Running with the Wolves: An Introduction to The Bloody Chamber
When interrogated about my favourite books (and as a bookseller, it’s a regular occurrence) it’s Angela Carter to whom I invariably turn. Some books are friends, some weapons, some primers, some echoes of our nightmares and certainly there’s something of all of these in the pages of Carter’s strange, scary, sexy stories but more than any of that, her books are keys; they are the keys to the kingdom of storytelling.
I first encountered Angela Carter through what is, perhaps her best-known work, the collection of stories titled The Bloody Chamber. I did so, on the recommendation of a very wise secondary school teacher who had been lucky enough to be taught by Carter herself. Famously private and shy, Carter apparently often taught sitting underneath her desk and upon reading her books, that’s perhaps no surprise, she never likes to do things the way other people do.
Carter’s stories are all, in some ways, fairy tales and never more so than in The Bloody Chamber. The high priestess of Magic Realism, Carter’s writing takes place on a tightrope between fantasy and reality – Carter understood better than most that, really, they are two sides of the same coin.
There are some apparently familiar tales in this collection, be it Snow White, Puss-in-Boots, even some pre-Twilight shades of vampiric lore and of course, again and again, Little Red Riding Hood and her wolf..
If you think you know these stories though, think again. Carter is an expert in what she called putting ‘old wine in new bottles’ and there’s nothing cosy about her fairy tale worlds. They are certainly frightening and truly Gothic (there’s nothing Disney about these heroines). Her Little Red is more likely to strip off and climb into bed with the wolf than get eaten; she might even be the wolf herself.
If we think most fairy tale heroines need to be rescued, Carter’s certainly don’t. She knows that the most dangerous thing in her forest might be the ‘lovely cartomancer’ with sad eyes, red lips, ripe for kissing and sharp, sharp teeth or the child with the ‘scabby coat of sheepskin’ who keeps a knife at her belt. She rips up the rule-book that says that the story ends with a neat ‘happy ever after’ and ‘I do’; she’s more interested in what happens when the heroine gets her handsome price back home to see what’s really underneath that princely garb and, more importantly, what these women might find out about themselves and their own secret, dark desires.
Nowhere is her talent for blending the real and the fantastic better served than in the title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ itself. Based on the Bluebeard myth of the husband who kills each of his wives in turn, having first given them keys to all the rooms in his castle and freedom to explore them all, all that is, but one. Gradually the bride becomes fascinated, by the room, by what it might contain, just as, in Carter’s dark imaginings she becomes fascinated by her own desire for danger:
For the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.
It is usually curiosity that kills the cat in this fable (or the bride in this case) but Carter has a much more ingenious and satisfactory ending in mind and it doesn’t involve a handsome prince.
These are stories about real people, real women and they are also stories about stories - stories as old as time - how they are told, re-told and told again to help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Carter teaches us that the stories that last do so because they are fundamentally true and because they reveal things; things that usually live in the shadows, waiting to be uncovered, to be given chance to breathe and laugh and bite.
Angela Carter’s stories are also wickedly funny. Other writers follow Little Red Riding Hood down the path to grandma’s house, all the time waiting for the wolf’s jaws to spring shut. In Carter’s world, she is the piper and the wolves run to her tune - it is an anarchic, uproarious, delight.
Carter died in 1992 from lung cancer aged 51, having just finished her last (and in my opinion finest) book Wise Children and left a lasting hole in the tapestry of literature that nobody else has quite been able to fill. To return to that old wine in new bottles, the point, she said, was to make the bottles explode and explode they most certainly do. I am quite sure she had many more stories to tell and I sometimes find myself missing the books that might have been. Other people might try and wear Carter’s ruby slippers but nobody else quite has the courage to dance in them.
The Bloody Chamber is a perfect introduction to one of literature’s rarest talents and the riotous, lawless joy that is Angela Carter’s storytelling; wonderful, weird, wise and brave.