One of the great pleasures in life is finding a book that is so well-written that you can actually feel it on your skin, a book that stays with you long after you have finished reading it. It is a very rare experience and therefore one that must be savored. While looking through my shelves last week, I happened across a very thin volume titled The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, something I had randomly picked up when Borders was closing and had never gotten around to reading. I had no idea what to expect, and I was more than pleasantly surprised.
The Bloody Chamber is a book of short stories, all of which are based on a well-known fairy tale. What makes these stories stand out from the normal retelling of fairy tales is Carter's extraordinary grasp of language. Her words flow together effortlessly and create incredibly beautiful pictures in the mind of the reader. It is as though you are listening to a storyteller rather than reading a book. Carter isn't just retelling an old story; she is creating art.
The title of the collection is also the title of the first story, which is a retelling of "Bluebeard." It begins with three generations of women: grandmother, mother and daughter. The daughter is eager to get married, perhaps a little too eager. Against the advice of her mother and grandmother, she marries an incredibly rich man, who is always described in animal terms (usually leonine). He has been married before, but his naïve young bride doesn't care. She is too obsessed with the notion of romance. The story plays out like the tale it's based on, except for one brilliant twist at the end.
The next two stories are based on "Beauty and the Beast." In the first, "The Courtship of Mr Lyon," Beauty's father trades her to the Beast, a lionman, in exchange for help on financial matters. It follows the original tale very closely, and the imagery used throughout is quite lovely. The second story, "The Tiger's Bride," replaces the lion with a tiger. Of the two, this one is the more interesting. The narrator, Beauty, is incredibly funny. The story starts out with the following line: "My father lost me to The Beast at cards." As the narrative progresses, you get the impression that this woman is often the smartest person in the room but is never listened to because of her gender. She's quick with a barb and surprisingly strong-willed. What I found most interesting about this story was, rather than being about "taming" the woman, it is more about Beauty learning to embrace her inner feral nature. The tale's last scene is both haunting and beautiful.
The next story, "Puss-in-Boots," is possibly one of the funniest stories I've ever read. Puss, an orange tom, plays wingman to his "owner," a hapless musician who is overdramatic, to say the least. The poet falls in love with a married woman, who also has a cat (who is conveniently female). The two cats are the ones that ultimately help their owners get together though schemes that are quite entertaining, if a little morbid. The musician comes off like a teenager, claiming that he'll die if he cannot have his one true love. The cat as narrator is incredibly entertaining and a lot smarter than the human he seems to be saddled with.
I couldn't figure out which tales the next three stories were taken from. The first is "The Erl-King," and it's really creepy. The narrator, who I think was a girl, goes into a very large forest, the kind that is easy to get lost in. She comes across the Erl-King, who lives in the middle of the woods. The narrator has an affair with this man, who is completely cut off from society, and, eventually, he tries to turn her into one of his caged birds. There is a very slow buildup to the final scene, but if you stick with it the payoff is well worth your effort.
"The Snow Child" is another creepy tale with no obvious fairy tale basis. In a little less than two pages, Carter manages to weave a rather unsettling little story. The following story was the hardest for me to understand and I wound up reading it twice. It's titled "The Lady of the House of Love" and it's a vampire story, but an interesting one. The vampire is the lady of the title. The story seems to be a mash up of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Jack and the Beanstalk." Carter's use of language to build up an unrelenting sense of dread is incredible. It's a very complex and eerie tale, one filled with images of death and decay.
The last three stories are all retellings of "Little Red Riding Hood." One of these three stories, "The Company of Wolves," was made into a fantastic movie directed by Neil Jordan, for which Carter wrote the script. "The Company of Wolves" is the most abstract of the three tales, composed mostly of images. "The Werewolf" is the shortest but has a very wicked twist at the end. "Wolf-Alice" is the one most loosely based on the traditional story, but it's very interesting nonetheless. Carter casts Alice as a feral child, an outsider, though she isn't aware of it. Following her as she learns about concepts like time is an interesting journey. Alice never loses her feral nature and it makes the story a lot stronger.
The Bloody Chamber is a fantastic book that is more like an experience. It demonstrates the beauty in language and how a skilled storyteller uses it. In only 126 pages, Angela Carter guides her reader through a world of darkness and sensuality. Here, you will find no damsels in distress, only strong heroines. Above all else, The Bloody Chamber is first rate storytelling.