There’s a knowing playfulness with which Angela Carter handles gothic conventions in her collection of tales in The Bloody Chamber. From the virginal bride in the titular story being carried south to her new husband’s castle, ‘the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night,’ to the handsome young huntsman with ‘a faint trace of blood on his chin’ in The Company of Wolves, she’s giving us the gothic in spades. But we’re in Carter Country here and so the Gothic’s vulnerable young women are less likely to be found swooning insensibly in dark corridors. Nor do they require rescuing that often (although I do love the final moments of the first story in the book). This is a female Gothic in its own right.
Reading The Bloody Chamber, grown-up tales based loosely on the familiar stories of childhood, is an invigorating experience. The darkness of the traditional accounts of Little Red Riding Hood, of Beauty and The Beast, is explored with gusto – we’re reminded that the original stories were full of warnings about overt curiosity; transgressions, sexual or otherwise, were to be punished. Female characters were lured to castles, cottages and wood, and it rarely ended well. Carter takes these stories and makes them entirely her own. Her females are fearless and whilst they might still be virgins, they’re not naïve. In The Tiger’s Bride, her ‘Beauty’ discovers her true identity as ‘each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin.’
There is a good deal of exciting danger in these pages (Puss-In-Boots is the exception, and whilst it’s very funny, it broke the spell cast by the other tales a little). The Erl-King lures the reader into their own sense of entrapment, ‘The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up.’ I was very happy to be swallowed up in this collection again. It’s been a while since I first came to it as an undergrad. It was unlike anything I’d read on my highly conventional A Level course and I was blown away. I’m glad Carter’s since made it onto A Level specifications – her take on female experience remains a refreshing experience and serves as a valuable counterpoint on school courses still dominated by texts written by (dead white) men.