I was first introduced to the work of Angela Carter in the late 1990s when I met Terri Windling in Tucson. The first Angela Carter collection I read was The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and, since that time, I’ve gone through several copies of this slim volume. Although it is one of my all-time favorite books, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down to read it; and this is the first time where I’ve forced myself to focus on the stories as a writer instead of as a reader.
This is not an easy task. It’s too easy to slip into Carter’s lush prose, her quick wit, her decisive flair. However, as I slowed down and took a closer look this collection of short stories, I noticed that not only has her rich prose influenced my own writing style, but there are also themes she visits that are close to the ones I tend to revisit in my own work. Unlike me, Carter has no fear in peeling back layer after layer. I tend to stay closer to the surface of things, which often hinders me. This reading turned me inwards; the stories became both a revelation and a reflection of the details drawn too finely or not at all, techniques I need to concentrate on as I continue the pursuit of an independent voice and style.
The titular story, “The Bloody Chamber,” has always been my favorite in the collection: the way Carter uses the masculine scents of tobacco and leather; the unveiling of the bride as though she was an artichoke voluptuously stripped of its leaves; and the “a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” Perhaps it’s due to my own escape from domestic violence, twice, that draws me to this particular tale, but whatever the reason, the image of the bride and the beast is among my favorite themes. When I’ve attempted my own versions of this story, I’ve always felt that I’ve fallen flat, that I could never approach Carter’s brilliance in the unveiling of this theme. It wasn’t until I reread the story as a writer that I discovered a beat that I’ve danced around—the “sheer carnal avarice” Carter flirts with throughout.
As the story continues, Carter emphasizes this sexual extravagance at every opportunity: the “great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train;” the “amniotic salinity of the ocean” surrounding the Marquis’ palace; the heavy, hooded white lilies that “stain you.” The thing that has always bothered me about this story becomes evident when read from this alternate point-of-view. The protagonist stays passive. She never evolves to a point where she even attempts to defend herself. Instead, it is the girl’s mother who charges to the rescue. The wild-eyed mother with her revolver is the true heroine of this story. She is the heroine I want to write.
The presence of carnal sensuality and raw feminine power continues as a common thread through the rest of the collection’s stories. In “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” a twist on “Beauty and the Beast,” the reader is tantalized in the opening with a road “white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin” before moving on to experience the gentleness of the beast’s kiss and “the stiff bristles of his muzzle grazing her skin.” Things take a darker turn in “The Tiger’s Bride” when the protagonist, who was lost by her father in a card game to a tiger posing as a man, gives up her humanity to embrace the beast within herself: “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs.”
Although I can write about violence, I have difficulty with raw sexuality. By revisiting Carter’s collection, I have been able to see ways in which I can heighten sensory description in seemingly unrelated scenes, which then create a build-up to the carnality I’d like to add to my own collection of work. Carter flirts with dangerous themes. She dares us to dance with the Erl-King, to contemplate the meaning of love in Nosferatu’s mansion, to howl at the full moon. And what other purpose is there to writing, if not as using it as a means to shed light in the darkness?
Over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has “a story,” a few people have a few stories, and yet others carry a multitude within them. Carter carried the multitude. She wrote as many of these as she could and, by doing so, gave her readers the opportunity to recognize themselves in her words. I hope to follow her example.
I know “the carnivore incarnate.” I’ve lived with the wolf that “cannot listen to reason.” I’ve known more than one man with “a wolf’s heart.” And I think Carter did too. I think she knew the wolves intimately. But, instead of letting the company of wolves devour her, she picked up a pen and wielded it like a knife. “Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.” And with that, Carter let the forest close “upon her like a pair of jaws.” I like this image. I think it’s time to let the forest close upon me as well. I think it’s time to delve deep into my fears and hopes, to put them on the page. Who knows? Perhaps I will be like Carter, laughing at the threats that once faced me. Perhaps, like Carter, I too will realize I’m “nobody’s meat.”
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. Penguin Books, 1993.
Images: “Bluebeard” by biffno, “Bluebeard” by Gustav Dore, “Bluebeard’s Last Wife” by hogret, “Beauty and the Beast” by Toshiaki Kato, “Bluebeard” by Arthur Rackham, and “Little Red Riding Hood” by Arthur Rackham.