Book Review: The Bloody Chamber

Next to Du Maurier, Angela Carter is one of my all-time favourite storytellers. Her masterpiece The Bloody Chamber sees Carter spin subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends like Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast and give them exhilarating new life in a style steeped in the romantic trappings of the gothic tradition.

In order to fully appreciate the sheer sorcery Carter manages with this collection of tales, I will be spicing up my review style and breaking it down to share my thoughts on each of the individual stories in the book like I did with Cassandra Clare’s The Bane Chronicles. It’s an obvious five star read on the whole, but I’ve given separate individual rankings to the tales below. However, if you want the short summary, The Bloody Chamber is a phenomenal literary experience that everyone should dive into!

Warning: MAJOR Spoilers Ahead!

THE BLOODY CHAMBER ★★★★★

No. I was not afraid of him; but of myself. I seemed reborn in his unreflective eyes, reborn in unfamiliar shapes. I hardly recognized myself from his descriptions of me and yet, and yet – might there not be a grain of beastly truth in them? And, in the red firelight, I blushed again, unnoticed, to think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption.

A young pianist marries a wealthy Marquis and moves to his seaside castle. The Marquis has previously been wed three times, his last wife disappearing under mysterious circumstances. When the Marquis is called away for business, he entrusts our heroine with the keys that give her free roam of the castle except for one room. The forbidden key leads the heroine to make a horrifying and torturous discovery.

This tale is heavily based on the legend of Bluebeard – a story where a rich, ugly man entrusts his keys to his wife. The wife then stumbles upon a room with the bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives and as a result, he threatens to behead her. Her brothers swoop in to save her and kill Bluebeard.

The titular tale is a sizzling start to the collection. It introduces the recurring motif of a poor, virginal heroine being ‘rescued’ by a wealthy, experienced man that is so prevalent in fairy tales. Carter switches out the male relatives who come to the rescue by having the heroine’s fierce mother ride in which instead adds an element of female agency.

An element of romance is introduced in the character of the Marquis’ blind piano tuner, Jean-Yves. As sweet as Jean-Yves is, he’s a particularly interesting addition to this tale as he is not present in the Bluebeard legend and is wholly Carter’s invention. His presence sets up a key concern that rears its head throughout the collection of stories as he falls in love with the protagonist’s piano playing and personality, not her appearance. Carter seems to emphasise this in her retellings, critiquing the objectification of women in the traditional tales and drawing attention to the damaging ways in which men look at women and in the way women can come to enjoy being looked at in a certain way by men. Jean-Yves is physically incapable of matching the Marquis’ ‘male gaze’ due to his blindness. While he should technically be the traditional hero that saves the damsel à la the brothers of Bluebeard’s bride, Jean-Yves is entirely helpess and unable to protect the heroine.

THE COURTSHIP OF MR LYON ★★★★

Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals.

Based on the classic Beauty and the Beast, Beauty’s father seeks refuge from a snowstorm at an empty mansion. He steals a white rose that summons a lion-like Beast who insists Beauty come to dinner and stay with him, promising that her father’s fortunes will be restored.

One of less sinister of the tales, The Courtship of Mr Lyon is a magical and gorgeously written twist on the original. It focuses on self-discovery and female objectification, continuing with the earlier theme of money and power. Once more, our heroine starts off as a penniless and helpless girl forced to live with the the wealthy and world-weary Beast. However, unlike the handsome and monstrous Marquis of the previous story, the Beast in this tale is kind, gentle and simply very lonely despite his ferocious lion-like appearance. The ‘metamorphic’ creatures in this collection of stories by Carter are so fascinating! I love the way in which she sets them on this threshold between worlds – the Beast having an appearance of a lion and the Marquis’ face being a ‘lily-like’ mask – making them intriguing, but terrifyingly alien.

By the end, Carter has fully reversed the Beauty/Beast dichotomy as the Beast assumes the role of a fairy-tale princess, a Rapunzel wasting away in his attic and very much in need of Beauty to rescue him from his beastly loneliness. It’s another stunning tale of self-discovery and rejection of female objectification, but it also delivers this beautiful soft love story. I adored watching Beauty blossom into an active and brave character, but the happy ending of Mr and Mrs Lyon was also joy as you’ll come to find out that Carter seldom gives us a fairy-tale finish in the rest of The Bloody Chamber.

THE TIGER’S BRIDE ★★★★★

He was pacing backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, the tip of his heavy tail twitching as he paced out the length and breadth of his imprisonment between the gnawed and bloody bones. He will gobble you up.

Carter gives us another alternate version of Beauty and the Beast – except this one takes place in Italy, is far more gangster and sees Carter take bolder liberties as she strays away from the traditional love story template seen in the previous tale.

Taking control of her tale, the heroine wastes no time continuing the overarching theme of the objectification of women as her Russian father gambles her away to a mysterious nobleman dubbed ‘The Beast’. She is taken by The Beast’s valet to his mansion where it is revealed that her buyer wishes to see her in the nude. Naturally, she refuses and is placed in the room with an automaton maid who, despite all the beastly company in this collection, I found the most spooky character! Carter describes her in such vivid detail as she has her embody the society’s vain and vapid idea of women.

Beauty in The Courtship of Mr Lyon is unspoiled and content before the city turns her into a petulant lady obsessed with her appearance and possessions, but she becomes content with living as society’s construct of what they believe femininity is. However, Beauty in The Tiger’s Bride realises that no matter how much she strives be equal, she will always be viewed as a poor imitation of a person much like the soubrette. The Beast, who pretends he is a human male by donning a mask painted with a man’s face to hide the fact he is a tiger, appalls Beauty perhaps because he and his mask represent the model of tamed perfection that she is bound to.

While Beauty of the earlier tale must accept Mr Lyon in order for him to become a person and obtain their happy ever after in the human world, the heroine of The Tiger’s Bride and her Beast instead need to accept the animal nature in themselves. This will allow them to be free of the human world’s social constructs. Carter sends the powerful message that women must be break free of the weak and doll-like identities forced on them by society and embrace the parts of them that are deemed ugly which gives this tale a particular energizing spirit while reading.

By the end, our heroine becomes a beast herself. I was enthralled by the way Carter used sex and sexual desire as the catalyst for Beauty’s transformation, writing in it such a way that it appears the Beast and the heroine almost reclaim the act of sex. In licking her, the Beast rips off her skin which could be viewed as quite sexual, however, there are connotations of this being an act of birth. Rather than sex solely being something for fetish and control – which is seen throughout other tales in the collection – sex becomes a collaborative act of creation as the heroine is reborn as a fierce tigress.

PUSS-IN-BOOTS ★★★

But never the word, ‘love, has fallen from his lips, nor in nor out of any of these transports, until my master saw the wife of Signor Panteleone as she went walking out to Mass, and she lifted up her veil though not for him. And now he is half sick with it and will go to the tables no more for lack of heart.

The place is Bergamo, Italy. Our heroine is a conceited ginger tomcat called Figaro. The clever cat is a self-proclaim seducer of felines, but when his equally promiscuous master falls in love with the young, closely-guarded wife of Signor Panteleone, it is up to Puss to unite the two lovers. In short, Puss and his master are the ultimate trickster duo, dropping panties and killing rats around Italy. I’d watch that movie.

After the horror of the previous stories, Carter shifts the tone with Puss-in-Boots. It’s a lighthearted and comedic reprieve whilst still dealing with the same themes prevalent in the rest of the book.

By placing our damsel-in-distress in the midst of a busy town as opposed to the original remote setting, Carter omits any excuse for her plight to continue going ignored as she is ‘not too far’ from rescuse. Yet, despite being out in broad daylight, no-one helps this miserable young woman and Carter makes it evident that this is because they find it acceptable for a man to control his wife. The lady love of Figaro’s master is a prisoner of chauvinism. We can assume that she married Signor Panteleone for economic and/or social gain much like the heroine of The Bloody Chamber and thus, deems her Panteleone’s property. I appreciated Carter’s little play on the words with Panteleone’s name! It literally means ‘Sir Pantaloon’ or rather ‘Sir Pants’ which is quite ironic given that pants symbolise male power and virility. While Puss and his master are top shaggers, engaging in comedic sexual bravado from the get-go, Panteleone is the least sexual. His character is an intriguing juxtaposition as he is so impotent and easily felled yet out of all the other character in this tale, he is the most stereotypically masculine.

In the first story, it is through being objectified that the heroine realises her own sexual potential after being mistreated by the Marquis. Yet, in Puss-in-Boots, the woman’s objectification has sadly stifled her sexual nature as she has remained a virgin despite Panteleone’s unwelcomed prodding until awakened by Figaro’s master. At the end of the tale, she has come into her own and shows assertiveness by snatching the key – a symbol of her husband’s power over her – from his dead hands. Talk about a bad bitch!

All in all, I welcomed the addition of a humorous tale in this collection and it managed many a chuckle despite not being a particular favourite.

THE ERL-KING ★★★★★

Then she will open all the cages and let the birds free, they will change back into young girls, every one, each with the crimson imprint of his love-bite on their throats. She will carve off his great mane with the knife he uses to skin the rabbits; she will string the old fiddle with five single strings of ash-brown hair. Then it will play discordant music without a hand touching it. The bow will dance over the new strings of its own accord and they will cry out: ‘Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’

This one left me shooketh.

The scene opens on a desolate and unwelcoming forest in late October. Speaking directly to the audience, the narrator warns that the woods is not the place of illusion that fairy-tales have led us to believe. The heroine is again a young, innocent female seduced and trapped by a male fantastical creature. The Erl-King, yet another metamorphic character residing between the worlds of wilderness and humanity, derives from a king of fairies in old German folklore who is a force of mischief and magic as well as evil.

He resides in a hut in the middle of the woods and – as Lenny from Of Mice and Men would say – he ‘lives off the fat of the land’. Carter hints at the Erl-King almost being a ‘Big Bad Wolf’ type of character with his eerily big green eyes. Adorning the walls of the Erl-King’s one bedroom zero lounge paradise are several cages containing singing birds inside so it is perhaps not that shocking when the narrator learns that the Erl-King is indeed weaving a cage for her too.

Up until this twist, I wasn’t feeling this tale at all despite Carter’s atmospheric writing. The Erl-King just felt like a strange seducing hermit and the heroine a hapless fool in love who indulges the Erl-King’s desire to control and consume her. However, I love how Carter turned the story on its head at the end! Just like how the Marquis’ horrific bloody chamber stimulates our first heroine, it is the Erl-King’s domination that rouses our narrator and we see her battling with her erotic desire for her weird woodland fuckboy and her desire to be a free and independent gal. Basically modern dating in a nutshell!

Learning that the birds were once girls and they don’t actually sing, but rather wail in despair due to being trapped and lost, our narrator decides there’s only one thing for it. Instead of succumbing to her forest lothario and transforming for him à la the heroine in The Tiger’s Bride, she decides to strangle the Erl-King and set the birds/girls free. We have decided to stan.

THE SNOW CHILD ★★

The Count lifted her up and sat her in front of him on his saddle but the Countess had only one thought: how shall I be rid of her?

Immediately Carter sets the Gothic scene – it’s Midwinter, dark and bleak and the Count and his wife are riding through the snowy wilderness. Like my ex, the Count is tone deaf and begins listing off the characteristics of his ideal lady in front of his wife after a bloody hole in the snow inspires him to wish for a ‘girl as red as blood’… Ok, that last part doesn’t relate to my ex, but Countess, girl, I know your struggle. As soon as the Count finishes speaking, a girl appears in her birthday suit and she is almost exactly a check list of everything the Count desired – white skin, red mouth, black hair – and he lifts her onto his horse.

Jealous, the Countess begins scheming to get rid of the girl. For example, throwing her glove into the snow and instructing the girl to retrieve with the intent to ride off and leave her. Alas, her attempts are futile and only redirect her husband’s affections onto the strange girl they found in the snow. That is, until the Countess tells the girl to pick a rose which she does, resulting in her finger being pricked and her falling down dead. The Snow Child truly takes a turn for the weirder when a sobbing Count dismounts and engages in ahem, activities, with the girl’s body and when he’s…. finished(?), she melts.

I am unsure both about this brief tale as a whole and about the tale’s origins. For one, it’s two pages long and feels quite blink-and-you-miss-it in terms of the whole collection. The only reason it stood out to me in particular was that it baffled me when I first read it. I sat there in the bath feeling incredibly confused, very disturbed and a little violated by the wild ending that I had just witnessed. It wasn’t until some digging that I was able to fully understand and eventually come to appreciate what Carter was saying in this tale as it didn’t feel perhaps as black and white as it did with the others.

It’s quite obvious that the theme of male desire and the objectification of women is present in The Snow Child. After all, the voiceless girl in the snow is solely an object of the Count’s physical desires. All that is important to him is her beauty and value as a sexual object to be conquered and he does just that, deflowering and defiling her in act of sexual violence. It’s easy to forget that the Countess is present for this disgusting deed and perhaps one of the things I struggled the most with was her lack of interference and the oddly blunt ending.

We close on the Count handing the Countess the rose which also pricks her finger. This leads her to exclaim that ‘it bites!’ and it fades to black. At first, I was like ‘what in the world just happened? is the rose alive? Angela, wyd?’. It was only upon reading explanations online that I, much like the Countess and her pricked finger, was enlightened to the fact this ‘rose’ is a symbol of femininity and our lady parts. The ‘bite’ that the Countess experiences symbolises the suffering that accompanies being a woman irregardless of socioeconomic privilege and this is the Countess realising the ‘bite’ of supporting such violence and oppression against women.

On the whole, it’s an intriguing little tale. It’s one that is fascinating to research and read up on as there’s a lot to unpack despite being the shortest of The Bloody Chamber‘s tales. I understood its inclusion more after doing some swotting, but it is before the powerhouse that is The Lady of the House of Love so it couldn’t help but feel weak in comparison.

That aside, the LitCharts summary of The Snow Child did have me chuckling:

THE LADY OF THE HOUSE OF LOVE ★★★★

You will feel no pain, my darling. She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening. She has the mysterious solitude of ambiguous states; she hovers in a no-man’s land between life and death, sleeping and waking, behind the hedge of spiked flowers, Nosferatu’s sanguinary rosebud. The beastly forebears on the walls condemn her to a perpetual repetition of their passions.

There’s nothing more beautiful than reading a story that reminds you why you love literature so much and The Lady of the House of Love did just that. This truly is one of the most beautiful pieces of literary work I’ve ever read!

We turn now to an abandoned Romanian village on the eve of the First World War where Carter tackles a monster that’s a little more traditional – a vampire, or rather, the ‘queen of vampires’ herself. While the other tales are wickedly clever in turning the fairy-tale tradition on its head, The Lady of the House of Love is where Carter’s writing shines. I was immediately lured in, seduced by Carter’s vivid descriptions of the tale’s Countess and her old chateau.

A gorgeous descendant of Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania, she spends every night laying out Tarot cards and wishing she was human. Her only real constant company is a mute governess who ensures the sun stays out and that she is kept away from mirrors while allowing her to feed on creatures in the garden. What was nice about this story was seeing Carter make the heroine the monster from the get-go. Like the heroines before her, our Countess is young and virginal, but she is not innocent. She is the ‘beast’ who longs to be human and my heart truly broke for her as despite wanting to be normal and keep the rabbits in her garden as pets and resist from killing the boys brought to her chateau, her hunger overcomes her time and time again. She has no choice but to live out her inescapable fate.

The Lady of the House of Love feels like a breath of fresh air in this collection of horrors with its reversal of gender roles as it is the Countess who has all the power and the men are now the objects – becoming food for her desires. We come almost full circle as Carter once again associates sexuality with violence when the Countess kills young men in her bedroom making it a literal ‘bloody chamber’.

The Countess’ routine is more or less simply tarot cards, kill, repeat. Until one summer when a young British soldier decides to travel through Romania on his bicycle. This man goes on to become the virginal hero that saves our beast. Seemingly playing on the idea of true love’s kiss and invoking Sleeping Beauty, it is the soldier’s kiss when the Countess pricks her finger on a rose that eventually frees her from her doom and gloom. Although, her liberation isn’t quite what we’d hoped as the soldier wakes to find her dead, slumped over her Tarot cards. Perhaps Carter is making a point with the metamorphosis in this story by suggesting that part of the Countess’ transformation into a human means being able to die as reason states that death is definite and up until then, she had been defying this law as the living dead.

I cannot emphasise enough how truly gorgeous The Lady of the House of Love is! The emphasis on a gothic tone, a heroine that I could actually, fully sympathise with, and the little, gentle touch of ‘romance’ was just a recipe of perfection. I think every tale in The Bloody Chamber leaves an impact on you in some way, but this particular one touched my emotions and has left me haunted by its beauty.

THE WEREWOLF ★★

Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked for her on the hearthstone and a little pot of butter.

We enter Act 3 of The Bloody Chamber now which can aptly be summed up as: Wolves… and lots of them!

Plunging us into a ominous part of Northern Europe, we are told that this place has ‘cold weather’, but its people have ‘colder hearts’. We focus in on a young girl, sent into the forest by her mother to bring food to her ill grandmother. Like The Snow Child which set up the vampiric and the importance of the prickly rose in The Lady of the House of Love, The Werewolf is a brief three-page introduction to the wolfish presence in the far more meatier following tales that close this collection.

Carter closely follows the traditional outline of Little Red Riding Hood, but naturally, adds her touch. This Little Red is not a helpless little girl – she has beast-fighting abilities much like the heroine’s mother in the first tale. Keeping in with the female power tone of the book, The Werewolf’s Little Red is not an object, but rather has her own agency.

THE COMPANY OF WOLVES ★★

You can tell them by their eyes, eyes of a beast of prey, nocturnal, devastating eyes as red as a wound; you can hurl your Bible at him and your apron after, granny, you thought that was a sure prophylactic against these infernal vermin… now call on Christ and his mother and all the angels in heaven to protect you but it won’t do you any good.

Carter takes a second stab at reimagining Red Riding Hood in what has become the most famous tale of this collection and going on to inspire the 1984 Neil Jordan film Company of Wolves.

We are told by the narrator that wolves are more dangerous than any magical creature as they are unable to reason. They can trap any traveler that steps into the their territory of the forest. Sometimes, they can even infiltrate a person’s home. The start of this tale invokes the feeling of being told spooky stories around a campfire as the narrator recounts many previous horrific incidents with wolves before getting to the central story at hand.

Here, Little Red scorns the danger of wolves and opts to travel through the woods to bring her grandma oatcakes. She is armed with a long knife hidden in her basket which proves to be a wise choice of weapon after she hears a wolf’s howl. Alas, she stumbles upon a charming hunter that reassures her and they become friends, betting on who can reach her Granny’s house first. However, all is not as it seems with the huntsman.

Much like in The Tiger’s Bride, the lustful beast of the huntsman doesn’t scare our heroine. Instead, she is confident in her own sexuality despite many attempts by him to claim power over the situation such as taking her weapon and waging for a kiss. Carter’s narrator even calls the red hue of Red’s cape ‘the colour of sacrifices’ in an effort to remind us that this tale takes place in a universe where women are deemed the ‘weaker sex’ and often made to surrender to men in the acts of sex and marriage. The wolf/hunter fully expects our heroine to submit to him once he traps her in Granny’s house. Yet, she does not. The ending of this tale is essentially a culmination of all the psychological and sexual statements Carter has been setting up throughout the collection. The traditional phrases we associate with Little Red Riding Hood come to fruition as do the motifs of the bloody chamber, the feminine body, menstruation, virginity and transformation.

While the ending is no less disturbing with our heroine ‘marrying’ the beastly wolf, it was shocking and captivating to watch her transform into her own ‘wolf’ much like the heroine of The Tiger’s Bride who learns to relish in her own female desire. It is Red’s awakening into a sexual being that robs the wolf of his power and tames him, a role reversal that is just classic Carter.

WOLF-ALICE ★★

Could this ragged girl with brindled lugs have spoken like we do she would have called herself a wolf, but she cannot speak, although she howls because she is lonely – yet ‘howl’ is not the right word for it, since she is young enough to make the noise that pups do, bubbling, delicious, like that of a panful of fat on the fire.

Is this the part where I finally confess my initial motivation for ever reading Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was because one of my favourite bands is named after one of Carter’s tales? Quite specifically this one, if you haven’t guessed by now! I am now indebted to Wolf Alice for introducing me to the literary goddess that is Angela Carter.

It’s sadly not one of my ultimate favourite tales in the collection, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Borrowing themes from Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass as well as invoking twentieth-century case studies of ‘feral children’ raised by animals, Wolf-Alice tells the tale of a girl raised by wolves. She is taken in by nuns before being given to a werewolf, The Duke. Just like the men before him, The Duke is yet another bestial man-monster exploiting his power. Yet, Wolf-Alice also exists on that metamorphic threshold.

It was interesting to watch Carter once again flip the switch on tradition, but this time she does a full 180 (Hey, Dua Lipa) on the sort of transformation we have gotten used throughout the book. In many of the stories featured in this collection, we have seen our heroines embrace ‘the beast within’ and their own lustful natures such as in The Tiger’s Bride. Alice’s development is quite the opposite. She starts the tale as a de facto beast, but slowly begins to develop humanity.

What I especially loved about Wolf-Alice was that it is Alice’s own childish curiosity of the human world that leads her to realise her humanity. Her journey to becoming a woman is only facilitated by the items she finds in ‘bloody chamber’ of the Duke’s mansion and the actual ‘bloody chamber’ of her body. Unlike Red of the previous tale or Beauty in The Tiger’s Bride, Alice doesn’t need a man to aid her in her metamorphosis. I found it rather lovely that Carter changes the script and allows Alice to discover her own sexuality and humanity not for the sake of anyone else’s love, but all on her own while continuing to champion the message of female power throughout the entirety of The Bloody Chamber. It made for a surprising and satisfying ending!

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2 Comments

  1. May 27, 2020 / 7:33 pm

    Holy moly! How come I never heard of her or this book! I love when fairytales get dark twists, and that fact that this is a collection is even better! I can tell I’m gonna love most of these tales and can’t wait to read them!

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