Over the past few years, there have been a number of best selling novels by women featuring vampires, werewolves, and plot lines involving sexual awakening. I haven’t read a single one of ’em and now I never will because I have read a classic by a master that covers it all. I hadn’t heard of Angela Carter’s 1979 collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber until reading about it in Atlantic’s list of books by women that men should read. It’s a deceptively short collection (128 pages) but in those pages are dark, rich, sensual tales that turn traditional fairy tales on their heads.
Among the tales that Carter spins and reinterprets are Blue Beard, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood. The first impression I had upon reading this collection is that Carter’s prose is exquisite. I can’t think of another writer with her facility for descriptive passages. Carter can convey horror as in her Blue Beard story:
The walls of this stark torture chamber were naked rock; they gleamed as if they were sweating with fright. At the four corners of the room were funerary urns, of great antiquity, Etruscan perhaps, and, on three-legged ebony stands, the bowls of incense he had left burning which filled the room with a sacerdotal reek. Wheel, rack and Iron Maiden were, I saw, displayed as grandly as if they were items of statuary….
She can be bawdy as in Puss in Boots:
… I never saw two fall to it with such appetite. As if the whirlwind got into their fingers, they strip each other bare in a twinkling and she falls back on the bed, shows him the target, he displays the dart, scores an instant bullseye. Bravo!
And melancholic (from a vampire tale called “The Lady of the House of Love”):
The white hands of the tenebrous belle deal the hand of destiny. Her fingernails are longer than those of the mandarins of ancient China and each is pared to a fine point. These and teeth as fine and white as spikes of spun sugar are the visible signs of the destiny she wistfully attempts to evade via the arcana; her claws and teeth have been sharpened on centuries of corpses, she is the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler….
Given the sexual content of most of the tales, they are not what you would have read when you were a child. But the message is also not what we would have been taught through tales either. Carter’s women are in the process of realizing their power. For some it means ridding themselves of the shackles of abusive spouses or parents. Others must learn to come to terms with forces outside themselves, which usually take male form. Some of Carter’s stories present the point of view of the “monster” with sympathy. One of the themes that seems to come up frequently is that we all carry something of the beast within ourselves, and sometimes the beasts demonstrate greater humanity than people.
This is just a wonderful piece of literature. So put down Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray and pick up The Bloody Chamber. It’ll satisfy the craving for sensual stories with fantastical characters while it improves your vocabulary and brain power.