The tales you were told as children are stories of sexual violence

Or why ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is harmless bedtime reading compared with the works of Perrault and The Brothers Grimm, and other traditional folktales.

Whether through childbirth, menstruation or a perforated hymen, blood always comes from the same place: the vagina.

And the worst wolves are the ones who are hairy on the inside.

Or at least, that’s what Little Red Riding Hood thinks in the brutal retelling of the story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.

Perhaps Carter’s most famous book, The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories inspired by famous folktales. First published in 1979, it was considered revolutionary in the way it drew feminist themes from these classic tales. 

The collection is founded on four pillars: fantasy, folktale, feminism and psychoanalysis.

Although this may sound like an unlikely combination, Angela Carter’s voice makes them work forcefully and harmoniously.

Her procedure sounds relatively simple: ‘to extract the latent content from the traditional stories’ and use it ‘as a starting point for new stories’ which then reveal their ‘violently sexual’ substratum.

So, taking her inspiration from the tales of Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Madame de Beaumont and Irish and Nordic oral narratives, Angela Carter created horror stories populated by tormented, empowered or sadistic heroines; psychopathic princes; domesticated wolves; and blind heroes.

With impressive mastery of the language of fantasy literature, The Bloody Chamber presents versions of stories such as ‘Blue Beard’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. And all of them reveal dark truths about the original texts.

One thing that distinguishes this English author’s reimagining of the stories from those produced by Hollywood — such as Shrekis that there is little comedy or fun in her collection. Just a terrible irony and a humour as black as dried blood. 

Carter’s reading of the traditional material is by no means Manichean.

The stories included in The Bloody Chamber demonstrate a dense symbolism and a perversion decanted by centuries of history. The author refrains from judging the characters (because she knows they’re made of myth, not flesh and blood.)

In Angela Carter’s psychologically hellish world, all is creepy, seductive and frightening: 

‘The grave-eyed children of the sparse villages always carry knives with them when they go out to tend the little flocks of goats that provide the homesteads with acrid milk and rank, maggoty cheeses. The knives are half as big as they are, the blades are sharpened daily.’

The story that gives the collection its title is a novella that reimagines ‘Bluebeard’ – one of the most famous folktales collected by Perrault. In Carter’s retelling of the story, a teenage girl – whose family has become impoverished due to her father’s recent – marries a rich Marquis.

He is the wealthiest man in France and showers her with expensive jewels and dresses. After they marry, he takes her to his lonely castle. 

And then a terrible ritual begins: the girl is mentally and physically tortured. The Marquis subjects her to continual humiliation, even proposing to display the blood-soaked sheets from their wedding night as proof of her virginity.

Using a combination of guilt and desire, the Marquis manages to gain power over the girl’s sexuality. She then, in a rapture of (false) illumination, ends up discovering the chamber where the wicked nobleman tortured his previous wives to death. The Marquis catches her entering the forbidden chamber and this gives him the excuse to kill her too.

The story then turns into a twisted and sinister version of the Biblical tale of Genesis, and the philosophical resonances make it truly disturbing.

The execution, narrated with medieval touches – despite the fact that the story is set in the early 20th century – is stopped at the last moment by the girl’s mother:

‘You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was mane white, her black lisle legs exposed to the thighs, her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father’s service revolver and, behind her, the breakers of the savage, indifferent sea, like the witness of a furious justice. And my husband stood stock-still, as if she had been Medusa, the sword still raised over his head as in those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs.’

‘On her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger that had ravaged the villages in the hills north of Hanoi. Now, without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.’ 

The stylistic discoveries, the mythical subtext, the subversion of patriarchy… in Angela Carter’s stories, as the above extracts demonstrate, everything happens at once – and on many interconnected and nuanced levels. 

With The Bloody Chamber, Carter succeeds in demonstrating that – despite what Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother believes – ‘living well’ is not always enough to ‘keep the wolves outside’, because ‘they have ways of arriving at your own hearthside’ and because ‘worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems.’ 

And yet, perhaps writing about them might be a way of keeping them at bay.

Illustrations by Alejandra Acosta


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