Fairy tales cover diverse ground, from retellings of historical events to cultural in-jokes, but some of the most popular and longest enduring are tales about behavior, especially the behavior of women. Though queer and feminist takes on fairy tales are common today, with reimaginings written by everyone from Helen Oyeyemi to Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter was one of the first to engage with these tales and tease all the subtext into text. Carter herself said that her goal with The Bloody Chamber (1979) was to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories,” and she rewrites the red capes and delicious juicy apples into exactly what they are—fears about menstruation and sexual desire. Carter leads these tales through new territory and redirects their moralities.
BEHIND THE PEN
Angela Carter (1940–1992) was an English writer known mainly for her feminist and magical realist works. Carter’s work received extensive recognition while she was alive and enjoyed continued popularity after her death. She wrote nine novels, five short story collections, three collections of poetry, and dozens of dramatic works, children’s books, and nonfiction pieces (including a hotly debated feminist analysis of the Marquis de Sade). Her best-known work is The Bloody Chamber, which has been a staple on university syllabi since publication.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
Carter wrote The Bloody Chamber directly after translating the works of Charles Perrault (one of the fathers of the fairy tale genre), and each story is based on a fairy tale, though some receive more attention than others (the retelling of “Snow White” is a single page, but “Little Red Riding Hood” gets several stories). The tales are updated, but not entirely modernized, and what follows is a Gothic-feminist ride that features sex, desire, metamorphoses, and more than a little horror.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
Before the discussion began, one HOWLer succinctly summed up the ground that Carter would be treading; “I’ve struggled with faerie tales ever since I took a Folklore class and started asking myself, ‘What is the message this story is meant to teach?’ Turns out it’s usually ‘stay in your place, get married, have kids, and never ever question the norm. Also, women without children are evil.’” This set the tone for the discussion to come.
Though the book received a fairly high score, a lot of HOWLers were put off by the flowery, Gothic prose and some of the more experimental stories. There were a few DNFs, and one HOWLer said, “I feel like reading this book is a seminar in AMBIENCE.” The HOWLers who finished the book also agreed that the stories became opaque and more difficult to understand as the book went on.
However, the server’s Gothic fans absolutely loved it. One said, “These are stories I feel like I should be reading in front of a roaring fire with a tray of tea and biscuits.” Another noted that “the original Bluebeard story had a moral of ‘don’t be so curious, women, and obey your husbands’ which always drove me insane. Ditto stories like Eve’s temptation and Pandora’s box. So this take on the story, in which the woman was fucking right to be curious […] is such a breath of fresh air.”
Best Stories: “The Bloody Chamber” and “Puss in Boots” (tied for first), “The Lady of the House of Love”
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- Gorgeous prose stuck inside lackluster stories. Although, my appreciation might’ve been hindered by my lack of fairytale foreknowledge and dismal close-reading skills.
- This collection taught me something about myself: I don’t give a damn about fairy tales. The prose in here is exceptional and flowery, but that kind of atmosphere is not what I read for. Aside from three stories, the collection is largely forgettable unless you’re into dreamy, gothic tales featuring immoral people making bad decisions.
- Delicious prose but not really my cup of tea story-wise, other than Puss In Boots which was a bloody riot. The title story was good too. There’s a lot to like here if you are willing to do the work. I wasn’t, too bad for me!
- Beautifully written retellings and re-imaginings of fairy tales. The kind of book that begs to be read with a blanket and a mug of tea, preferably in a spooky library in an abandoned castle.
- I absolutely understand why this is a classic and I am just in love with Angela Carter’s prose and vision. I paired it with relevant sections from the Norton Critical Edition on Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar, and exploring all the little ways Angela Carter subverts the patriarchy through her retellings was just delicious.
- I really admired the different takes on fairy tales. While some stories feel a bit over my head, others I immensely enjoyed. Angela Carter’s prose is beautiful throughout.
Though The Bloody Chamber is no longer revolutionary in either its form or its message, it is a classic work of feminist horror. Each story speaks to a larger narrative about mores and morals, the pursuer and the pursued, and the places that women have historically been relegated to in literature.