Despite the popularity of films and TV programmes such as The Vampire Diaries, the reading of such stories has seen little increase. People are enjoying the stories and emotions but not experiencing it first hand or truly submerging themselves in the gothic atmosphere of the written word.
Angela Carter’s book The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a collection of short narratives that sees fairy tales going back to their sinister roots, before the Brothers Grimm got their hands on them. Carter uses familiar tales: Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and Puss in Boots, and mixes them with vampires and werewolves to create engaging new stories that all hold a deeper meaning.
This book would appeal to fans of the gothic but its extra ingredient of romance and true love will open it up to other readers. Almost all of Carter’s protagonists are female, with a hope of changing or finding a man to spend their life with; however, there are many obstacles they must overcome to get what they truly desire. In many of the stories, the girls are lonely and young but with so much experience of life that they never really had a childhood full of laughter, but one full of death and heartache. In this way Carter presents the tales in a new light, or rather in their original light, where men see girls as mere objects, without power or worth.
Carter herself said she was drawn to “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious” and this second collection of hers really shows her exploring this fascination. She shifts the setting of some of the tales to recent historical periods; for example, The Lady of the House of Love is set just before World War I and sees a boy about to face death, whether at the hands of the Countess or at the hands of war – either way, an engagement with fate itself.
Destiny has a key role in the stories of The Bloody Chamber, as they all have a hard ending that the protagonists must face and a love they must find. This search for a meaning in their lives leads the women to test their strength and prove their capabilities, as not one gives up, despite fear or pain.
Throughout The Bloody Chamber various generic themes and conventional beliefs are explored and challenged. Detailed description of both characters and settings allows the reader to imagine vividly the persons and lands of these tales, in which love and death seem two close friends. The collection engrosses as Carter’s alterations to each familiar plot cause our imagination to go into overdrive; we’re surprised that what we foresee isn’t always what occurs.
While being the title of the book, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is also the title of one of the collection’s ten short stories. This is the longest of them all, spanning over 42 pages, and explores the old idea of a predatory, older male and a barely legal, innocent girl. In spite of the girl’s young age and lack of experience, the story sees her face challenges which only nightmares are made of. Carter shows how, within a single night, the young narrator evolves into a fearless replica of her mother as she faces death with no tears (“little green moss... would be the last thing I should see”), but hopes that her true love and mother can rescue her.
Werewolves also play a large part within the stories and add another dimension to the tales as the darkness and unknown of the forest is explored. ‘The Werewolf’ examines the connection of fairy tales and witchcraft, as we see neither family nor neighbours show any sympathy for an isolated and persecuted old lady once they come to the conclusion that she isn’t human. This fusion with history and the inhumanities of the European Witch Craze allows the reader to understand the values and interpret the morals that each short story has to offer. ‘The Company of Wolves’ sees Carter once again explore the virginity and purity of young girls, to which dangers appear always to be drawn. Persuasion and the spilling of blood shows how men and the creatures of the night with “eyes of wolves…like candle flames” have a degree of control and power that no young girl is even aware of, let alone able to overcome.
As if foreseeing the current hysteria surrounding certain film and TV franchises, Carter understands that where werewolves appear, vampires must follow. ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ therefore allows us to experience the sad and lonely life of an aristocratic vampire girl (the Countess) who, after her father’s death, is left to rule over all of the lands and face the challenges of daylight alone. Tarot cards play a key role in the story as she is constantly looking for a future without darkness but filled with love. Her dusty and bug-ridden home finally has some light when her ‘Prince Charming’ (a handsome English soldier) arrives and shows no fear at the moving family portraits or her lack of mortality. She hides her eyes behind sunglasses because they betray her vampire identity, but when the glasses fall, shatter and cut her finger, she is woken like Sleeping Beauty from her vampire sleep, as the loss of virginity is said to awaken a human girl into womanhood; this symbol of blood is used throughout the stories to represent the way a girl becomes a woman. The Countess wants to love her handsome and fearless visitor, but her thirst for blood constantly attempts to prevent this; he sees the beauty in her and wants to help fix her (“I shall cure her of all these nightmares”), but her future has already been written, read and interpreted in her “inevitable Tarot”.
The Bloody Chamber is truly a superb collection of emotive and provocative short stories that wish to show everyone that although love can conquer all, it can also be the biggest heartache; sometimes death is the only way to deal with it. With each story comes a different idea, whether to love freely or to be wary when alone; all of which can be understood more clearly as Carter sets her tales in European locations which we can both relate to and imagine. Her work has an impact and no matter what genre you like to read, you will find something in these stories that moves you or that makes you think. A remarkable book.