In case you were curious, the original fairy tales from the 1500s onwards are some of the most horrifying stories ever told to children. Werewolves eating babies, blood splattered everywhere, weird quasi-sexual undertones, a general aura of menace that is intended to teach children cautionary messages – the Brothers Grimm certainly lived up to their surname. English literature experts have been pouring over early fairy tales for decades; the stories are rich in metaphor and context, with more than a few pagan references.
This tradition was carried on by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, writing some of the most subversive, outspoken feminist take on the stories of old, mashing new insight from old yarns such as Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard. The stories were then retold in the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves, a hallucinatory trip into the symbolism of gender identity and a good old-fashioned sense of the surreal. It’s one of the few films that stay true to the source, which may have something to do with the fact that Carter herself co-wrote the script.
Carter is a product of her environment, specifically the second wave of feminism that burst out during the sixties and seventies. Separatist feminism can be woefully obvious – the language games that produce asinine terms like “herstory” and “womyn”, as well as the mentality that all men are abusive rapists are a little hard to take. Angela Carter is sometimes guilty of this – Nights at the Circus is painful to read, and the metaphors are so obvious that Carter may as well have included the S.C.U.M. manifesto.
This is thankfully not the case with The Bloody Chamber. It’s a ride on the gothic merry-go-round, gleefully deconstructing and rebuilding the moralistic tone that dominates the whole canon of so-called children’s literature. I’m reminded of the countless children’s books that are actually pointed satires –Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, as does Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Satire is one of the most potent weapons available to writers, and Carter has a great time injecting social commentary into these stories.
There’s also a very large element of the Gothic in these stories (gothic as in “sumptuous aura of decay”, not Beetlejuice). This is clearly the case with the highlight of the collection, a revision of the vampire legend called “The Lady of the House of Love”. Some writer said that gothic stories (at least the ones produced in the anglo world) are an expression of the Protestant fascination with Catholic (continental) aristocratic decline; this may not be a universal aspect of the Gothic genre, but it’s certainly the case with this story.
A young Englishmen at the turn of the century travels throughout Eastern Europe on his bicycle, which is the very embodiment of the progressive modern era; an era which has supposedly abandoned the ghosts and goblins of the past. What follows is a wonderful reversal of gender norms prevalent in pretty much every vampire story ever told (and yes, I’m including the Twilight saga). There is also a “sympathy for the devil” aspect of this story, as the Englishman is more interested in helping the vampiress rather than either falling in love or running away in terror. The juxtaposition of this proper, rational, Imperial Age Englishman running up against the ultimate irrational phantom is perfect – there is a good reason why this story was included in the Oxford Book of Gothic Literature (which I also heartily recommend).
An excellent exploration of feminist subversion and literature which is as rich as red wine, The Bloody Chamber has enough to satisfy radicals and bibliophiles alike. Just don’t read this one before you go to bed – apparently it makes you have strange dreams. Definitely not for children either; your children may evolve into post-modern English majors when they go off to college.
NB: This will be the last fiction review for a while; “Plamet of Slums” will be reviewed next week.