The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

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These instances of the supernatural are the only ones included by Carter. Every other ‘fairy-tale’ element in the original is toned down (so that there are only three murdered wives, rather than a whole roomful of them hanging on meat hooks), or is put into a more familiar ‘realistic’ context, so that the vaguely aristocratic and faintly magical Bluebeard becomes a specific Marquis living in a specific castle in Brittany, presumably alluding to the Marquis de Sade who may or may not have been guilty of similar atrocities.

Compared to some fairy stories, there is not a great deal that is obviously supernatural in ‘Bluebeard’. But there are significant pointers towards a more magical world, the most important being the colour of the antagonist’s beard. The impossibility of this, and the fact that it is introduced so matter-of-factly in the opening to Perrault’s story alerts the reader to the presence of an alternate reality – albeit one uncomfortably close to the actual world of seventeenth century marriage alliances and social events. By posing as part of the normal, everyday world, holding a fine party and feast for the family he hopes to marry into, Bluebeard succeeds in drawing his prey into his other world: one filled with untold wealth and hidden horror. A broad, more generalised, sense of this is reproduced in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, but the specific idea of another reality – one that J.R.R. Tolkien refers to as faerie or the ‘perilous realm’ – is deliberately suppressed. In that sense, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is not truly a fairy story, strictly speaking, since it takes place in a supposedly ‘real world’ – or more precisely in a literary world, modelled, according to Carter, upon the work of the turn of the century French author, Colette.

The element of magic – the blood – does not take the reader from one world to another as might happen in a true fairy story. Instead, in a manner similar to familiar gothic tropes, such as vampirism or the existence of ghosts, it serves to (magically) deepen the reality of what has transpired. Psychologically, the blood-mark left on her forehead, ‘the heart-shaped stain’, is a reminder to the protagonist that somewhere deep within her – and countered by a strong and determined will to survive – was once a corrupt impulse of the heart that wished to be degraded and objectified by her husband; possibly even a tiny part of her that wished to die beheaded by his ancestral sword. Such dark and troubling sexual fantasies do exist, just as the wish to kill another for sexual gratification – tragically and appallingly – also exists. The ‘magic’ therefore of magic realism (and indeed of most gothic writing) is a way of heightening reality rather than overturning it by entering within the marches of another, parallel world – that of faerie – in which the reader’s normal expectations are confounded.

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