The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

ACW-badge-23 This week Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia of Postcards from Asia are hosting an Angela Carter Week. I have to admit that I had dismissed Angela Carter years ago as an author just not for me, based on one or two failed attempts at reading her novels as a teenager. Seeing the announcement of the Angela Carter Week and knowing that she is a beloved favourite of so many people, I decided it was time to give her another chance – with some short stories this time.

In The Bloody Chamber, Carter takes ideas and themes from fairy tales and legends – vampires and werewolves, Bluebeard and Puss in Boots, dark forests and gloomy castles – and works them into a collection of new short stories. There are ten in the book – The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger’s Bride, Puss-In-Boots, The Erl-King, The Snow Child, The Lady of The House of Love, The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice. Some are quite long (The Bloody Chamber is more than forty pages long in this edition) while others are very short (less than two pages for The Snow Child) and all of them are steeped in feminism, violence and sexuality.

The Bloody Chamber I’m glad I chose this book to try again with, because I did enjoy it. However, I had quite an uneven reaction to the stories in this collection and found that I liked some of them much more than others – though I suppose that’s normal when reading short story collections. I was interested to read in the introduction by Helen Simpson that they should not actually be described as retellings because Carter herself said that her intention was to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”.

By far the strongest, in my opinion, is the title story, The Bloody Chamber. The Gothic atmosphere and imagery in this story reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the Bluebeard legends, it’s the tale of a young woman who travels to the castle of her new husband, a Marquis who has already been married and widowed three times before. When the Marquis goes away on business he leaves his wife with a bunch of keys and strict instructions not to unlock the door of one of the rooms. Not surprisingly, she is unable to resist the temptation and discovers something shocking within the forbidden chamber.

I also loved The Courtship of Mr Lyon, a romantic and beautifully written story based on Beauty and the Beast. I preferred this one to The Tiger’s Bride, which gives a completely different perspective on the same fairy tale. Puss-in-Boots, although not one of my favourites, stands out from the others in the book as it is written in a very different style. While most of the others, particularly The Bloody Chamber, are elegant and haunting with rich, elaborate descriptions, this one is a lively, amusing story narrated by the cat himself. The Snow Child is equally memorable, though for different reasons – for such a short story, it’s one of the most disturbing in the book.

The Erl-King and The Lady of the House of Love also deserve a mention, both for their atmospheric settings and the beauty of the language used. Interestingly, I think the stories I enjoyed least were the three final ones which incorporated elements from Little Red Riding Hood and werewolf folklore. I’m not sure why that should be, unless they just suffered from being last in the book.

I can see why Angela Carter’s books are so widely studied in schools and universities because her writing is packed with symbolism and imagery. I know I would have to read this whole collection again to even begin to fully appreciate everything she was trying to say in each of the ten stories.

Have you read this book? Which was your favourite story?

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21 thoughts on “The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

  1. lindylit says:

    I’m taking part in Angela Carter Week and was a little gutted to find my local library didn’t have any copies of a The Bloody Chamber. However a trip to the school library this afternoon helped this problem and now I’m more intrigued to read it.

  2. heavenali says:

    I’m not reading Angela Carter this week, though I did read this book a couple big.years ago and enjoyed the stories more than I had expected to. The title story was my favourite too, it’s very powerful.

    • Helen says:

      Wolf-Alice wasn’t one of my favourites but I really liked the Erl-King. And yes, the end of The Snow Child is quite shocking, isn’t it?

  3. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I’ve never read Angela Carter so I’m sad I didn’t know it was Angela Carter Week – I would have loved to give her a try. Her writing sounds very dynamic. I have a copy of The Magic Toyshop around here somewhere…

    • Helen says:

      Sorry you didn’t know about the Angela Carter Week. Maybe there will be another one as this one seems to have been a success. I really like the sound of The Magic Toyshop!

  4. Delia (Postcards from Asia) says:

    The Bloody Chamber was my favorite. I also liked The Tiger’s Bride for the shocking ending – I did not see that coming! Did you know there’s a story called “The Lady or the Tiger”, published by Frank R. Stockton in 1882, only a few pages long but very good. At first I thought Carter was the author but I was wrong.
    Puss in Boots was fun, and The Lady of the House of Love I found wonderfully melancholic and romantic.
    What will you be reading next?

    • Helen says:

      The ending of The Tiger’s Bride surprised me too. I haven’t heard of the Frank R. Stockton story – I’ll have to look for it!
      I definitely want to read more Angela Carter at some point…maybe The Magic Toyshop.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read many other fairy tale reinterpretations so I don’t have much to compare these with, but yes, they’re very powerful!

  5. Violet says:

    The Bloody Chamber is a pretty hard act to follow, but I like all the stories in the collection. I haven’t read it for ages but I did study it as a student and it made a huge impression on me as being just such wonderfully rich and inventive writing. I’ve been a big Carter fan ever since. I’m glad you liked it.

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure this would be a great book to study…each story is so full of meaning. I did like most of them, but as you say, The Bloody Chamber is so good it’s a difficult act to follow.

  6. Caroline says:

    I’m so glad you liked this. I liked her even as a teenager but maybe it really depends which book you pick first. This was my first, followed by Heroes and Villains which i still consider to be her best.
    The Red Riding Hood stories are just samples in a way. Like she just tossed a small bit at us. I really need to re-read this. I remember I found some disturbing as well.

    • Helen says:

      The first one I tried to read was The Magic Toyshop and I just couldn’t get into it, though I know most people love it. I’m going to try it again soon.

  7. Brona says:

    I found these stories so absorbing. I loved researching each story before writing my posts – it helped me to think about all the layers. It added to the emotional impact.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t have time to do much research on the stories this week, but I will when I read the book again. I’m sure it would help me to appreciate the stories even more.

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