Friday, 11 March 2016

Review: The Bloody Chamber and Other Storiers

A selection of fairy tales by Angela Carter, the Bloody Chamber returns the form to an older time,
drawing on the folk tales as they were before the Grimms began the trend of infantilising them. This produces a stew of tales that are at once more adult, more Gothic and more dangerous than the callow versions most of us read as children. Carter's willingness to put a feminist spin on the tales she reinterprets makes them punchier, more dangerous and she inevitably crosses into taboos subjects: sex is hardly a stranger in these stories, and carries a political significance all of its own.

The protagonists of each tale are, by and large women, with only Puss in Boots stepping outside that decison, providing the reader with a cat's eye view of the proceedings. This decision, to rely either on the perspective of men, or animals, others men in many respects, and men are depicted in a variety of ways. On the one hand they are shown as separate from nature, and the world in direct contrast to the heroines who are immersed in life and the hustle and bustle of human activity. The Bloody Chamber itself depicts its villain as not only master of all he surveys but a sadistic brute, suggesting that control and power feeds sadism rather than sating it, while the Erl-King likewise suggests that men cannot abandon power but must use it to taint every relationship. As a result the stories do serve as much as a warning about male power, just as traditional tales often cautioned against allowing women to wield authority. Where men avoid this fate it is because they cease to be 'men', in the political sense. They remain male but they either abandon their authority, or never possessed any to begin with. As a result the blind piano tuner becomes an unlikely hero, unable to subject the heroine of the Bloody Chamber to the indignities of the male gaze, to reduce her to a simple object for his pleasure. His inability to see means that he cannot become a man in the sense that Carter employs the term, he is not corrupted by sight and therefore is immune to the harmful effects of pornography, either written or visual. The Courtship of Mr Lyon, similarly redeems the male protagonist when he abandons his wild power for love, submitting to the will of woman.

This last reflects the tradition in fairy tale that holds women as the keepers of civilisation, tying into the idea of the animal bridegroom. Carter's stories certainly touch on this more closely in some of the tales than in others. Typically, she twists the endings in these stories. Famously, The Company of Wolves uses sex as a way not to continue old patterns of the civilising female but to make the point that there is a beast in woman too; one that is awakened by copulation, as does The Tiger's Bride. There is an implicit suggestion that sexual fulfillment for women is a wholesome thing, shorn of the unpleasant undercurrent that frequently effects male sexuality. This is linked purely to human sexuality, Puss, here called Figaro, shows carnal desires are shown as lusty, but natural, untainted by the clutter of humanity.

A direct opposite to this is The Lady in the House of Love, where female sexuality, and longing, becomes the focus and it is suggested that they can become as twisted as their male counterparts. The scene once the eponymous Lady has seduced and bedded her heroic virgin reveals her bed chamber in the light of morning as tawdry and cheap, a comment on the thinness of artificial sexuality perhaps, or of poses we adopt to make ourselves desirable; or even on the Gothic itself. I don't know if Carter was aware of the Goth scene, it seems unlikely as the collection was published in 1979, just as the subculture was emerging, but she probably was aware of strange black clad youths who were obsessed with old Victorian novels and the like: it may be a comment upon that.

The arresting thing about the Lady is that though she is a Queen of the vampires, she is powerless and a prisoner, just as the Countess in The Snow Child, is ultimately powerless. Both appear to have power, but are dependent upon others to exercise it. The 'It bites' at the end of Snow Child is emblematic of the hollowness of female power, when it is contained in a male paradigm. Carter's message is clear, it is only by rejecting the structure of patriarchy that women can prosper. As the focus here is largely carnal, primal, the prism Carter explores is that of desire and its dehumanising elements.

Where these stories differ from the traditional fairy tale is that they hesitate to return their protagonists to the loving bosom of male power, and work against that ideal, which looms so large in Gothic and fairy tale. Instead the heroines are either depicted as the mistresses of their own destiny, casting off the shackles of their sex to be the equal of their male lovers; the implication being that through sex they are transformed and in possession of their own power, or able to live independently. They are not the vassals of male power, even in the bleakest of tales.

Each story is masterfully crafted, grounded in the genres it inhabits. Carter's language is sensual in places, and always wielded with precision. Her tales are caught between the domestic and the fantastic, fancy has its roots firmly in the known world be that the modern day or history. As is the case with much of the early Gothic, and virtually all fairy tale many of the stories exhibit a pleasing timelessness, The Bloody Chamber for example makes reference to the trappings of the modern world , telephones, cars and so on, without ever truly acknowledging the effects they have on society (that single phone call that summons the protagonist's mother aside). The Courtship of Mr Lyon is similar, the setting is modern but the actual important aspects of the story are not technology dependent. The message that Mr Lyon is ill is brought, ultimately, by his spaniel.

I would urge fans of the Gothic, and of fairy tales in general to read this. It truly is a masterpiece of storytelling and reflects so much about the basic concerns of human existence. If I were given to stars or ratings, I'd give this at least four out of five... possibly more.

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