Angela Carter at 75: Reopening The Bloody Chamber
May 26, 2015 § 3 Comments
Fairy tale writer and editor Angela Carter would have turned 75 this year; the sad fact that she died of cancer in 1992 is pinpointed beautifully by Kelly Link, who asks in her introduction to a new edition of Carter’s most beloved story collection, “What would she make of the stories we tell now? What new thing would she make?”
We can’t know, but at least we can always return to the work that she left behind, work that took fairy tales and blew them wide open. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or of fairy tales in general, then the likelihood that you’re familiar with Angela Carter is very high; if you’re not familiar with her, then get ready for a treat of the highest order. Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, which has just been re-released today in an anniversary edition by Penguin Classics, is seminal reading for fairy tale lovers, because of Carter’s daring and—to this day—endlessly surprising female-empowered fairy tale retellings. Now, of course, fairy tale retellings are all the rage, but when Carter wrote The Bloody Chamber, she was not only a pioneer: she was setting the standard. Her adaptations manage to venerate fairy tales while still, in her own words, “exploding” them. She reconstructed them to her own ends, creating stories which were undoubtedly feminist and boldly sensual. They are a marvel to read, and for a writer, they’re a revelation. As Link describes it,
“Reading Carter [as a young writer] was electrifying. What she was doing, of course, was rewiring some very old stories. But it felt as if it were me, the reader/writer me, who was being reconfigured in some necessary way. Carter’s versions of these fairy tales, the way she approached them — with intelligence, irreverence and joy — made me look again at the ghost stories and children’s books that I read for pleasure. Carter took the stories she loved and with that love she made new stories out of them. I wanted to do the same.”
I remember reading “Wolf Alice” and “The Werewolf” (both from The Bloody Chamber) in college, and I experienced something similar. I felt like I had been given permission to think of the stories I loved not only as literature, but as endlessly malleable source material. But this isn’t the only way in which Carter forged a path in the 70s and 80s. In an era in which realism written with a light, exacting hand was the mainstream, Carter wrote in a style that can only be described as lush, often eschewing linear narrative time or the limitations of narrow point of view to craft her worlds. In one of my favorite stories, “The Fall River Axe Murders” from her 1985 collection Black Venus, Carter slows time down to a single frozen moment as an omniscient narrator tiptoes through the bedrooms of the Borden family home in Fall River, Massachusetts—unfolding dreams and memories and disappointments of each sleeping family member—in the still, pre-dawn moments before daughter Lizzie would take up her famous axe. When I taught undergraduate fiction writing courses while earning my MFA, I’d assign that story as a perfect example of rule-breaking that succeeds on its own terms.
Link is right to mourn what may have been if Carter had been given decades more to live. What would she make of our current fairy tale-obsessed culture? What would her stories look like now, in reaction to (or maybe even in celebration of) Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time, and all the fairy tale revamps that the YA lit machine and Hollywood have made available to us? It’s hard to say, but reading her work can show us a glimpse of where all of that may have started—and what we ought to aspire to.
More on Angela Carter:
Laura Miller writes for Salon on “Fairy tales, fantasy and dangerous female desire” in Carter’s works.
Kelly Link on the “Subversive Pleasure” of reading Carter as a young writer in an adaptation of her Penguin Classics intro for the New York Times.
Nate Jones writes for Vulture about the sexy and surreal Neil Jordan film adaptation of Carter’s story “The Company of Wolves” (which, I admit, I also subjected students to in my teaching days. I think they were more bewildered than inspired, but YOU will love it.)