Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber
by Dana Kinstler
In the lead story of Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, the virgin teenaged bride longs for sex that could kill her. Once she has sex with her husband, who, coincidentally, turns out to be Bluebeard, she taps into a longing that leaves her with a “certain queasy craving like the cravings of pregnant women for the taste of coal or chalk or tainted food, for the renewal of his caresses.” She is haunted by her predator, just as I have been haunted by Angela Carter since I first read her over twenty years ago.
My first encounter with her, in 1980, was at a reading at Brown University. I stood in the back; the space was packed full; her British accent was clipped, her voice full of cadences, her cool demeanor deceptive. I sensed she was giving and withholding at the same time, something delightfully, remarkably, inexorably wicked. Go ahead, she seemed to say, express your wickedness. The room, hot, smelled of body odor; I feared I’d be cursed if I stepped outside the door. Her words blew through me like the tinkling of the crystals on the chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
It was many years before I read her again. After her death from cancer in 1992, I completed two story collections: Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces and Saints and Strangers. Although not always on creative writing reading lists in this country, she is one of the most popular subjects of graduate school theses in Great Britain. Her words made me ache with a peculiar angst—the longing of wanting to envelop a book and incorporate its essence into my own soul. The truth of sorrow. The danger and dissipation of longing.
Red, white, and black: these colors are repeated in The Bloody Chamber, as they are on White Stripes album covers—even the book jacket maintains the hues. In the story, the girl wears a white shift, her “thin white face, with its promise of debauchery only a connoisseur could detect”; her wedding gift, a ruby choker like an “extraordinarily precious slit throat”; her husband’s black hair, like the dark night outside, the color of death. “He was older than I. He was much older than I: there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane.” At first, I didn’t recognize him without a blue beard.
As a girl, I’d read the original tale at my grandmother’s Vermont house. She handed me Charles Perrault’s Blue Fairy Book. I studied Bluebeard’s glossy pen-and-ink portrait: his long beard stretched out, then curled up like an Arabian slipper. I read under the covers with a flashlight, skipping other fairy tales, re-reading “Bluebeard,” just as, later, I would skim my parents’ novels for sex scenes. When his fourth bride finds the hidden corpses—three wives, hidden in the closets—I shuddered. Where I slept, in the cellar “children’s room,” the ground-level windows were slits filled in with snow; two walls were lined with storage closets. During the night, the furnace roared on and off. I was convinced there were bodies swinging behind the mohair coats and golf clubs in the closets.
Now, as an adult, I gorged myself on The Bloody Chamber. When the child-bride takes the smallest key and enters the forbidden chamber, I felt cheerfully sick: descriptions of the bride’s predecessors required words like catafalque and sacerdotal—funereal words. Bluebeard’s character is nuanced and complex: it wasn’t just that he couldn’t file for divorce.
In her version, Carter creates a new container for the old tale, one constructed of equal parts sticky blood, acidic humor, and rich, sensual details, as if she boiled down the original fairy-tale elements into a syrup. (Carter also translated Perrault’s tales from the French.) But the stories have a distinctly female spin; heroines are not mere victims, and they’re not parented by evil stepmothers. It’s the child-bride’s mother whose intuition guides her to Bluebeard’s castle: she comes packing a gun.
Along with the beautiful corpses, Carter’s writing unhinges. The lines in her stories, like poems, are precise: each word chosen with intent, each sentence containing an image that flashes like a stone on a murky riverbed. Her prismatic sentences are so finely wrought, they jingle like Bluebeard’s keys, which he shook “musically, like a carillon.”
As in all of Carter’s short fiction, there’s a white-hot, erotic element. Here’s Bluebeard deflowering his wife: “He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke—but do not imagine much finesse about it.” Sex triggers equal parts shame and desire in his bride—as if, by wanting him, she begs to be beheaded; as if, after penetration, she taps into her own murderous instinct as well.
This confirmed what I’d once sensed: fairy-tales are not just for children. If in traditional fairy tales, a wolf’s lecherous intent is suggested, here, he ignites a mutual desire. Sexy Bluebeard, sexy lion, sexy beast; sexy tiger, sexy wolf, and very sexy corpses—predators and victims are drawn to each other. In “The Lady of the House of Love,” Nosferatu is female. Carter retells Beauty and the Beast (“The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”) and Little Red Riding Hood (“The Company of Wolves,” later made into a movie), among others.
Wolves appear in the final three stories, but they’re not exactly cruel. As in the pre-Christian world, when the wolf was a sort of luminous genie—in ancient Greek, the light of dawn, lukos, meant wolf or sun—here, the union of wolf and celestial light is found in the wolf’s glittering yellow eyes.
Angela Carter’s voice haunts, a wolf’s howl. She writes in first person—or in third person so close, she wills her subjects into a submission that frequently terrifies and sometimes kills. If you are prone to waking up with night frights, if you check beneath your bed and inside closets, you will love Angela Carter. You will hear your own beating heart. You will fear the beast lurking around the corner, the one inside your own skin. What could be done to you, you could do to others. The power is in the word, the word is in the story, the story will softly bring you to the edge of the abyss and beckon you to gaze down, past its shimmering perimeters, to the bottom of the dark hole.
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