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?

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

The Birds and Other Stories I have never enjoyed reading short stories as much as full length novels and my various attempts over the years at increasing the number of short stories I read have generally failed. However, one of the few authors whose short stories I do enjoy is Daphne du Maurier (in fact, I’ve loved almost everything I’ve ever read by du Maurier, whatever the format). I have actually read The Birds before (soon after reading Rebecca for the first time as a teenager) but I never went on to read the other stories in this collection so when I saw that this book was available through NetGalley, it seemed a good opportunity to rectify this.

I read another du Maurier collection a few years ago – The Rendezvous & Other Stories – which contained some of the earliest examples of her work, but I found the stories in The Birds and Other Stories much stronger – the work of an accomplished author rather than a beginner. There are six stories in the book, including The Birds, and all of them are excellent, although I felt that two were slightly weaker than the other four.

The Birds, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, is the first story in the book and one of my favourites. For those of you not familiar with the plot, this is the story of Nat Hocken, a farm worker who lives with his wife and two young children. When Nat notices an unusually large number of birds in the skies above him, he senses that the weather must be about to change. The next day a national emergency is declared: Britain is under attack from huge flocks of birds. Nat begins to board up the windows and doors, but will he and his family survive the night?

This is such an atmospheric story; you can feel the claustrophobia inside Nat’s house, you can hear the sounds of pecking and tapping at the windows, and you can see the birds gathering in the sky:

He walked down the path, halfway to the beach and then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent.

I loved this story and it was certainly worth re-reading, but the next two that followed were also very enjoyable. Monte Verita is a haunting tale of a lonely monastery high in the mountains, an isolated community of priestesses and a village of superstitious peasants. The Apple Tree is a great little story about a man who becomes obsessed by the old apple tree in his garden, believing that it is taking on the characteristics of his dead wife, Midge. Whether this is really happening or whether it’s all in his imagination you will have to read the story to decide.

Stories four and five were the ones I didn’t like as much as the others. The Little Photographer tells the story of a beautiful married woman who has a summer affair with a photographer and gets a lot more than she bargained for when she tries to end the relationship. In Kiss Me Again, Stranger, the narrator remembers a girl he once met and fell in love with, only to have his heart broken when he makes a macabre discovery. There was nothing wrong with either of these stories, but they didn’t have the eerie, otherworldly feel of the previous three.

Finally, The Old Man is the shortest story in the book, but also the cleverest. I’m not going to give any more details except to say that when I reached the end of this particular story, I was so surprised and delighted that I had to go straight back to the beginning and read it again!

So, a very impressive selection of stories! They contain many of the same elements that du Maurier uses in her full-length novels, such as the male narrative voice, the unnamed characters, the ambiguous endings, the wonderful use of atmosphere and the vivid sense of place. They are the ideal length too – each one is long enough to allow the reader to be fully drawn into the story, but short enough to read in one sitting. I would highly recommend this collection even to those readers who, like me, don’t often choose to read short stories.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for providing a review copy via NetGalley

Irish Short Story Month Year 3: Two from Oscar Wilde

Irish Short Story Month

Irish Short Story Month is an annual event hosted by Mel U of The Reading Life. To participate all you need to do is read at least one Irish short story during the month of March. In 2011 I read Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu. I didn’t manage to take part in 2012, but as I’ve been neglecting my short story-reading in recent months, I decided to join in again this year.

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900
Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

I have previously read one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale collections for children, A House of Pomegranates, but none of his short fiction for adults. For Irish Short Story Month I’ve read two of his stories – The Model Millionaire and The Sphinx Without a Secret. Both of these are available online and can easily be read in just a few minutes. They also appear in the collection, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

In The Model Millionaire we meet Hughie Erskine, who is in love with Laura Merton, the daughter of a retired Colonel. Hughie is handsome and good-natured but unfortunately has no money and the Colonel will not let him marry Laura until he has ten thousand pounds of his own. One day, Hughie visits his artist friend, Alan Trevor, and finds him painting a portrait of an old beggar dressed in rags, who is standing in the corner of the room.

The beggar himself was standing on a raised platform in a corner of the studio. He was a wizened old man, with a face like wrinkled parchment, and a most piteous expression. Over his shoulders was flung a coarse brown cloak, all tears and tatters; his thick boots were patched and cobbled, and with one hand he leant on a rough stick, while with the other he held out his battered hat for alms.

‘What an amazing model!’ whispered Hughie, as he shook hands with his friend.

‘An amazing model?’ shouted Trevor at the top of his voice; ‘I should think so! Such beggars as he are not to be met with every day. A trouvaille, mon cher; a living Velasquez! My stars! what an etching Rembrandt would have made of him!’

‘Poor old chap!’ said Hughie, ‘how miserable he looks! But I suppose, to you painters, his face is his fortune?’

‘Certainly,’ replied Trevor, ‘you don’t want a beggar to look happy, do you?’

Hughie asks his friend how much he will be paying the beggar for modelling for him and is shocked at how little the amount is compared to the amount Trevor will make from selling the picture. Although Hughie himself is very poor, he feels sorry for the old man and as soon as his friend leaves the room he gives the beggar all the money he has in his pocket. Later that night he discovers that his act of generosity has had a surprising result.

I thought it was very easy to predict what was going to happen in this story, but I enjoyed it and despite it being so short, I still found it satisfying – and very well written, of course.

The other story I read, The Sphinx Without a Secret, is another very short one. The narrator meets his friend, Lord Murchison, in Paris and seeing that something is wrong, asks him what the problem is. Murchison tells him about the beautiful Lady Alroy, whom he had loved and planned to marry.

He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.

‘What do you think of that face?’ he said; ‘is it truthful?’

I examined it carefully. It seemed to me the face of some one who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty moulded out of many mysteries – the beauty, in face, which is psychological, not plastic – and the faint smile that just played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.

Finding her to be very secretive and surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery, Murchison decided to follow her one day and saw her entering a boarding house where she stayed for a few hours before returning home. When Lady Alroy tried to deny visiting the house, Murchison became convinced that she was hiding something – but what could it be?

Although I didn’t find either of these to be particularly memorable stories, I did enjoy them both as I love Oscar Wilde’s writing style. I liked the ambiguous ending of The Sphinx Without a Secret; despite the suspense that builds up throughout the story it’s not hard to guess what Murchison is going to discover as the title does give it away, but we are still left with something to think about at the end. This story may have been intended as a satire on Victorian sensation fiction, in which everybody had a secret to hide and an ulterior motive for every seemingly innocent action, as well as being a study of a person’s desire to pretend to be something they’re not.

Have you read any of Oscar Wilde’s short stories? Who are your favourite Irish writers?

A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde

Last week I posted my thoughts on Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu for Irish Short Story Week. I then wanted to read another short work by an Irish author and remembered that A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde was one of the free ebooks that came with my Sony Reader. Perfect!

A House of Pomegranates contains four short fairy tales by Wilde. I originally intended just to read one of them but ended up reading the whole book! Each story has a moral lesson for the reader but first and foremost they are enjoyable fairy tales – although quite dark in tone, as many fairy tales are.

Wilde apparently said that the stories in A House of Pomegranates are “meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.” Having read the book I would agree with this assessment of it. Although I’m sure there are a lot of children who would enjoy the stories (I know I would probably have loved them if I’d read them when I was younger), I think they might be too long and too heavy on description for some, and in many ways will be appreciated more by adults.

In The Young King, we are warned against the love of beauty and luxury. On the eve of his coronation, the young king, who loves all the beautiful things in life, has three dreams in which he learns exactly where his magnificent new robe, sceptre and crown have come from – and suddenly, they don’t appear so beautiful after all.

The Birthday of the Infanta is a poignant story about the King of Spain’s daughter, who is celebrating her twelfth birthday. Among the entertainments that have been arranged for her is a performance by a dwarf, who later becomes convinced that the Infanta is in love with him. It quickly becomes obvious that the Infanta has a very sad and lonely life, but my sympathy was for the dwarf, who can be seen to represent anyone who is the victim of cruelty and prejudice. Even the flowers in the palace garden ridicule him.

The Flowers were quite indignant at his daring to intrude into their beautiful home, and when they saw him capering up and down the walks, and waving his arms above his head in such a ridiculous manner, they could not restrain their feelings any longer.

‘He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are,’ cried the Tulips.

‘He should drink poppy-juice, and go to sleep for a thousand years,’ said the great scarlet Lilies, and they grew quite hot and angry.

The Fisherman and his Soul is the longest of the four stories and to be honest, I didn’t think it needed to be quite so long. It felt very repetitive, which was a shame because it was otherwise an excellent story about a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and sacrifices his soul for her. It can almost be seen as a re-working of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, but instead of the mermaid longing to become human as in Andersen’s story, this is the reverse.

My favourite story in the book was The Star-Child, about a child who is found by a woodcutter after a shooting star falls from the sky. The child grows up to be selfish and conceited, but finally gets a chance to redeem himself.

A House of Pomegranates is certainly worth reading if you’re looking for something a bit different or if you like Oscar Wilde’s writing (although the wit and humour which shines through in his other works isn’t really present here). I would be interested in comparing this book with Wilde’s other, more popular, book of short stories, The Happy Prince & Other Tales, but I’ll have to wait until I’m in the mood for some more fairy tales!

Have you read either of Oscar Wilde’s two books of fairy tales?

Laura Silver Bell by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (Irish Short Story Week)

This week (14-20 March) Mel U of The Reading Life is hosting an Irish Short Story Week. If you’d like to participate all you need to do is read at least one short story by an Irish author. There are plenty of these available to read for free online, including stories by classic authors such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Bram Stoker.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to try a short story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is probably most famous for his vampire novella, Carmilla, and gothic novel Uncle Silas, but has also written a lot of shorter fiction. As I’m not familiar with his short stories at all, I chose one at random from The Literature Network.

Laura Silver Bell is a simple but effective story. It is set in the north of England, in an isolated rural area. Laura Lew, known as Laura Silver Bell, has been raised as a farmer’s daughter after the death of her mother.

So Farmer Lew called the little girl Laura; and her sobriquet of “Silver Bell” was derived from a tiny silver bell, once gilt, which was found among her poor mother’s little treasures after her death, and which the child wore on a ribbon round her neck.

When Laura falls in love with a tall man dressed in black whom she meets while walking home one night, she receives a warning from Mother Carke, a former sage femme (midwife) who is believed to be a witch. Mother Carke suspects that the man is a fairy and she advises Laura to stay away from him. But will Laura take her advice or will she be tempted to go with the fairy – and what will happen to her if she does?

“Say yer prayers, lass; I can’t help ye,” says the old woman darkly. “If ye gaa wi’ the people, ye’ll never come back. Ye munna talk wi’ them, nor eat wi’ them, nor drink wi’ them, nor tak a pin’s-worth by way o’ gift fra them – mark weel what I say – or ye’re lost!”

Although this is not a horror story exactly, it does have quite an eerie atmosphere, due to the lonely setting and the grounding in traditional folklore – there are frequent references to fairies, witchcraft and black magic (fairies, in this sense, are not the pretty winged creatures that are often depicted in modern culture, but something more sinister). It seems that Le Fanu had a particular interest in the legends of humans being stolen away by fairies – after reading this story I read another one by the same author called The Child that Went with the Fairies which, as the title suggests, is on the same theme as Laura Silver Bell.

Have you read this story or anything else by Le Fanu? Which of his stories or novels would you recommend I read next?

Review: The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories by Wilkie Collins

Time for one more review before the RIP challenge ends!

Having read so many of Wilkie Collins’ books and loving them all, I’m starting to worry now whenever I pick up one that I haven’t read yet, in case that’s going to be the one that disappoints me. Luckily it wasn’t this one! This collection published by Wordsworth Editions includes the novella The Haunted Hotel and eight other short stories, all with a ghostly, spooky or supernatural theme.

Part ghost story and part gothic mystery, The Haunted Hotel begins in London but soon moves to Venice, an atmospheric setting complete with dark canals and ancient palaces. At the heart of the story is the mysterious Countess Narona, who marries Lord Montbarry after he breaks off his engagement to Agnes Lockwood. When Montbarry dies in Venice soon after insuring his life for ten thousand pounds, rumours abound that the Countess may have had something to do with his death.

While I enjoyed The Haunted Hotel, I wouldn’t class it among Collins’ best work and the shortness of the story means the characters aren’t as well developed. I did love the second half of the story in which the palace where Montbarry died is converted into a hotel. There’s a very creepy sequence of events where each member of the Montbarry family who stays in the hotel feels a ghostly influence that manifests itself in a different way to each person.

You can buy The Haunted Hotel on its own, but I recommend looking for this edition because the additional short stories are well worth reading too. In every story, Collins gradually builds the suspense and draws the reader into the story. One of my favourites was Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman, a short ghost story in which the ghostly happenings are accompanied by mysterious clouds of white fog. I loved the way even though the story was quite predictable, it was still a pageturner. The same can be said about Nine O’Clock, in which a man condemned to death during the French Revolution tells his friend about a family curse. We know almost from the beginning what will happen, but the story still manages to be suspenseful.

Another favourite was A Terribly Strange Bed, an Edgar Allan Poe-like tale which creates a feeling of claustrophobia and terror as the narrator finds himself trapped in a room with a very unusual bed. Another story on a similar theme is The Dead Hand, in which a man attempts to find a room at an inn for the night, but finds that everywhere is full. When he’s eventually offered a bed in a double room, he makes a surprising discovery about the stranger who’s occupying the other bed.

I also enjoyed the final story in the book, The Devil’s Spectacles, which is about a man who is given a pair of spectacles that allow him to see the true thoughts and feelings of anyone he looks at.

I don’t generally like reading short story collections straight through from beginning to end, but I didn’t have a problem with this book. There are only eight stories (plus The Haunted Hotel) and most of them are less than twenty pages long. This was a perfect book to read in the week before Halloween.

Short Story: The Vampyre by John Polidori

As I’m hoping to read Dracula soon, I thought it might be a good idea to also read one of Bram Stoker’s influences – John Polidori’s The Vampyre. This short story is considered to be one of the first vampire stories in literature and the first to portray a vampire in the way we would recognise today. I have actually been interested in reading this story since I read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and was intrigued by the references to the vampire Lord Ruthven. (If you’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo you might remember the scene where the Countess G- is remarking on the Count’s pale skin and nicknames him ‘Lord Ruthven’.)

The origins of The Vampyre are fascinating. John William Polidori was Byron’s personal physician and in 1816, went with him to Switzerland. At the Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, Byron and Polidori were joined by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and decided to amuse themselves by writing horror stories. Mary began work on what would become Frankenstein, and Byron wrote the beginning of a vampire story (which survives today as Fragment of a Novel) based on the various vampire myths and legends. Although Byron abandoned his vampire story, Polidori took inspiration from it and The Vampyre was the result. Unfortunately for Polidori, The Vampyre was wrongly attributed to Byron, despite Byron’s attempts to set the record straight.

As a story, it really isn’t very satisfying. Our narrator is a young Englishman called Aubrey, who travels to Rome with his acquaintance, the nobleman Lord Ruthven. The more time he spends with Ruthven, the more Aubrey begins to distrust him and to realise that Ruthven is not what he seems… The plot is so thin that there’s not much more I can tell you without spoiling it – although really, there’s nothing to spoil as the story is very predictable (for the modern reader anyway – I’m sure it would have been more compelling at the time when it was first published).

The Vampyre is interesting historically because of its portrayal of Lord Ruthven as a mysterious, pale-faced aristocratic figure who preys on innocent young ladies, which is the way many future vampires would be described (the vampires of folklore had generally been described as hideous-looking monsters). If you’re interested in how vampire stories began and how they evolved over the years, this is worth reading. If you’re just looking for a good short story to read, you might be disappointed with this one.

Read The Vampyre online here

Byron’s Fragment of a Novel is also available online and is so short it only takes a few minutes to read. It’s a shame he decided not to continue with this, as I think it had the potential to be much better than The Vampyre. I’ve read a few of Byron’s poems but this is my first experience of his prose and even based on such a short sample of his work I find his writing superior to Polidori’s.

Read Fragment of a Novel online here

John William Polidori (1795-1821)