The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, containing dark and twisted retellings of fairytales.
My feelings about the anthology as a whole are mixed.
Let me start with what I enjoyed the most: the prose. The writing is beautiful. It is not something that I usually look for in book; I’m more in the “serviceable prose” camp. I can get frustrated with stories where the writing is adorned to the point of conspicuousness. It is not the case here. The prose plays a major part in setting the atmosphere. The gothic vibe of The Bloody Chamber, the dark humour and playfulness of Puss-in-Boots, the weird symbolism in The Snow Child…Carter’s style is used to enhance the eerie beauty of the stories.
The themes addressed, unfortunately, did not work for me. I understand that the collection explores the disturbingly sensual side of childhood staples (and it doesn’t have to dig very deep, the original fairytales can be pretty sinister). However, the stream of pale, virginal young girls getting leered at and otherwise used in various ways gets tiring. Maybe I didn’t get the point of these stories, maybe I missed the message they tried to convey. It did manage to make me feel uncomfortable, so I guess that’s a point in favour of the anthology: the goal of any short story is to leave a lasting impression on the reader.
Three retellings caught my attention in a positive way: The Bloody Chamber, Puss-in-Boots and The Lady of the House of Love.
The Bloody Chamber is a Bluebeard retelling set in France at the beginning of the 20th century. The main character is one of the aforementioned pale and virginal young girls, married to a rich and older Marquis who also happens to be a serial widower. The honeymoon turns out to be perilous for the pretty ingénue. The story reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (the gothic atmosphere, the heavy presence of the first wife…or wives), which I adored. The contrasting stirrings within our main character, fear and desire, fuel the entire plot.
Puss-in-Boots is a fun interpretation of the ever so helpful feline’s story. Set in Italy, like the original tale, this retelling casts the ingenious cat in his usual role of the schemer wanting to help his master ascend in society. However, the ogre here is a jealous and miserly husband and the princess is his long-suffering young wife. The story is humorous and lighter than the other ones in the anthology, which was a welcome change in tone.
The Lady of the House of Love is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The Beauty in this tale is actually a reticent vampire, and the various “princes” who come to her castle end up as her dinner. I liked how inventive this story felt and how beautifully it was written, tinged with sadness and melancholy.
This collection is not for everyone, so I will recommend it with a caveat. The erotic explorations in some of the stories, while never really graphic, can be a bit disturbing and not to a lot of readers’ tastes. But the entrancing prose and the masterfully displayed atmospheres made me enjoy most of the reading experience.