The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

I find there are some authors that people recommend to you again and again, you say you will get around to reading them yet take forever to do so and then when you do read them realise you might have been missing out on a marvellous author for quite some time. Novel Insights has been telling me for ages and ages I should read Angela Carter but it took Claire of Paperback Reader making April her Angela Carter month for me to finally get started on any of her work. I opted for ‘The Bloody Chamber’ a collection of Angela Carter’s magical short stories. Yet as you may notice it’s taken me almost two months, as I started at the end of April, to get through them. Not because they were hard work but because I wanted to savour the experience.

I find writing about a collection of stories much more difficult than writing about a book. You don’t want to give away the plot of each tale, especially as some can be as short as two pages, as why would anyone read them afterwards? You also don’t want to sound vague and have people not go out and read them because they have no idea what they entail. So I think the best way of initially summarising ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is to call Carters collection an unusual retelling of fairytales we all know and love in a very original and slightly salacious way.

Tales we know and love from our childhood such as Beauty and the Beast, Puss-in-Boots and Red Riding Hood get a modern and yet utterly magical makeover. Take for example the title story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (I won’t give away which fairytale its based on though some of you could guess) which has a virgin bride marrying a much older man and leaving her widowed mother to live in a mighty French castle. For the first few pages you think it’s a tale of old with horse drawn carriages and turrets until our heroine gives her mum a call and weeps over golden dolphin taps. Or in another tale where we see Beauty whizzing from the beasts in a taxi to London. Yet Carter cleverly gives the modern world a surreal and magical feel that makes it all work and also makes it a very original retelling, if you can have such a thing.  

The reason the word ‘salacious’ springs to mind with the collection is that it’s a very sensual and often sexual world that Carter creates, there are lots of wedding nights and loss of innocence in fairy tales and Carter brings all this to the fore with much deflowering along the way. I don’t know if it’s just in these tales Carter does this or if all her work has an underlying sensuousness? In fact one of my least favourite fairy tales ‘Puss-in-Boots’ became one of my favourites in this collection because it was such a wonderful romp. Whilst these tales are in quite a dark realm they all have humour in them somewhere. Her prose is colourful, entertaining, and taught. I had a sense that as she writes each word needs to be there you never feel there is excessive description, she paints something vividly but leaves the reader with her ideas to work upon themselves.

I wondered if some where Angela Carters original ideas too as I didn’t recognise some of the tales in the collection, mind you I only heard of and read Bluebeard last year so I am not a fairy tale aficionado. Though this collection makes me want to become one.  If I had one minor quibble with the book is the order in which the stories run, those with a ‘beast in them being popped next to one an other and all the tales of wolves of all varieties being popped together at the back means they merge into one slightly. Mind you if you are reading one every couple of days then that’s not going to matter is it and I found them the most enjoyable bedtime tales. 10/10

I really enjoyed this and am now wondering which other authors have had a crack at retelling the great fairytales? I also wonder where I should turn with Carter next as I do want to read much more. Should I go for another short story collection? Maybe try more of her fairytales? Or go for a novel… but which one? Who else has read her and what would you recommend?

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

The Breaking Point & Other Stories – Daphne Du Maurier (there is a darkness and humour that I think makes these authors great companions to be read together and this collection features some of Daphne’s darker tales)

Singling Out The Couples – Stella Duffy (the magically surreal in a modern world and sensual nature of the tales above are very much present in Stella Duffy’s tale of a cruel Princess in need of a heart)

23 Comments

Filed under Angela Carter, Books of 2010, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

23 responses to “The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

  1. gracenotes34

    your next read from Angela Carter has to be Wise Children – poignant, magical, compelling and beautifully written.

  2. You absolutely have to read Nights at the Circus — Carter’s masterpiece — an amazing, wonderful, magical book — Carter definitely one of the most important writers of the late 20th century. Glad you have cracked her at last!

  3. Delighted (and relieved) that you loved The Bloody Chamber, Simon 🙂

    Carter’s love for the sensual and sexual is definitely apparent in her other works, including her non-fictional work on the Marquis de Sade and pornography (The Sadeian Woman was written at the same time as The Bloody Chamber and its influence can be seen).

    I loved the little modern mentions too, which took you out of the fairy-tale timeless setting and placed you last century.

    If you enjoyed the bawdy romp of Puss-in-Boots then I think you will absolutely adore Wise Children, which is all about Shakespeare, twins and illegitimacy (of both children and writing). However, I, of course, say read ’em all! Nights at the Circus is indeed her masterpiece (and mine and Sarah Waters’ favourite) and The Magic Toyshop is one of the best entry-points into her novels; her early work is very bizarre, Shadow Dance very dark and Several Persceptions rich in allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Love to Poe. Warning: Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales is a collection of fairy tales through different cultures and not her own stories whereas The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault are ones translated by her and given a modern taste (again, big influence on The Bloody Chamber). If you want to read more of her own short stories then best to by Burning Your Boats, the complete collection; The Bloody Chamber is by far the strongest volume although there are a few other gems here and there.

    • I think it sounds like Wise Children might have to be one that I leave for a while as I wouldnt want to read all the best ones first if you know what I mean?

      I have The Magic Toyshop on the TBR so that will be where I head next.

      Thanks for giving me the final push to read her at last.

  4. I have an omnibus volume of her stories sitting on my shelf. I’ll have to give a few a go. I usually don’t read entire anthologies at once myself, just a handfull of stories. If I read more than three in a row a begin to pick up on the patterns and can predict the endings which makes reading them less fun. It’s also much easier to write a quick review of two or three stories.

    If you’ve not seen it, The Company of Wolves is a Neal Jordan movie based on the stories in Bloody Chamber. Very loosely based, but very good.

    • Definitley give her a whirl CB as I think she is fantastic. But then thats one book based on some very well known tales, so lets see how I get on with the next book. I do think its going to be up my street though.

      I will have to look up The Company of Wolves on Lovefilm, thanks for telling me about that CB!

  5. What a pleasure of a post…. I am so glad that you are enjoying Carter I think that she is a magical author who doesn’t really belong in a group and is very special indeed. i would sa that there is an underling sensuousness yes but not at the expense of humour or characterisation. I did read this collection but it was rather a few years ago. I am a passionate advocate for reading Wise Children which was Carter’s final novel.
    Hope that you are having a splendid bookish Sunda
    Hannah

    • Thank you Hannah thats very kind of you. It was a pleasure of a read. You are quite right about her never doing anything at the expense of the characters. Weirdly I hadn’t thought until now but some of the characters she doesnt go too into but then they are so famous why would she?

  6. The Magic toyshop or shadow dance are both good introductions, Nights at the circus and Wise Children are probably the best, and because of that are probably best left to the end. The Canongate myth series might reveal something you like the sound of – Baba Yaga laid an egg has carteresque qualities

    • I think I am going to try The Magic Toyshop as my next Carter read and see how I get on with it. I share your feelings about leaving the best till last.

      I have Baba Yaga and am really looking forward to reading it!

  7. I’ve just finished my first Carter novel, The Magic Toyshop, and that was really excellent. I think I am probably going to end up reading the entire Angela Carter canon, in the end, because so many people have recommended different books of hers over the years.

    If you did want to become more au fait with fairytales in general, then I would say actually going back to Perrault would be a good start, as his fairytales weren’t actually for children, but for the adults in the French court of the 17th century, and so are somewhat more adult. For modern fairytales, though, I personally think Jane Yolen is great.

    • Oh hooray, glad to hear its good as that is the next Carter that I will be picking up! I have a feeling like you once I have read a few I will feel the need to read them all.

      I read Perrault last year and thought they were marvellous. So, so much darker than I had imagined they would be. Which of course made me love them even more.

  8. novelinsights

    I think I’m going to have to revisit this as it was so long ago that I read it. Plus I don’t own a copy so it’s an excuse to get one with a gorgeous cover! You might also like The Virago Book of Fairy Tales which is pretty bizarre but fascinating.

    • I think any excuse to by a book with a gorgeous cover should be seized upon. Do you realise how good and untempted we were when we were in a mammoth waterstones yesterday!? We must be ill.

  9. This was also the first Carter book that I read, a few years back, and I absolutely adored it. I really want to get around to the rest of her work sometime soon as well!

  10. Great review, I love fairytales with modern twists etc so this sounds like my kind of thing. I’ve been meaning to give Angela Carter a try for some time now, I really must get around to her.

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  14. Michael

    May I suggest heroes and villains. I would describe it as Angela carter’s original fairy tale and quite removed from bloody chamber yet carrying equal weight.

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