Yesterday, I had a birthday party for my Christmas-born daughter. She received an embarrassment of princess accouterments: crowns, jewels, plastic sparkle shoes, dolls, et&c and whathaveyou. Last week, when I picked her up from my dad’s house, she and my step-mom, Chris, were snuggled together on the couch, watching Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”. It was the end of the movie when I came in, right before the transformation, and Chris put up her hand, apologized, and said she couldn’t talk until the inevitable magic had been transacted. We watched: monster into man, teapot into Angela Lansbury. Chris flicked her fingers under her eyes in the way that means “I’m not crying” but she was. One of the girl’s gifts yesterday was a Belle doll. Another was a sparkle pony with a hair brush. The girl took the brush from the horse and combed the princess’s hair. After work today, I took out the over-sized Disney Princess activity book we received yesterday. We found the page with Belle and the Beast, and first thing, she blacked out all the eyes. This may sound creepy, and it is I guess, but this is the first thing most kids her age will do. I took down this book and began reading.
An antidote, but not exactly. The Bloody Chamberis the kind of collection that gets described as a “feminist reimagining”, which is accurate on some levels, but I think can imply that Carter is enacting a series of simple reversals: women as aggressors, boys locked in towers. There are reversals, but not the ones you expect or for which you have prepared. They have a sameness to them that doesn’t lend to the gulping down I did, yet again, but it works, in its own way. I started with the stories that deal with Beauty & her Beast, as they were foremost on my mind: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”. This is not a collection that is a novel in disguise; they are short stories whole and complete. This is more like an album, in a sense that will most likely be lost sometime soon: a collection of pieces that riff on a theme. The Lyon tale is almost traditional in its telling: the father, the rose, the pact with the beast, the forgetting and return, the transformation that has you flicking your eyes with all of the wish-fulfillment, bright and romantic. But then comes “The Tiger Bride”, which inverts a central metaphor disturbingly, rising to a climax that made all of my hair stand on end. I don’t mean this metaphorically – even knowing the end, which I did, my body responded with the uncanny mammalian reaction that can mean several things at once: fear, pleasure, pain. Ah. Oh God. I am covered in fur.
There’s something hot-house about the prose. It’s fragile, breakable, spun from glass. It’s intentionally unreal, like Rappaccini’s Daughter who was raised on poison; beautiful, deadly. These are not stories that aspire to airless heroic beauty – although you many gasp from the lace and blood and satin – they also have a earthy, almost obscene sensibility. “The Snow Child” is a dagger of a tale, epigrammatic. It strips the fairy tale down to its Oedipal basics, almost strips out the story from the story, and you’re left with blood on snow and a rended black wing.
I think one of the failures of many modern fairy tales is that they take place in la-la land, long ago and far away, in the faux-medieval forest. With notable exceptions, such as “The Werewolf”, Carter’s stories occur in identifiable times and places. “The Lady of the House of Love” – simply one of my favorite short stories EVER – interrogates Progress and Rationalism & investigates horror in the age of the machine gun. In the year before the first world war, a young Englishman – a rational virgin – peddles into a Romanian town filled with ghosts and the last, inbred vampire daughter of Nosferatu. About his bicycle:
“To ride a bicycle is in itself some protection against superstitious fears, since the bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion…Voltaire himself might have invented the bicycle, since it contributes so much to man’s welfare and nothing at all to its bane. Beneficial to the health, it emits no harmful fumes and permits only decorous speeds. How can a bicycle ever be an implement of harm?” (p97)
Maybe you can see where this is going. The vampire speaks to personal, domestic fears, and how those fears intersect with larger, societal moralities. (Ftw, Stephenie Meyer.) The vampire is also the symbol of the aristocracy: inbred, parasitic, but with a strange intimacy. The boy rides in on his bicycle, and only sees the vampire in the most rational terms: what wonders a sanatorium will do! And the boy, well-meaning, blind, & sweet as he is, doesn’t realize that his bike is the symbol of the devastation to come, that the greatest force for democracy has been the machine gun. We ceased to fear the aristocrat when we realized he could only kill us one at a time, family by family; we could kill each other so much faster and more efficiently once decadent individualism was subsumed into a machine. The vampire may be inhuman, but inhumanity has finer gradations like anything else, and the trenches are a scarier monster altogether, or scary precisely because they aren’t a monster.
There’s more going on in this story, much more, but that’s what I’ve got for now. I mentioned one of Carter’s wolf stories, three of which end the book. A scant two pages long, “The Werewolf” is a mastery of narrative voice: Carter creates a place, then she relates a folklore, then she tells a story in that folklore. The story is about girls and crones, the old woman stripped and stoned to death, the young woman who prospers from a folklore that will turn her out once she crosses the dangerous boundary into age. “The Company of Wolves” doesn’t work as well as the other two. Carter falls into lecturing for the first half, but by the end has worked into glorious perversity: Grandma’s bones wrapped in her own clothes, her hair unburned in the fireplace layered over with the girl’s discarded, burning clothes, the girl and the wolf in a house surrounded by baying wolves, consummating and consuming. In the 80s, Neil Jordan & Angela Carter turned these wolf stories into a movie, which is a fiasco, but a really compelling fiasco. Cheesy sets, a poorly done framing device, almost perversely miscast: Angela Lansbury (again!) is the wrong kind of old woman for Carter’s tales; Stephen Rea is cool, but he makes a really shitty huntsman/wolf. But I can see why they did it; Carter’s stories have a concreteness to them, a vision.
As often as these stories get soaked in bleach by Disney and repackaged for sale, the fairy tales themselves have an essential danger that can’t be scrubbed out. You can wash the blood off the floor, but it catches inevitably in the drain. (As a side-note, I think this is why Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” doesn’t work & mostly bored my kids: they strayed waaaaaay too far from the central motifs. No spoiled princess, no pact that ends with the girl having to share her bed with a reptile, no violence integral to the story – in many versions, the frog becomes a man after the girl has thrown him against the wall in disgust and anger. There was violence in the Disney movie, but it was parenthetical, and banter is a poor substitute for real conflict.) Fairy tales also get re-purposed by children, with no parental intervention: Beauty’s eyes blacked out, doll and beast submitting to the same brushing. Carter’s stories aren’t definitive, but then no fairy story is, related from mouth to mouth, like a kiss or contagion, the kind of thing thing that raises the hair on your arms even while you snuggle in the intimacy of motherhood. Sweet dreams, kids.
As much as I like the new Penguin editions with their flash art on the cover, listed above, I am positively freaking out about the Folio Society’s new illustrated edition of The Bloody Chamber. Christmas is coming up again; think of me.