Forbidden Tomes (Halloween edition): THE BLOODY CHAMBER by ANGELA CARTER

Halloween is a time for legends and fables, going back to its roots in Celtic tradition. What better way to spend the month than immersed in the dark world of myths? In honor of that tradition, this entry dips into the Gothic gold of Angela Carter’s groundbreaking fairytale collection, THE BLOODY CHAMBER.


Cinema today is obsessed with retelling fairy tales, more often than not with a more adult edge. This is not at all a new trend – it all started back in the 70’s, and Angela Carter did it better than anyone. Adopting the monumentally familiar plots of Charles Perrault (among others), Carter brings the classics into a modern and deeply sensual world, in a way that reveals dark but important themes. Her feminist slant on horror, together with stunning Gothic-Romantic language, creates an ingenious collection of terrifying and beautiful stories.


The stories in “The Bloody Chamber” are, as I said, familiar. The titular one refers to “Bluebeard,” followed by two versions of “La Belle et la Bete” and three of “Red Riding Hood.” Carter does not disrespect these classic works, either – her imagery is steeped in Gothic traditions, full of shadowy castles and spectral women in bridal gowns and gnarled woods haunted by wolves. This acts as a support for her strikingly modern themes of sexual awakenings and forced maturation in a deadly world. Carter is working in the Gothic genre, but she is elevating it from its clichés as well.


I was overjoyed to be immersed in so much classically spooky atmosphere. Carter seems to relish in it as well, as she renders for the reader her breathtaking manor houses and wasted landscapes of danger. “The Lady in the House of Love,” a riff on the dying world of aristocratic vampires trapped in abandoned castles, is a personal favorite – the titular lady in her mother’s wedding dress covered in blood is one of the best images in the book.

But this image, along with others – the girl-bride of Bluebeard being violently deflowered, an innocent girl waiting to be transformed into a bird and kept captive by her Elfish lover – are also quite emotionally haunting. There is a layer of melancholy and tragic horror to the more Romantic kind, that of the loneliness of love, and the pain of coming into your own sexuality.


It’s no secret that classic fairy tales often set horrible values for young girls, and Carter exposes these mercilessly, while also creating some of her own. In stories like “The Company of Wolves” (later adapted with great success by Neil Jordan), her young protagonists actually take control of their sexuality and are empowered for it. When the imagery has faded and the violence committed, it’s these moments of human revelation that really remain. Carter was renowned for this in her time as well, and it would be a shame to neglect what she did for women in the genre, which is rife with sexism. That is part of the joy in her stories, discovering how she alters the endings, or doesn’t, in favor of her modern goals.

“The Bloody Chamber” is a lush, entrancing world full of sensuality, awakening, and death – all set to the backdrop of traditional Gothic imagery. Atmospherically, it is ideal for cold October nights. It’s a classic of the genre that has influenced more than it is credited for – we will do our best to never neglect its impact, and find morbid joy in its gleeful appropriation of the fairy tales we all know so well.


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