work is especially enjoyable. For instance:
The white hands of the tenebrous belle deal the hand of destiny. Her fingernails are longer than those of the mandarins of ancient China and each is pared to a fine point. These and teeth as fine and white as spikes of spun sugar are the visible signs of the destiny she wistfully attempts to evade via the arcana; her claws and teeth have been sharpened on centuries of corpses, she is the last bud of the poison tree that sprung from the loins of Vlad the Impaler who picnicked on corpses in the forests of Transylvania.
You could easily stray from the path and get lost in these words, should you not be careful. And why wouldn't you want to?
"The Lady of the House of Love" is a tale of romance in the star-crossed tradition. The soldier muses at one point that his strange, beautiful, fragile girl-hostess is somewhat akin to a clockwork creation, something just short of fully human. But both he and the Lady are caught within the greater cogs of destiny, a vast cosmic machine that is sparked into motion by their chance encounter. Very little action is made on either parts of the characters; throughout their brief time together they are both stymied and mystified by the great, unspoken significance that each one of them has on the existence of the other.
The soldier, who Carter tells us from the start is a virgin with the "special quality of... unknowingess, which is not the same as ignorance", is changed on a more subtle level, moved to adopt the role of a concerned big brother by the Lady's alienation. And though the soldier's concerns come from a place of more innocence than the other characters throughout The Bloody Chamber, he ultimately discovers the same thing as they: that there are beasts that no man may tame and forces over which he has no control.
In the soldier, the Lady sees a way out of her decrepit world, a chance to escape the iron gaze of her ghastly ancestors eternally judging her as a failure. Of her unresponsive governess the Lady asks "Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?" The Lady is a vampire in the lamenting vein; her immortality is curse, not dark blessing. She is a lone tree in the desert, watching as the sands of time drift endlessly past her while she remains rooted in the earth, always beautiful and always the same.
Her castle exists as both a foreboding manse and as an expressionistic portrait of her psychological makeup: ruinous, fungal, burdened with and bound by legacy. The lark she keeps imprisoned in its cage is the reflection of herself that she would not see otherwise. Though the Lady could easily release her pet into the limitless sky, she does not. This is less likely from cruelty (she's repulsed by herself when forced to eat the garden animals) than it is from the debilitating inaction she feels forced upon her--in reality self-imposed--that is only uprooted when the soldier comes into her circle. Carter leaves the circumstances surrounding the Lady's fate ambiguous, but one feels that the indefinable aura she felt from her gentleman caller stirred the will in her to throw open the latch on her own gilded cage in the only way that a creature of the night could do so.
Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems.
For you see, there are not only the full-blooded wolves to contend with, but those who walk in between human and animal forms, like the wedding party hexed by a witch to an eternity on all-fours or the newlywed husband who returned to his wife on the anniversary of his disappearance to gobble up the children she beared with another man.
A flaxen-haired girl, the youngest and most beloved of her mother's children, journeys out into the wood on Christmas Eve to deliver some cakes and wine to her moldering granny. It is true that due to the savage conditions of the country that "[c]hildren do not stay young for long", but this has become especially relevant for the girl whose body has just begun to form and bleed with the onset of womanhood. It seems almost like divine providence that during her trip the girl should happen upon a handsome young hunter who wagers that he'll be able to beat her to Grandmother's house by using his astounding compass while she takes the circuitous path cleared for safe human passage. Of course, the hunter is not as he seems, and he easily takes his place in Grandmother's bed to await the arrival of his guest.
In terms of plot, there's very little to distinguish between "The Company of Wolves" and the various iterations of the Riding Hood story. The implicit details regarding the girl's virginity and burgeoning sexuality--one of the first tidbits you find out in studying fairy tales is the symbolism behind Riding Hood's red cape--is made explicit by Carter, who comes right out and says that the girl's cloak is "her menses". Carter draws the parallel between virginity and "unknowingness" as she did in "The Lady of the House of Love", explaining that the girl's lack of coital experience has rendered her unaware of the world's greater horrors, big bad wolves especially. The line referring to the fact that the girl "does not know how to shiver" also makes an allusion to that other Grimm mainstay, further solidifying sex as the opener of the way for all of life's misfortunes.
Where Carter's story takes its subversive turn is when the girl realizes the uselessness of her fear in the face of death and succumbs to the wolf's advances with a willingness that indicates an adaptability to her world that other denizens of the village do not possess. Others may fear the wolf and slaughter it any opportunity, but she chooses to lie down with the beasts with little regard for the lice she may catch.
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.
Whereas the girl-Nosferatu from "The Lady of the House of Love" feels bound to her preordained role and doomed by her immortality, the Riding Hood figure in "The Company of Wolves" grabs hold of destiny's reins and takes the dark road less traveled. One can't help but wonder how much of the girl's decision was rooted in fear and survival though. As Carter tells us at tale's end:
See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny's bed, in between the paws of the tender wolf.
There are human hungers and there are wolf hungers, and sometimes the two are interchangeable. I love the company of wolves, says the ravenous-eyed hunter, and by the end of the story we can safely assume that Little Red Riding Hood would agree with the sentiment as well.
Carter’s collection might not fit into the mindset of the horror genre as grotty exploitation or shuddery campfire yarn; her stories are arch and poised, their details of death, transformation, oddness, and dark magic relayed in a beautiful, operatic manner that appears at odds with horror's darker inhibitions, but are in fact all the more magnificent for it. The tales within The Bloody Chamber are the stories that were told in the beginning, when horror wasn’t even a word yet but a feeling, one that every mortal felt when they heard the wolf’s call at midnight or the faraway scream from the castle. Carter is the magician that sits at the spindle, takes these fears, and weaves them into gold.
Carter's official website.
Buy The Bloody Chamber here.