It is well known that Disney has a tendency to romanticise fairy tales, but more often than not these fairy tales have a much darker history. Perhaps most famously, the Brothers Grimm published the stories of Bluebeard, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin (to name but a few) in Kinder- und Hausmärchen in 1812. Far from being “bedtime” stories, the tales are often frightening in their depiction of violence, cruelty and magic. Take for example the Brothers’ retelling of Aschenputtel (Cinderella); the step-sisters not only cut off their toes in an attempt to fit into the slipper shoe, but are also left blind by birds who strike their eyes at the Prince and Cinderella’s wedding, a far cry from the version we are familiar with now. These stories however, are part of a much older folklore tradition than even the Grimm Brothers, and it is this folklore tradition that Carter sets out to explore in The Bloody Chamber.
Carter herself stated that she is drawn to “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the sub-conscious” (Introduction, Vintage Edition), but did not want to do “versions” of traditional fairytales. Instead she sought to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and use it as the beginnings of new stories” (Introduction, Vintage Edition).
It is difficult however to separate the stories in The Bloody Chamber entirely from their original, nor is that a bad thing. If anything, it adds an interesting reader perspective to each of the 10 stories modelled on Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, Erlking, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and finally Little Red Riding Hood. That being said, if at this point you are expecting Carters’ re-imagined fairy tales to closely resemble those of your childhood, allow me to correct you.
The collection is full of perversity, with overt sexual undertones in many of the narratives. There is violence, corruption, rape, murder, and even a vampire at one point. Surprisingly though, you might even go so far as to say in spite of this, the collection does not feel salacious and the writing is seductive throughout. Carter also manages to challenge the “archetypal woman” in classic fairy tales, subverting the idea of the “helpless” female victim and instead showcasing the “autonomous woman” and the heroines of the stories.
It’s a fierce collection, but for me there were a few stand out tales – The Bloody Chamber, Snow Child and The Erlking. The Bloody Chamber is utterly macabre and gripping, fascinating in reference to the Marquis De Sade, and a testament in part to the phrase “curiosity killed the cat”. Snow Child may be the shortest of all the stories, but it is without a doubt the most shocking of the lot (consider this fair warning). As for Erlking, the ambiguous ending and symbolism of the birds in the cage was incredibly powerful.
There is a reason The Bloody Chamber is still talked about toady. It is fantastic in every possible sense of the word. Read it.