A reluctant vampire queen. A randy captive princess. A wolf child who finds her only friend in the mirror. You’ll find these characters and more between the unassuming French folds of Angela Carter’s classic 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber, newly released with an introduction by Kelly Link. Carter was a prolific writer until her death in 1992, but out of her film and radio scripts, poetry, and nonfiction, she is perhaps best known for her subversive fairy tales that marry the carnal with the macabre.
Carter’s feminist fairy tales go beyond facile table-turning scenarios—say, princess rescues the prince or maiden trades her magic trinkets for a law degree. Instead, her heroines—sometimes hapless, often virginal—make weighted decisions in limiting circumstances. Through no fault of their own, these women find themselves with strange men in dark forests or spooky estates with little recourse—eat or be eaten, bed or be bedded. In “The Bloody Chamber,” the title story based on Bluebeard, we can judge the 17-year-old naïf who weds a rich, middle-aged stranger—or applaud her resistance to his ultimate desire. In “The Tiger’s Wife,” we fear for the Beauty held captive by a lionesque Beast, only to discover she harbors an animalistic appetite of her own.
Perhaps even more satisfying than these brooding tales is Carter’s language. In The Bloody Chamber, she favored Gothic romanticism at a time when short fiction was marked by modernists like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. Her rich prose also situates you in a more timeless era, but it makes her bawdy wit all the more pleasurable. Take this excerpt from “The Lady of the House of Love,” which follows a deadly—and deeply lonely—bloodsucking countess: “When she was a little girl, she was like a fox and contented herself entirely with baby rabbits that squeaked piteously as she bit into their necks with a nauseated voluptuousness, with voles and field-mice that palpitated for a bare moment between her embroideress’s fingers. But now she is a woman, she must have men.”
Reading Carter, each time, was electrifying. It lit up the readerly brain and all the writerly nerves. What she was doing of course, was rewiring some very old stories. But it felt as if it were me…who was being reconfigured in some necessary way.
Link has been exploring her own rewired fairytales—and ghost stories, monster myths, and other pulpy premises—with unprecedented imagination in her short story collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters. In her latest collection alone—Get in Trouble (out this past February from Random House—you’ll find a demon lover (a washed-up Robert Pattinson–type suffering a midlife crisis), Enchantress Magic Eightball (a roleplaying teenager who finds herself alone at an NYC comics convention), a spacecraft called House of Secrets (spoiler: it’s actually a ghost story), and a drunk superhero named Biscuit.
Whereas Carter recasts fairytales from within, eschewing the well-tread trail for a more serpentine, darker path, Link rips them open and turns them inside out, then augments them with humor, magical realism, nighttime logic, pop culture, and good old-fashioned angst. All of this has garnered Link rave reviews, a Hugo award, three Nebulas, and a World Fantasy Award (not to mention considerable space on my bookshelf). But when it comes to both writers, no matter how far, far away their writing may take you, by the time you finish one of their short stories, you’ll be looking at your own reality a bit askance.
Link generously took time away from feminist sci-fi convention WisCon to speak to Bitch about Angela Carter, genre fiction, and why fairy tales continue to offer new ways of looking at the world.
KJERSTIN JOHNSON: One thing that’s not explicitly addressed in the introduction to The Bloody Chamber is Angela Carter’s feminism. Could you speak more to her work in that area or to her life in general?
KELLY LINK: I don’t know that I can speak usefully about her life, since what little I know about her comes from the introductions to her books and from a few interviews with her or articles online. My understanding is that Chatto & Windus will publish a biography of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon in 2016. It seems long overdue!
Yes, she was a feminist. From what I gather, she also enjoyed a good fight. Sometimes with other feminists! I know that her book The Sadeian Woman (published in the same year as The Bloody Chamber) annoyed and/or enraged other feminists of the time. What I can say is that clearly she was interested in the kinds of things that are often associated with women, or with the performance of the feminine: food, fashion, sexuality, dolls. She had a long-time association with the trailblazing feminist Virago Press, who were her sometime publishers.
She taught creative writing, including at Brown, where she became friends with Robert Coover. She was also close friends with Salman Rushdie, and you can see ways in which they are fellow travellers in their approaches to language and storytelling. If someone wanted to know more about Angela Carter but doesn’t feel like waiting on the biography, her literary executor Susannah Clapp wrote a small but terrific book, A Card From Angela Carter.
Why use fairy tales and gothic tropes to address issues of bodily autonomy and female empowerment?
I think that she was drawn toward fairy tales, as many writers are, because they are such useful frameworks for putting to your own purposes. Fairy tales and gothics take many of the things that realistic novels can be about, more covertly—rules, boundaries, making one’s way safely through dangerous spaces (sometimes the dark woods, sometimes the hostile domestic arrangements of one’s own family)—and make them explicit.
How does her nonfiction compare to her fiction like The Bloody Chamber? Is her prose just as piquant?
I have read as much of her nonfiction as I could find, although I read most of it years ago. Her voice is, of course, still very distinct. Her writing is always gorgeous. There’s a great collection of various essays, Nothing Sacred, where you could get a feel for her nonfiction. But I would also highly recommend the two collections of fairytales that she edited for Virago Press, or the anthology Wayward Girls and Wicked Women: An Anthology of Subversive Stories.
Where do you see Carter’s influence in pop culture today? Is there anything contemporary you could point to and say, “That’s because of Angela Carter.”
I know that The Bloody Chamber (along with the fairy tales of Tanith Lee) was an influence on two of my favorite editors, Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, who in turn launched an anthology series of fairy tales, which in turn were an inspiration for many writers of my generation. I think there’s a whole other group of writers and artists who were inspired by Neil Jordan’s movie adaptation of Carter’s “The Company of Wolves.”
If Carter was writing today, what do you think her stories would be like? How would she spend her time on the Internet? What would she enjoy watching on television?
All of this is enormous fun to speculate on, of course, but I have no idea! And I feel a certain kind of unease about speaking on her behalf about things that she never encountered. I know that she loved movies, theater, and writing for the theater. I know that she was interested in popular culture, the politics of food, clothing, identity. She was a book critic. She was also a talking head on British TV, and apparently a funny and ferocious one. So I imagine that she would have had quite strong opinions, have had interesting fights if she were on Twitter, and so on. Sometimes when I see a movie—Pan’s Labyrinth, say, or A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Only Lovers Left Alive, I wonder what she would have thought of it. I wonder if she would have written more work for the movies. I wonder what she would have made of reality television, or the Food Network.
Is there an author whose work is out of print that you would like to bring back? Whose book you would like to see republished?
Well, Dorothy, a publishing project (yes, those lowercase p’s are intentional) and New York Review of Books have both recently brought Barbara Comyns novels back into print. I would love to see someone republish Timothy and Two Witches and other children’s novels by Margaret Storey. I also love a trilogy of fantasy novels by the writer Joyce Ballou Gregorian, published in the ’80s, but my understanding is that the rights situation there is somewhat complicated. I’d love to see Robert Aickman’s ghost stories republished over here in the United States. Tachyon republished, several years ago, a selection of James Tiptree, Jr.’s short stories. But, at the moment, there’s no Selected Joanna Russ.
Recently, Simon Pegg shared his thoughts on sci-fi fans using the genre (comics, film, etc.) as escapism rather than engaging with it (or the world) on a deeper level. As a sci-fi fan and writer, what are your thoughts on the matter?
All of this seems enormously complicated to me. For one thing, Simon Pegg has gone on to say that he was taken out of context. But I do feel that this is a common complaint about genre entertainment: that it is bad for us; that it is juvenile; that it is morally simplistic or worse, it is degrading; that does not engage its audience in a way that improves or educates or challenges us.
Look, there is a lot of entertainment (books, comics, games, movies, television, etc) which functions primarily as entertainment. It doesn’t challenge our sense of the world, or our sense of self. It’s pleasurable because it maps so easily onto what we would like to think about the way that the world works, and our ideas about what kinds of people are heroes—or evil, or good, or innocent, or beautiful, etc. But I’m not sure that science fiction is more culpable than other genres, or that science fiction fans are more culpable than other kinds of communities.
I don’t like making a distinction between science fiction/fantasy and mimetic fiction (or, for that matter, between YA and adult fiction) in terms of what one can accomplish in terms of style, nuance, useful representation of interior life, or social commentary.
I’ve listened to writers of color talk about the experience of workshop, or submitting work to editors, and they were told that they had a responsibility to write realistic novels rather than science fiction or fantasy, because they had a responsibility to give a voice to their particular cultural experience. I think that it’s only relatively recently that there’s been a sense that it might possible to do all of these things, to work in popular genres, while doing serious and nuanced work, while representing one’s cultural experience. I think that we already have an idea that certain kinds of literature or stories are more valuable than others, and other kinds of stories are disposable. We also have ingrained ideas about whose stories matter. I would certainly like to see more science fiction and fantasy, more YA, more comics, more television written by GLBTA writers, writers of color, women—creators who would more accurately reflect the diverse world that we live in. Anyway, now I’ve gone way off the topic of Angela Carter.
Speaking of using sci-fi to explore larger issues, Walidah Imarisha recently wrote a piece on the genre’s potential for imagining new, just worlds—for example, a world without prisons. I’m wondering about other genre writing—do fairy tales offer any radical new ways of thinking?
Oh, man, that’s a fantastic essay. Sure. The starting place for science fiction often begins with a question: “What if…” And then you have to work out all the ramifications of the particular question you ask yourself.
The thing about fairy tales, though, is that they are neither radical nor conservative. My friend, the writer Holly Black says, “They’re all plot. You can take the plot and attach any meaning that you want to it. That’s why fairy tales are infinitely retellable and why writers come back to them as a jumping-off place. You get to decide what the story means.”