Guido Almansi

Of Kin to the Beasts

The Bloody Chamber

By Angela Carter

Gollancz 160pp £4.95 order from our bookshop

Where does the tiger live? Or the lion, or the wolf? I am not referring to the precise location of their cages in the zoo, or to the wild areas where beasts have their abode: I mean, where do they live inside us, underneath the cocoon of our human nature? In some crevice of our humanity there hides a tiny feral, leonine or tigerish element which shares a venue with our immortal soul. Our wild-beast ancestry fills our dreams and our legends, our myths and our fables; if we sniff below, in our underwear or in the lingerie of folklore, what we find is a touch of silvestral life the odorous relic of a savage existence which lingers in our human body and urban culture. It is a scent of animal wrath, of instinctive need, of brutal life which affects the cultured nostrils of our civilised world. Is the menagerie located at the outskirts of the city or inside our beds?

Wolves must have been habitual acquaintances for rural populations until a few centuries ago, but what about lions and tigers, nowhere to be seen in Europe since the Ice Age? And yet they are the so frequent visitors to the hovel or hut of the heroes in our folklore. There are so many wild beasts of all species in our mythology, lurking behind every tree, threateningly snoring in every den. Where do they come but from the undergrowth of our psyche? Or from man’s own nature: ‘hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey!’

Angela Carter, who has re-written the rich repertoire of feral and bestial behaviour of the most celebrated fairy tales, seems to emerge from a different era of our civilisation (in terms of centuries, not of decades). Her baroque fantasy links her with her Gothic ancestors – I am referring to the English brand – but her sensual malice round the theme of possible cohabitation between men and animals goes back to a sort of prehistory of western ‘Christian’ literature – the Roman de Renart has the same ‘stench’ of wild instinctual life. With her we are – fortunately – miles away from the drab of the Drabblian world of British female writers: things happen in Angela Carter’s fabled universe, and every move in the strategy of the fairly tale is a feral intrusion in the privacy of our humanity. In these fables wild beasts come far too close for comfort. We are faced by the world of the den, not by the world of the bed-sitter.

Some of the stories perversely rehashed by Angela Carter are very familiar ones: so familiar that we even dare tell them to our toddlers. They are atrocious accounts of violence and outrage, massacre and revenge, incest and humiliation; frenzied plots where the life of man and the life of beast intermingle, moving towards an obscene consummation: Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty. As in the original texts the Carterian versions make meetings and matings between different beings possible and impossible: possible in the lure of the dense sensual language, impossible because the forbidden images emerge from unfathomable depths. These are the deep locations where the leonine element lives which later becomes the King of Animals in folklore; the monstrous element, which metamorphoses into the Ogre; the famelical element, which turns into the wolf of Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs. In Angela Carter’s fables man is still in a state of suspense between his humanity and his bestiality, as if our Lord had not yet decided what to do with him. Adam and Eve crouch in the grass of their Garden, picking lice from their skin: they are imprisoned in the present tense like any other animals without future without hope without despair, in a world of sensual immediacy.

The most terrifying stories are the Northern ones, set in a frozen landscape: stories of wolves snow vampires forests, with blood-stains on the icy ground, the deceitful comfort of a hut or a fire-place, the need for the warmth of a fur or the embrace of a furry animal. The most amusing and salacious is Puss in Boots, all Southern and sunny, which Witnesses the parallel erotic adventures of the Marquis of Carabas with the wife of a rich burger and the tomcat with a voluptuous female of the species (though we must not confuse the carnal humour of Angela Carter with the sexual uncouthness of Chandler Brossard, Dirty Books for Little Folks, who has rewritten fairy tales in a pornotopical key).

The most fascinating story is the one that lends its title to the book; The Bloody Chamber, a decadent version of the Bluebeard myth, where the ancient legend enriches itself with a new character. The story opposes to the sensualist monster a sensualist victim who seems predestined since she responds to his eroticism with her own unconscious desire for the homocidal caress of the monster. There is no guilt or original sin in this version, unlike George Trakl’s anguished Blaubert, in whose bedchamber there is ‘a mystery of putrefaction and death, blossomed from the deepest misery of the flesh’. Angela Carter had learnt a crucial lesson from fairy tales: the law of reciprocity, the grim retributive justice of folklore. Red Riding Hood would not have met the wolf unless she had already known him inside herself – in fact Carter’s little girl, following an old suggestion by Eric Fromm in his book The Forgotten Language, is at her first menstrual experience when she sets out for granny’s house. Bluebeard’s selected wife would not have met her fatal husband if she hadn’t desired what her husband desired. Snow White’s step-mother is really, in Angela Carter’s own words, mummy on a bad day: and we all know that mothers in a nasty mood entertain dreams of parental fury. The equitable world of fairy tales can be more frightening than the unequitable world where we live.

But The Bloody Chamber is not only a frightening text which conveys an obsessive atmosphere of punishments, and fulfilments which do not differ from punishments; it is also a highly readable and amusing book with high moments of superb bad taste: as when a corpse, duly stuffed with garlic so as to protect it from vampires, becomes a cadavre provençale.

Royal Shakespeare Company

Kent State_Grasshopper Pilot

Follow Literary Review on Twitter