Kitty Corner: Ruthless heroines prevail in ‘The Bloody Chamber’

Angela Carter’s collection of short stories, “The Bloody Chamber,” subverts classic fairytales and their heroines. (Photo courtesy of Vintage Classics)

The fact that my column is running on Halloween is, I feel, wasted on me, as I am far from a horror connoisseur.

Even watching “Buzzfeed Unsolved” sends a shiver down my spine. Nevertheless, I do love getting into the holiday spirit, and there’s one collection of creepy short stories that I thoroughly enjoy — Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”

“The Bloody Chamber” comprises 10 short stories, each based on a fairy or folk tale. The titular short story is based on the legend of Bluebeard; “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride” on “Beauty and the Beast;” “Puss-in-Boots” on, well, puss-in-boots; “The Erl-King” on the myth of a forest sprite; “The Snow Child” on Snow White; “The Lady of the House of Love” on Sleeping Beauty; and “The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice” all on elements of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The stories were first published in 1979, so the prose is a little antiquated. Carter writes in an elevated, florid style; imagine a musty, leather-bound volume with gilded edges, a ribbon bookmark and a foil-stamped, embossed cover. That’s the kind of grandeur you’d expect this book to be bound in, and Carter’s writing is what you’d expect to find inside.

But there’s a reason why the stories in “The Bloody Chamber” have been anthologized in contemporary textbooks and course readers over and over. Every story is from the perspective of a female protagonist, and they are all shrewd and cunning, dangerous and vicious, all possessing a significant streak of savagery. These are no meek damsels in distress.

After she realizes her lover intends to trap her forever by transforming her into a bird, the protagonist in “The Erl-King” strangles him with his own hair in a bid to preserve her freedom.

In “The Werewolf,” Little Red Riding Hood murders her grandmother so she can come into her inheritance early.

In “The Bloody Chamber,” the sadistic Marquis is about to kill his innocent young bride by lopping off her head — until her mother, with whom she’d coordinated, bursts into the room and rescues her from the guillotine with the assistance of a gun. They live happily ever after — indulging liberally, I might add — in the Marquis’ riches.

Revamped fairy tales, or fairy tales “with a twist,” are a genre unto itself (see: Disney movies, “Once Upon a Time” or literally any young adult fantasy novel). The stories of the Brothers Grimm are in the public domain, which means they’re fair game, and have consequently been shoved down our throats since birth. At this point, they’ve been dissected, deconstructed and done to death. It’s hard to imagine that anything fresh can be brought to Cinderella, even if they make her a cyborg.

But even after 40 years, Carter’s short stories feel revolutionary. With her sumptuous prose and ornate trappings, Carter evokes the conventions of Gothic fiction, yet she also subverts them by writing powerful, ruthless heroines rather than the weak-willed, mealy-mouthed women typical of the genre.

Carter imbues “The Bloody Chamber” with a distinctly feminist air, exploring themes of female identity, sexuality, liberation, corruption and perversion. The scariest aspect of “The Bloody Chamber” isn’t the carnage, bloodlust or blatant psychopathy — it’s the recognition that women, too, are capable of them.

Kitty Guo is a junior majoring in journalism and computational linguistics. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.