The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

ACW badge 4 This is my first contribution to Angela Carter Week, a reading event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat.

The Bloody Chamber is a short story collection based on legends and fairy tales which take place in Gothic castles, great houses or dark woods, complete with grim surroundings, acts of cruelty and plenty of blood. Vampires and werewolves, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots, the tales remodeled, the protagonists are changed, not in name but in behavior.

The Bloody Chamber The first story, The Bloody Chamber, is based on the legend of Bluebeard, the famous man whose brides meet a gruesome death when they disobey his order – never to enter the forbidden room, you may have the key but not his permission. The temptation is great and the new bride only finds what the price for her betrayal is at the end, after the act is done – the consequences are never articulated but rather shown. What is different with Carter’s approach is the power she invests in women which gives them a chance at salvation. This was my favorite story – a perfect combination of exquisite language, mystery, and a great ending that’s not exactly happily ever after but close enough.

I loved this line:

“…the unguessable country of marriage.”

The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride tell the story of “Beauty and the Beast” in a new way. While the first begins like the original story, and is of a more delicate, romantic nature, the second is brutal and horrific in its originality – the young girl has to face the Beast as one would a master, after all, her father had lost her at cards and she was now his property. It’s a battle of wits as the protagonists try to get what they want but find themselves surprised by the answer to their requests.

It was the strangest thing, reading this – I liked the story very much but when I finished the last sentence I realized it was not the first time I had read it. Does this mean I was so engrossed in the story it totally blotted out the memory of my first reading it? I hope so.

I liked this new version of Puss in Boots in which a poor young man falls in love with the beautiful young wife of an old rich miser who reminded me of Scrooge so much I could almost see his bony hands counting the coins, eating meager suppers and keeping his wife under lock and key, much as he did with his money. Puss is the narrator, which makes for an amusing point of view as he describes the things he does for his master, from stealing dinner to delivering messages, and planning some risky escapades.

The Erl King and The Snow Child were two very strange stories and I’m not exactly sure what to make of them.
The Erl King has ample references to Red Riding Hood but the story is so full of symbolism it’s almost like a riddle. Are the main characters people? I have my doubts. It feels more like a love poem to nature, the words rich and laden with subtle meaning which I can’t quite grasp.

The Snow Child begins with a wish made by a count who goes horse-riding with his wife, a wish for a girl “white as snow, red as blood, black as that bird’s feather.” While I liked the beginning of this story in which the man – and not his wife – wishes for a daughter, the ending had quite the opposite effect on me.

The Lady of the House of Love – this is a story I have read before and read it again this time and liked it just as much. A vampire story, but like with the other stories in this book, it’s not what one might expect. The decrepit old house with its old, time-eaten furnishings, a young woman – a vampire – living in seclusion, spending her long years dealing Tarot cards, trying to see the future which is always the same. Until one day it isn’t, and a young man comes to this forgotten place and of course, that changes everything.

In The Werewolf, an unnamed girl is on her way to grandmother’s house but she has to confront a wolf on her way there and that’s not the most interesting part by far. The girl is tough, in spite of her tender age, she can handle a knife like any hunter and she uses it; it’s a story in which the characters switch places and there’s a big surprise at the end which reminded me of another famous fairy tale.

The Company of Wolves is the story of a young girl and the day she leaves behind her childhood. Gone are the days of a Red Riding Hood skipping merrily on the path through the forest, picking flowers. There are no flowers here but a game of seduction where the prize is life.

Wolf-Alice is about a girl who spent her early years with wolves but she is found and taken away and sent to live with people. She goes to live with nuns and later on, with an old duke who’s not exactly human. It is a strange tale in which the wolf-girl does what comes naturally to her and in doing so brings back the duke’s mortality.

This was perhaps the strangest collection of short stories I’ve read so far, not only because the characters sometimes switch places, or the unguessed endings which came so suddenly it was delightfully shocking but mostly because of the language. I found The Bloody Chamber the most accessible and the best of the whole collection. In it, the right amount of sensuous, descriptive, romantic and also brutal and tender language is used to tell a story in which the woman is not doomed as an act of curiosity (a second chance for biblical Eve if you like) but she is saved and not by a knight in shining armor either.
The heroines are mostly young girls on the brink of womanhood, that time in-between filled with confusion, apprehension and sexual curiosity. The men are either beasts or helpless, and the women hold the power – a feminist approach if ever was one.

The writing is rich and intricate, perhaps a bit too much, like the lilies cloying the atmosphere with their perfume in The Bloody Chamber – at times I felt like being in a dense jungle without a machete to make my way through. While I can appreciate the opulence of the language, there were moments when I wished for a cleaner, less intricate way of telling the story.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in June, 2014


I’m now making my way through Nights at the Circus, a novel this time – I’m nearly 80 pages in and very curious about it and glad to see the luxurious language is not as thick as in the stories, something which I find more enjoyable. Hopefully I will finish it by Sunday if not sooner.

What are your plans for this week and if you’re taking part in this event, how do you like Angela Carter’s work so far?

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26 Responses to The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

  1. Violet says:

    I read The Bloody Chamber quite a while ago but I remember how hard the WOW! factor of her writing hit me. I love the way Carter writes and I think that’s what makes her stories so unique. There is so much depth and so many allusions, and just WOW! 🙂

    Having seen a few posts on the Bloody Chamber collection I’m feeling tempted to re-read it, although that wasn’t in my plans.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Violet,
      I’m glad you liked the book, it’s definitely unique and I’ll probably remember her writing for a long time. I had a similar reaction while reading Possession by A.S. Byatt, but not quite as intense.

      This one seems to be quite a popular choice for this week, and it should be, it’s a very interesting collection of stories.

  2. TJ says:

    Wonderful review! It’s only Tuesday, but I would say that your event is already a hit. I have one review to write still, and I am currently reading A Card from Angela Carter, which is the perfect “behind-the-scenes” book for me.

    • Delia says:

      Hi TJ,
      I’m very happy that people enjoy this event. I haven’t heard of A Card from Angela Carter, what a nice surprise, I had to read about it on goodreads – now I’m looking forward to your review (which I hope will be detailed 🙂 ).

  3. Caroline says:

    Some of her short stories are very dense. In imagery and language. I have to read American Ghosts very slowly. The novels are a tad sparser but still – there’s always a budoir feeling.
    I have to revisit this collection. It was my first Angela Carter when I was still in school – a long time ago – 20 years or so.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Caroline,
      I’m amazed at the fragility and elegance of her writing combined with the most coarse and almost vulgar behavior, such a weird dichotomy – I guess this is what puts me in two minds about her work, I haven’t read anything quite like this.
      I wonder if you’ll still feel the same about this book after so many years.

  4. I love your commentary here.

    These sound so good and out of the box. I really want to read them

    That is a strange feeling to realize that you have read something (or seen a film or listened to an album well into it). Personally I attribute it to a preoccupation with other issues on the first reading. It is a little disconcerting, however.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      These stories are not only out of the box but the box is nowhere to be found. It has been chewed, swallowed, and transformed into something else entirely, perhaps a wolf in an old woman’s clothes.
      I hope you get to read them, they are so rich with symbolism I think you would have a great time dissecting and interpreting them.

      After so many stories is it any wonder if we don’t remember all of them? It was a really weird feeling but I didn’t feel sorry in the least, quite the opposite. I felt lucky for being able to enjoy it again just as much as the first time.

  5. Vishy says:

    Brilliant review, Delia! Totally loved it! I read ‘The Bloody Chamber’ last year and I liked the title story very much. My other favourites from the book were ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. I loved the last scene in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in which the mother of the heroine gets on a horse and rides it faster than the wind in a race against time – that was like watching the climax scene of an action movie 🙂 I also loved the voice of Puss and his sense of humour. I also loved the vampire character in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ – in my opinion, a very likeable, melancholic vampire. I liked your observation on how the women are the most important characters in the story. Sorry to know that you found the writing too rich in places, but glad to know that you enjoyed Carter’s prose. Hope you are liking ‘Nights at the Circus’. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Happy reading!

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      Puss in Boots was fun to read and the vampire story was great, too. The Bloody Chamber had a very unconventional reading, I liked that.
      I’m finding Night at the Circus a bit better in terms of writing, not so flowery and descriptive but I can’t say I like any of the characters very much. I hope it gets better. Whatever my opinion on her works will be in the end, one thing is certain – Carter is definitely a unique writer.

      Are you reading anything by her at the moment?

      • Vishy says:

        Hope you like ‘Nights at the Circus’, Delia. Happy reading! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. I just finished reading ‘The Magic Toyshop’. Quite interesting! I am hoping to post my review tomorrow.

  6. helen says:

    Hello Delia! Thank you so much for hosting Angela Carter Week. I’m halfway through my third of her works, although I’m only posting once about her this week because it takes me hours and hours to write anything at all.

    ‘The Snow Child’ is icky, isn’t it? I can’t work out whether or not the Count and Countess consider the girl as their daughter or not – she’s only ever referred to as the girl. But since many fairy tales deal with mothers’ jealousy of their (step)daughters and fathers’ incestuous desires, both readings are possible. It’s very powerful anyway.

    • Delia says:

      Hello Helen, I’m very happy to have you on board for this event. Thank you for joining us.
      I know what you mean about writing reviews, this week has been quite busy for me, it’s a challenge to find the time to read and write.

      The Snow Child is definitely not pleasant but I have to give Carter credit for her ability to shock me. I like stories that end with a bang. Once again, she has taken a classical fairy tale and stripped it raw. I agree, it’s a powerful story, and sexuality is a recurring theme in her stories so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

      What did you make of The Erl King?

  7. Helen S says:

    I’ve just posted my review of this book. I enjoyed it and loved Carter’s use of language, though there were a few of the stories that I don’t think I fully understood – I’ll definitely have to re-read them at some point!

  8. Mel u says:

    Great Post. You can see recurring themes in the story. For example, Wolf Alice and The Company of Wolves feature women menustrating, an event which sets of werewolves and provides access to ancient belief systems regarding this.

    • Delia says:

      Definitely, there are plenty of recurring themes. I wasn’t a great fan of the werewolf stories even though I generally like these creatures in stories.

  9. Priya says:

    I love this post, especially how you’ve gone in to detail about every story. I’ve already got this book and will start it once I’m done with American Ghosts and Old World Wonders. It sounds so exciting. I’ve recently been obsessed with Beauty and the Beast, and a couple of years ago, with Goethe’s Erlkoenig – so those are the stories I’m curious to read. I love your description of the rich writing and feminist overtones. I noticed them in the book I’m reading too.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Priya,
      I’m glad you liked it, I hope I didn’t give too much away.
      It was a mixed bag for me, now I’m reading “Nights at the Circus” and I’ve gotten used to the symbolism so it’s not as shocking.
      Looking forward to reading your review.

  10. Brona says:

    I found some of these stories challenging too, but I thoroughly enjoyed researching them before writing my posts. I found which original fairy tales they referenced and what their themes were – I was then able to appreciate even more what Carter had done to twist or reinterpret them. Fascinating.
    I’d also like to revisit Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment to delve into the psychology of these fairy tales according to Freud.

    • Delia says:

      That’s impressive Brona, it looks like you’ve done your homework and done it well. The only story I couldn’t figure out was The Erl King, and that’s because I was not familiar with the fairy tale it was based on and because of that I thought it was the strangest story.
      I’m curious about Uses of Enchantment, I hope you’ll write a review.

  11. Yasmine Rose says:

    ‘The writing is rich and intricate, perhaps a bit too much, like the lilies cloying the atmosphere with their perfume in The Bloody Chamber – at times I felt like being in a dense jungle without a machete to make my way through’.

    This is such a beautiful way of wording Carter’s writing style and effect. Though that’s what I love about Angela Carter, how rich her language is you could almost over-indulge yourself in it.

    Thank you for hosting the event. I spent most of the week reading and still have a couple of reviews to write up. I am now just catching up on everyone’s posts which is a wonderful way to spend the evening!

    • Delia says:

      I’m glad you like her writing, Yasmine. She has an abundant vocabulary.
      I hope you’ll join us again for other reading events like this one. Looking forward to reading your other reviews!

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