Issue No. 158
AN INTRODUCTION BY KELLY LINK
If I tell you what I see in The Bloody Chamber
, the things in it that I love and admire and think about, of course I’m telling you about myself as much as I am telling you about Angela Carter. There are ten stories in The Bloody Chamber
. They overlap one another. There are stories about beastliness, about wildness, about marriage and sexual awakening, decay and transformation, about house cats and big cats, about wolves and people who behave as wolves. There are retellings, or, sometimes, more occulted echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bluebeard,” and “The Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear.” Carter was an admirer of Charles Perrault’s. There’s a bit of Boccaccio, whom she also loved, and whom I love, too, in her version of “Puss in Boots.” There are counts and countesses, dukes and a duchess, a marquis, an Erl-King, a young English officer, brides and husbands, fathers and mothers and grandmothers. There are only a handful of named characters. Mr. Lyon and Beauty, of course, are hardly names at all. They are signifiers. There is Wolf Alice. There is Carmilla, the former wife of the marquis, whose name is a wink to the reader of vampire stories. There is the blind piano tuner, Jean-Yves, the only person in the book to be given a name that is only itself, without the least bit of symbolic weight. And, of course, he is the particular invention of Carter: her own bit of business. So I notice him, particularly. He is kind, gentle, has a good ear and a pure heart. Like the English officer in “The Lady of the House of Love,” my favorite of all the stories in the collection, he seems to be a real person who has wandered, or been enticed, into the very old structure of a gothic or fairy tale.
I love “The Lady of the House of Love” for the luster of Carter’s language; the tensile strength of the prose; its luscious, comical, fizzing theatricality. The handsome and wholesome boy on the bike, the decayed wedding dress, the bird in the cage, and the countess herself, who would like to be in a different kind of story from the one in which she eats rabbits and men. I am troubled by the dreadful clamor of the refrain: “now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation.” Of course, if you are brave enough and good-hearted and do not realize you have stumbled into a vampire story, you might escape. In a fairy tale, innocence is a key that opens a door through which you can flee—without ever realizing that you were in any danger. (Experience is another key entirely.) In the real world, of course, there are worse things than vampires. The English officer gets back on his bicycle and rides off to join his regiment. It’s the eve of the First World War. “Next day, his regiment embarked for France.”
Carter gives us all the trappings of the gothic, the vampire narrative, and then briskly, explicitly dismantles the gothic stagecraft the next morning. Here the shadow of real horror hangs over the painted backdrop of the unreal.
Author of Get in Trouble
Support Recommended Reading
All Donations are tax-deductable
Collect Them All
by Angela Carter
Recommended by Kelly Link
At last the revenants became so troublesome the peasants abandoned the village and it fell solely into the possession of subtle and vindictive inhabitants who manifest their presences by shadows that fall almost imperceptibly awry, too many shadows, even at midday, shadows that have no source in anything visible; by the sound, sometimes, of sobbing in a derelict bedroom where a cracked mirror suspended from a wall does not reflect a presence; by a sense of unease that will afflict the traveler unwise enough to pause to drink from the fountain in the square that still gushes spring water from a faucet stuck in a stone lion’s mouth. A cat prowls in a weedy garden; he grins and spits, arches his back, bounces away from an intangible on four fear-stiffened legs. Now all shun the village below the château in which the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes.
Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.
Her voice is filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit. “Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?” She draws her long, sharp fingernail across the bars of the cage in which her pet lark sings, striking a plangent twang like that of the plucked heartstrings of a woman of metal. Her hair falls down like tears.
The castle is mostly given over to ghostly occupants but she herself has her own suite of drawing room and bedroom. Closely barred shutters and heavy velvet curtains keep out every leak of natural light. There is a round table on a single leg covered with a red plush cloth on which she lays out her inevitable Tarot; this room is never more than faintly illuminated by a heavily shaded lamp on the mantelpiece and the dark red figured wallpaper is obscurely, distressingly patterned by the rain that drives in through the neglected roof and leaves behind it random areas of staining, ominous marks like those left on the sheets by dead lovers. Depredations of rot and fungus everywhere. The unlit chandelier is so heavy with dust the individual prisms no longer show any shapes; industrious spiders have woven canopies in the corners of this ornate and rotting place, have trapped the porcelain vases on the mantelpiece in soft grey nets. But the mistress of all this disintegration notices nothing.
She sits in a chair covered in moth-ravaged burgundy velvet at the low, round table and distributes the cards; sometimes the lark sings, but more often remains a sullen mound of drab feathers. Sometimes the Countess will wake it for a brief cadenza by strumming the bars of its cage; she likes to hear it announce how it cannot escape.
She rises when the sun sets and goes immediately to her table where she plays her game of patience until she grows hungry, until she becomes ravenous. She is so beautiful she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity, for none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. Her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, of her soullessness.
The white hands of the tenebrous belle deal the hand of destiny. Her fingernails are longer than those of the mandarins of ancient China and each is pared to a fine point. These and teeth as fine and white as spikes of spun sugar are the visible signs of the destiny she wistfully attempts to evade via the arcana; her claws and teeth have been sharpened on centuries of corpses, she is the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler who picnicked on corpses in the forests of Transylvania.
The walls of her bedroom are hung with black satin, embroidered with tears of pearl. At the room’s four corners are funerary urns and bowls which emit slumbrous, pungent fumes of incense. In the center is an elaborate catafalque, in ebony, surrounded by long candles in enormous silver candlesticks. In a white lace négligé stained a little with blood, the Countess climbs up on her catafalque at dawn each morning and lies down in an open coffin.
A chignoned priest of the Orthodox faith staked out her wicked father at a Carpathian crossroad before her milk teeth grew. Just as they staked him out, the fatal Count cried: “Nosferatu is dead; long live Nosferatu!” Now she possesses all the haunted forests and mysterious habitations of his vast domain; she is the hereditary commandant of the army of shadows who camp in the village below her château, who penetrate the woods in the form of owls, bats and foxes, who make the milk curdle and the butter refuse to come, who ride the horses all night on a wild hunt so they are sacks of skin and bone in the morning, who milk the cows dry and, especially, torment pubescent girls with fainting fits, disorders of the blood, diseases of the imagination.
But the Countess herself is indifferent to her own weird authority, as if she were dreaming it. In her dream, she would like to be human; but she does not know if that is possible. The Tarot always shows the same configuration: always she turns up La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie, wisdom, death, dissolution.