Old favourites: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)

Retelling of 10 fairytales is lusciously sensual and stories are as enchanting as the childhood narratives on which they draw

Angela Carter in France in June  1988. Photograph:  Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Angela Carter in France in June 1988. Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

 

The Bloody Chamber is a kind of applied literary psychoanalysis, in which Angela Carter retells 10 fairytales to uncover their “violently sexual” latent content. Not that her blood-soaked renditions are a dry theoretical exercise: they are lusciously sensual and the best of them are as enchanting as the childhood narratives on which they draw.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Carter was a contrary, elusive type of feminist who drew ire from her more puritanical peers, not least for her long essay The Sadean Woman (published the same year as The Bloody Chamber) in which she makes a spirited if ludicrous bid to reposition the Marquis de Sade as a proto-feminist figure (she approves of his enthusiasm for anal sex, which affirmed women as sexual beings independent of their reproductive function).

Sexuality as an incendiary force and the intoxications of pain and annihilation, recur throughout The Bloody Chamber like the ruminations of an obsessive. These tales of werewolves, talking cats, sinister noblemen and necro-paedophiles recall in their gothic lyricism the songs of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; like Cave’s lyrics, they portray desire as a satanic choreography in which we move irresistibly towards the site of our destruction. A narrator intones: “Now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation.”

In Carter’s realm, “sheer carnal avarice” is the lifeblood and innocence craves its own defilement. While subverting male power, Carter collaterally eviscerates that corruption of feminism whereby female desire is limpid, irreproachable, without darkness. A virginal girl says of a strange being who lives alone in the woods, “I knew from the first moment I saw him that Erl King would do me grievous harm”, then goes to him anyway. In the wonderful titular story, another girl admits, “in my heart I had always known” that the rich psychopath she has married “would be the death of me”.

In short, these sadomasochistic stories roam the dark, offline places of the psyche - a black forest, too true to be good, where love is torture and lust is a bloodbath.

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