‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter


I was seventeen and knew nothing of the world…

Angela Carter’s masterly retelling of the story of Bluebeard and his murdered wives begins with the seventeen-year-old narrator travelling by train “away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.” She is also journeying into that liminal, unpredictable terrain that lies between child- and adulthood; between innocence and experience; between fear and desire. Of her new husband we are told that he is “older than I. He was much older than I; there were streaks of silver in his dark main.” He is also immensely wealthy and a widower a few times over, and it doesn’t take our seventeen year-old narrator long to realise that she is seriously out of her depth: that she has come too soon to that “unguessable country”; and that she will be made to pay a price for her folly.

‘The Bloody Chamber’ is brilliantly sustained piece of floridly gothic writing – by turns darkly funny, sensuously erotic and humanely moving, with gleeful forays into the blackest horror that lies at the heart of all the best fairy tales. Interestingly – and perhaps provocatively – Carter makes her heroine something more than a mere hapless victim. Throughout the story we are not only reminded of the narrator’s youth and innocence, but also of her “potentiality for corruption” and longing for experience, the narrator seeming to accept some degree of responsibility for the fix she finds herself in:

I could not say I felt one single twinge of regret for the world of tartines and maman that now receded from me as if drawn away on a string, like a child’s toy…

First published in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Gollancz, 1979 and currently available from Vintage Classics. Collected in Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories, Chatto & Windus 1995

‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter

When I was much too young, I had a huge, illustrated copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, and I would read them over and over, and imprint the grotesque illustrations on the insides of my eyelids. After a full month of nightmares inspired by Bluebeard, my beloved book was confiscated and hidden in the cupboard under the stairs, where I had to sneak-read it, and force myself not to be afraid. Reading Angela Carter as a teenager, all of my nightmares were rewritten by her reimagined fairy tales, and this one is my favourite. 

First published in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979. Currently available from Vintage Classics

‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter

On one level ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist remix of the tale of Bluebeard, but the narrative has other layers. There is no straightforward ‘key’ to its mysteries: it is packed with psychoanalytic imagery, mythic symbols and literary allusions, including embedded homages to de Sade as well as Perrault. Carter relocates the story to the coast of fin-de-siècle France. The narrator, who has recently married a wealthy Marquis, enters a forbidden room in his castle and makes a horrific and life-threatening discovery. There’s a gripping conclusion, revealing whether she escapes or becomes a victim of uxoricide, but this tale of gothic horror also provokes reflection on the darker aspects of passion and sex.

First published in The Bloody Chamber, Victor Gollancz, 1979. Currently available from Vintage Classics

‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter 

I read this when I was fourteen and it blew my mind. The writing felt wonderfully overwrought and iconoclastic. It’s a meet-not-cute (a meet-mute?) haunted by the carnal realities of decrepitude and fucking. Peak Carter: bawdy and romantic, gritty and baroque. I can picture it as a cinematic cross between a Luis Bunuel and Sofia Coppola film. Crumbling Tarot cards, a rose the colour of dried-up menstrual blood.

First published in The Iowa Review, Summer/Autumn 1975, and available online here in slightly different form. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, currently available from Vintage, 1995, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996.

‘The Company of Wolves’ by Angela Carter

Before Jeanette Winterson there was Angela Carter, whose work is more wide-ranging, less egotistical, more magical. For too many years fairy stories have been Disneyed down, infantilised. Here the tales are not only reclaimed for adults but also transformed into narratives where females have agency. This is a variant of the Red Riding Hood story but the heroine is no child victim. “She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.” She is “nobody’s meat”. Happiness is to be found in grandmother’s bed, even though it’s unclear if the woman and her wolf-lover will live happily ever after.

First published in Bananas, 1977. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, currently available from Vintage, 1995, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996

‘The Snow Child’ by Angela Carter

When I was very young – probably too young – my Mum used to read me Grimms’ Fairytales as a treat, and I was transfixed by them, utterly repulsed and delighted. All the things I hadn’t really felt again from stories until I read Angela Carter. Her work is a gift, on repeat, and I’ll never tire of it. It’s not surprising that the story I’ve chosen is a retelling of the Grimms’ of the same name, and that its significant detail change that makes Carter’s last in the memory. The man calls The Snow Child into being, instead of the woman.

He creates his perfect women, with his actual flesh and bones wife right there next to him.

Angela Carter does so many things so well, but for me, it’s the physicality of the women in her stories that grab me. They inhabit their bodies from the inside out and I found that startling and overwhelming when I was sixteen, that they could appear fully formed and bloody, not just peered at with clean or structured desire.

AND YET, this story shows women as that exactly, clean and structured, a man’s-eye view, conjured and controlled by the Count, to his tastes. The way it’s done, though, doesn’t collude with him, it smashes him to bits, and laughs at him, but is always aware of how dangerous it is, the laughing. It may be short, but this story manages to pick apart, build, laugh and destroy so many things at once. The Count’s sexuality is ridiculous and terrifying. The women he desires are dead or a scatter of objects, a series of two-dismensional photographs framed by his eyes. It, like everything Carter wrote, is spectacular.

(There’s something about the black fox furs jumping from the Countess’ shoulders onto the girl’s that has stuck with me, since that day in 1993 when I first read it, and, as an aside I’m still, all these years later, longing for a pair of high, black, shining boots with scarlet heels, and spurs. When I have a pair of these, I will know I’ve made it.)

From The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979 by Gollancz. Now Vintage Classics.

‘The Erl King’ by Angela Carter

I include this because it’s a story that gave me one of those heart-stopping moments, falling in love, aching with envy, resolving to try and keep trying to write. I also once used it in an exercise on a writing course, where I had to compare the qualities – literal and metaphorical – of a story I admired with one of my own. Depressing, but instructive. The Erl-King is the bad-boy type you’re not supposed to fall for, and are therefore seduced by – after all, he does have goat’s cheese, wild mushrooms and rabbit stew in his one-room woodland hut. He also has cages full of birds, a metaphor too heavy for most writers to handle but one Carter whisks into this plum pudding of a story with ease, probably with a cigarette in the other hand. Reading this is a feast, of a kind that nobody can now reproduce. Carter’s brew transcends fashions in fiction, and thank goodness; this is an antidote to minimalism should you ever need one, but most glorious when read on its own luscious terms.

In Burning Your Boats, Vintage, 1996; first published in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979

‘The Erl-King’ by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber is one of my favourite collections, and plays a key part in what I hope will be my next published novel. All the stories are deliciously rich in symbolism, sensual language and allusions to fairy tales. ‘The Erl-King’, a retelling of a Scandinavian legend about a sinister forest spirit who lures a young woman into his woodland dwelling, is my favourite. Carter’s descriptions are as lush and detailed as mediaeval tapestries: “There was a little tangled mist in the thickets, mimicking the tufts of old man’s beard that flossed the lower branches of the trees and bushes, heavy branches of red berries as ripe and delicious as goblin or enchanted fruit hung on the hawthorns… One by one, the ferns have curled up their hundred eyes and curled back into the earth. The trees threaded a cat’s cradle of half-stripped branches over me…”

The Erl-King is both frightening and alluring, and there are some wonderfully spooky passages, including this, which has, for me, the chill of infinity: ‘I walked through the wood until all its perspectives converged upon a darkening clearing; as soon as I saw them, I knew at once that all its occupants had been waiting for me from the moment I first stepped into the wood, with the endless patience of wild things, who have all the time in the world’. That ‘endless patience’ is so sinister.

(from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories,Vintage Books, 2006, first published 1979)

‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter

Surely the greatest ‘Fuck yeah!’ moment in all short fiction, I cannot read this story without getting totally and breathlessly sucked in, turning the pages in horror even though I have read it so many times, getting to my feet as the gallant mother gallops across the surging waves, her white hair wild behind her. At the climax of the story, she describes everything stopping ‘like a clockwork tableaux in a glass case’ before action recommences, ‘as though a curious child pushed his centime into the slot and set it all in motion’. Carter herself is the curious child with the centime in the slot and this story is her at her indomitable best. In redefining our bloodiest myths, she inadvertently creates new myths for the psychotherapy generation: that your happiness, like that of the young protagonist, depends on a lover that unconditionally ‘sees’ you and a mother who telepathically ‘knows’ you.

In The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz, 1979)

‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ by Angela Carter

‘It seemed December still possessed his garden. The ground was hard as iron, the skirts of the dark cypress moved on the chill wind with a mournful rustle and there were no green shoots on the roses as if, this year, they would not bloom. And not one light in any of the windows, only, in the topmost attic, the faintest smear of radiance on a pane, the thin ghost of a light on the verge of extinction’.

Not strictly a Christmas story, but for some reason fairy tales seem to have more resonance at this time of year. Angela Carter’s clever, sensual update of 18th-century French classic  ‘La Belle et La Bête’ from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber owes more to its (female) originators and popularisers than to any Disney adaptation. The story of the merchant (in Carter’s version, a debt-laden lawyer with a broken-down car) who steals the single white rose he promised his daughter from a mysterious wintry garden, incurring the wrath of its leonine owner, and a forfeit – a reluctant agreement that Beauty will become the companion of the Beast – has several troubling interpretations. In Carter’s hands, Beauty, rather than simply being a chattel of her father, responds to the strange, enchanted world of the dignified and passionate Beast and discovers her own emotional and sexual awakening in the process.

First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Vintage Chatto & Windus, 1995. Chosen by Catherine Taylor.

‘The Company of Wolves’ by Angela Carter

Is a feminist list of short stories even a feminist list of short stories without the inclusion of Angela Carter?

I was late to Carter. I didn’t study her at school, I didn’t study her at university. A friend who read her for A Level recommended Wise Children to me. I read it not having a bloody clue what was going on. In 2010, I had to teach The Bloody Chamber to my own A Level students. It was a revelation.

In ‘The Company of Wolves’ Carter revisits Little Red Riding Hood. All the men/wolves are abusive in some way, Little Red Riding Hood has to work out how to survive in a patriarchal society. It’s not pleasant but it’s effective.

From The Bloody Chamber

‘The Bloody Chamber’, by Angela Carter

The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on Carter’s stories, had a big effect on me as teenager and led me to her writing. The opening salvo from her first short-story collection, published in 1979, is typical of her baroque, joyous subversion of the fairy tale – while also making significant points about the shifting balance of sexual power, desire, disgust and how the two often disturbingly collide. In this interpretation of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, a young ingenue is married off to a rich Maquis, who, after their wedding night, leaves her alone in his isolated castle on France’s  bleak Atlantic coast  with a set of golden keys and one proviso – do not open THAT door. The prose is gorgeous, full of a perverse longing and indefinable sorrow: ‘Time was his servant, too; it would trap me here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a winter morning’. This being Carter, the ingenue is not so innocent of course, and has a gun-toting vengeful mother to boot. All the better to eat you with, my dear…

(From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Vintage Classics, 1995)