As November ends, the pumpkins and grisly outfits have long since been put away, but the spectre of Halloween may still linger in our minds. Now that we have a little distance between ourselves and the scariest time of year, could there be a more ideal time to delve into the sordid, exhilarating and creeping ways of the terrifying Gothic genre?
When considering Gothic fiction today, it seems as though we are automatically drawn to timeless 19th century texts: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Although these are enthralling novels and fantastic examples of the Gothic tradition, we tend to overlook modern interpretations of the genre in favour of these earlier works. It is true that these primary texts form the conventions for later fiction but we must spread our branches further into the Gothic’s dark forest and chance upon other books that make for disconcerting yet exciting reading.
As we take tentative steps away from the heart of this Gothic forest, leaving behind the works that established the basis of the genre, we will come across a prime example of modern Gothic fiction: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Published only thirty years ago, in 1979, this series of short stories received much critical acclaim and was heralded as the turning point in Carter’s career despite its controversial, macabre and heavily Gothic themes. Featuring on A-Level courses under ‘Elements of the Gothic’, Carter’s tales may be familiar to many an English Literature student. However, The Bloody Chamber, with its glittering and haunting settings and chilling storylines, deserves to be better known outside of the Year 13 classroom and firmly embedded within the Gothic tradition.
Immediately, we feel a difference between Carter’s fantastical tales and those traditionally Gothic works due to the form she writes in: a series of short stories in place of the established Gothic novel. She argued that the form of short stories gave her more control over each individual tale, which can certainly be seen functioning throughout. Her tightly-wrought works allow her to equally entice and surprise the reader as well as to instil her viewpoints on female sexuality.
Each tale is based on fairy tales and myths – such as Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard and Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (‘Little Red Riding Hood’) – but they should not be mistaken for their child-friendly equivalents. Like the classically Gothic black flower, The Bloody Chamber arises from wholesome beginnings, here of children’s fairy tales, and, as it flourishes, it reworks and twists these tales into sinister, sensual and seductive stories. However, Carter claimed that she did not want to create “adult fairy tales” or retellings of these well-loved stories; instead she wanted to fashion “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious.”
It would be a challenge indeed to illustrate the various plots of each of the short stories but its nefarious themes stretch from entrapment, murder, and even to the likes of bestiality and necrophilia. Gothic stories have always created a storm of shock upon their publication so it seems fitting that Carter’s violent and imaginative tales would exploit age-old taboos.
The shortest tale of the collection is ‘The Snow Child’. Only just over one page long, this very succinct story is also, arguably, the most shocking. It rewrites the Grimm Brothers’ tale of ‘Snow White’ but here the girl is born from the Count’s desires and is subject to the jealousy of his Countess which quickly ends in her horrific exploitation. By drawing on various taboos within this condensed story, Carter exposes one of the frightening concepts that connects her tales: the mistreatment of the vulnerable by those in power.
With a title such as The Bloody Chamber, an allusion not only to Perrault’s Bluebeard but to the womb also, it is unsurprising that Carter engages with female sexuality – particularly female heterosexuality. Each of Carter’s women varies from the others and each engages with their sexuality. She depicts robust, assertive women as well as women that, like drooping leaves, wilt and fade away under a stronger influence.
In ‘Lady of the House of Love’, our female protagonist is the alluring Queen of the Vampires whose life force depends upon her ensnarement of men. However, she is unlike the femme fatale we would imagine. Instead, she is trapped by her family’s tradition, an unwilling enemy and, as soon as a disruption in the form of a virginal man enters her life, she dies as passively as she lives. Carter demonstrates that living as an entrapped object of desire is a passive state and thus her only freedom is death. This tale is steeped in the Gothic: from the dark plushness of the manor to the imagery of blood, flowers, caged birds and, of course, the supernatural.
True to modern Gothic fiction, which often subverts the power struggle between men and women, not all of Carter’s women are victims. Similarly to the Queen of Vampires in the previous story, who is only set free from her ancestral curse by change, Carter demonstrates a variety of supernatural metamorphoses. In ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, Mr Lyon (the Beast) transforms into a man through the love of Beauty: “it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man [who had a] heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all beasts.” Carter originally invests the Beast with the majority of the power as Beauty lives a life indebted to him but, as they fall in love, Beauty becomes the major authority and it is her influence that affects Mr Lyon both to the point of death and to the moment of transformation.
Comparably, in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the Beauty and the Beast story is subverted: our heroine feels a closer affinity to the animal world and, forsaking the realm of men who treat her “carelessly” and “den[y] [her] rationality”, she metamorphoses into a beast. Carter here is exhibiting how women should break away from the strictures of society – “the lamb must learn to run with the tigers” – except the women have always been tigers and it is society that has compelled them to consider themselves lambs.
Nowadays, the amalgamation of the Gothic and eroticism seems to have produced many sexually charged supernatural love stories. Carter manages to diverge from these, seamlessly weaving aspects of the Gothic, feminism, and eroticism into her stories whilst retaining poetic passion. Before anyone can claim that modern interpretations of the genre cannot compare to the classic Gothic novels, I present to them The Bloody Chamber. Its distinctive form of short stories, dazzling settings, terrifying characters and its chilling and engaging plots will, no doubt, long continue to equally shock and thrill readers.