Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Bloody Chamber

Another challenge book bites the dust! This time it's British author Angela Carter's collection of adult fairy tales.

There are 10 stories collected in The Bloody Chamber. They sometimes do the same tale more than once. I'll try to cover them as best I can in this review.

The Bloody Chamber, the title story is a retelling of the Bluebeard legend from his final bride's point of view. She manages to find out what he's done and although unable to escape the serial wife murderer, her spirited mother comes to the rescue.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon, this is the first of 2 retellings of the Beauty and the Beast legend. This one is very similar to the original and has a rather sad ending, although it isn't as violent as some of Carter's other retellings in this collection. I confess to particularly liking the faithful King Charles spaniel.

The Tiger's Bride, the second of the Beauty and the Beast stories. This explores a theme that crops up regularly in these stories of Carter's, that of shapeshifting. The ending was unseen and rather haunting.

Puss-in-Boots, the title is a reimagining of the identically titled fairy tale. It's uncharacteristically humourous and that was Carter's intent with this, to write an out and out funny story. She succeeded admirably.

The Erl-King. Not many people have heard of the Erl-King these days. My mother committed a poem about the malignant, life stealing forest spirit to memory, so I was aware of the legend. The character was also used as the basis for a Buffy episode. Carter's Erl-King is also a life stealer, but he appears to be a shape shifter as well.

The Snow Child, a very brief Snow White story. It was based on an obscure version that the Brothers Grimm collected, but never published. You'll realise why if you read it.

The Lady of the House of Love, this wasn't actually based on a fairy tale as such, it's about a vampiress, one of the descendants of Vlad the Impaler. It is characteristically bleak, but it does contain one of the best and what I see as truest descriptions of a vampire. This one doesn't sparkle.

The Werewolf, the first of 3 Little Red Riding Hood stories, all which feature werewolves. I'd never actually made the connection before, although thinking about it, it's fairly obvious. In this Granny is far from the put upon old woman preyed upon by a wolf.

The Company of Wolves, film maker Neil Jordan expanded on this and made it into a film. While there is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story a good half of it is spent with other werewolf stories.

Wolf-Alice, the final story in the collection is another werwolf tale. I couldn't see any real connection with the Red Riding Hood story here, it was mostly about a girl who believes herself to be a wolf.

There's not a lot of narrative substance to most of the stories and it's fairly easy to pick what fairy tale they've targeted. Carter doesn't really develop her characters much either, not unusual when working with such limited space as a short story, what she does do is paint a picture with words. Her command of language and description is extraordinary, she uses a world of words and catches you up in her sensual imagery. A few themes are explored. I've mentioned a seeming fascination with shape shifting or the ability to hide one's true nature from the world outside. The subject of female subjugation comes up, for instance both of the Beauty characters are effectively sold into marriage with the Beast, one for a rose her father stole and the other was lost in a game of cards. The females in those stories generally use their very femininity as a weapon against the men who have taken possession of them, virginity is greatly prized. There's a regular mention of the colour red and of blood, especially it's appearance on snow, virginity, the first bleeding and women's menstruation are also often alluded to.

It's a fascinating look at some well known fairy tales and really gives them a different feel. Despite it's brevity it is not an easy read and will make you think.

More adult retellings of these old stories are very popular right now. I haven't read a lot of these, but I can recommend some of Robin McKinley's work, especially Beauty, which fits in well with The Bloody Chamber collection, Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend with a Holocaust victim. There's also the comic Fables, which as the title suggests puts a very different spin on legends and fairy tales, the Fables companion book 1001 Nights of Snowfall, which investigates the old stories is particularly recommended, especially their look at the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I love retellings of fairytales!! They're some of my favourite things to read. Apart from the couple Elfy mentions, there are loads of collections (edited by Terri Windling & Ellen Datlow). And they also edited/presented a series of books called The Fairy Tales Collection, whihc had about 10 books by various authors (this is where i first came across the Jane Yolen). I don't know how easy they are to get hold of now though.
    Oh, and one other - Gregory Maguire (of "Wicked" fame) did a retelling of Snow White which also "starred" the Borgia family, speifically Lucrezia. That's called "Mirror, Mirror" - I'm not a huge fan of his writing, but others are.

    Annonymouse on the Couch