Book Review: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, godmother of fairytale twists

    Everything old is new again, so goes the phrase. And Angela Carter's radically strong women, who relish sex, adventure, and find crafty ways to thumb their noses at all manner of annoying traditions and bores fit in this category. 
    Carter was born in England in 1940, and wrote some of her best stories back in the '70s. She died in 1992, way too soon. Yet her stories not only live on, but are still cutting edge and eye-opening, even to my young feminist and activist students.
    As Kelly Link said in the intro to this new edition: 
“Since I first came across The Bloody Chamber, I have kept a copy with me wherever I have been living. . . . The things that I needed, when I was beginning to think about writing short stories, were the things that I found in The Bloody Chamber. . . . Reading Carter, each time, [is] electrifying. It [lights] up the readerly brain and all the writerly nerves. . . . What we don’t have, of course, is any more Angela Carter stories. And how I yearn for exactly this.” —Kelly Link, author of Stranger Things Happen and Pretty Monsters
    My favorite in this collection (which includes twists on "Little Red Riding Hood", "Puss in Boots" and more) is the title story, "The Bloody Chamber", a twist on "Bluebeard". It is creepy to the max, yet fantastic in its lyrical beauty, with passages so stunningly gorgeous they take my breath away, yet other passages that make my stomach churn. She does not shy away from awkward emotions: the conflicting emotions of the young bride who is at once disgusted by, and hungering for more physical attention from her predatory husband. In this, Carter is not afraid to be "politically incorrect" to drive home how many levels we exist on. But to be sure, this vile man gets his comeuppance. And in this, too, Carter goes way beyond the "modern" trend of the heroine saving the day, to end on a twist verboten in the acceptable basket of trope twists, yet completely satisfying, and one my female creative writing students cheer on in a sort of shock and awe daze. I won't provide spoilers here. You just have to read it!

I'll end with these two quotes from Carter. You can see her as a young woman, and then older, yet always an original.


Making New Friends as You Write

One of the aspects of writing I enjoy the most is the discovery of new characters, ones I hadn't planned on or ones that decide to play a much larger part in a story than I had anticipated. I write stories "into the dark." (That's not my term. It belongs to Dean Wesley Smith.) I start with a situation and characters and some vague idea where the tale might end. My best ideas come while I'm putting pen to paper. The vague endpoint becomes a moving target. The story meanders in unexpected directions and usually becomes much longer than anticipated.

In The Great Contagion, my most recent novel, I thought it would be fun to have a pooka who took the form of a stoat. I didn't know what I would do with Slynid, but once he appeared he demanded a starring role. He became a critical player in several chapters. Merliss would not have survived without him. The story would have suffered without him. I can't imagine any new Merliss tales without him. I would detail his feats but I don't want to fill this post with spoilers.

Other characters emerge out of necessity to play a bit part but then they won't leave. Liesael came about because I needed some members of a family with a sick patient that Merliss and the cunning men were visiting. Liesael revealed a love interest in Fendrel, the cunning man's apprentice, and slipped a love charm into his satchel. She later came to stay with Fendrel and nurse the cunning man when he became ill. Liesael doesn't play the prominent role that Slynid does--more of burr in Merliss's fur--but she grew from a mere decoration to a significant player.

Late in the novel, Merliss escapes through the woods, traveling from one scene to another. I thought to add some interest with a chance encounter with another cat. Tawk is the name of a very timid feline who barely escaped his own death. Tawk gave me a chance to depict events in other villages. Merliss finds him annoying and an object of pity. I thought Tawk's first scene would be his last but like Liesael, he refuses to leave the story and tags along to the very end.

Slynid, Liesael, and Tawk will certainly appear in future Merliss tales. I don't know where they came from but I'm very glad they appeared. I know I couldn't have planned them or their exploits ahead of time. Writing is a lot about trusting that the characters you need will appear when you need them. And you have to let them do what they will, even if it throws a wrench in your original plans. The fun part is getting to know your new characters.