The fiction of the English writer Angela Carter (1940-92) is, first and foremost, the fiction of ideas. She is best-known for her 1979 collection of tales, The Bloody Chamber, which is often described as a series of ‘versions’ or ‘retellings’ of classic children’s fairy tales. But as Carter was quick to point out, she was actually writing new tales which revealed the latent violence – including sexual violence – of those old folk tales.
And it is in The Bloody Chamber that we find much of Carter’s best short fiction. But where should the novice begin when seeking to explore the weird and wonderful fantastical world of Carter’s fiction? Below, we introduce some of Angela Carter’s best short stories and argue why they are well worth reading.
1. ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter’.
This is the earliest Angela Carter story on this list, and was written five years before The Bloody Chamber was published – but in some ways, it prefigures the concerns of that landmark collection.
As the title indicates, the tale is about an executioner and his beautiful daughter – but the story is about a number of taboo issues which Carter’s quasi-fantastical setting allows her to explore, as it were, at one remove. The executioner has forbidden all incest in the land, so when he finds out his own son has committed incest with the daughter, he kills the son – only to commit the same crime with her himself. This unsettling tale thus raises questions about the hypocrisy of those in power and the way women are treated in society.
2. ‘The Bloody Chamber’.
The title story of Carter’s most famous collection and long enough to be called a novella, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ takes its cue from the old French folk tale of Bluebeard, the man who murdered his successive wives and kept their bodies locked up in his castle. A few years before she published The Bloody Chamber, Carter had translated Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, including Bluebeard, and her familiarity with the deeper meanings of the tale is evident in this long story.
The Bluebeard of Carter’s tale is refigured as a French Marquis, who marries a teenage bride. He has already married three times before, and sure enough, his fourth wife discovers the fates of his previous wives when she takes the forbidden key and opens his ‘bloody chamber’ while he is away on business.
3. ‘The Tiger’s Bride’.
This is one of two tales in The Bloody Chamber which take their cue from the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. In Carter’s story, ‘Beast’ is exactly what the male lead, ‘Milord’, turns out to be: a tiger disguised as a man. But there is a twist in the tale, concerning the real identity of the ‘Beauty’, too …
Carter said that this was the first story she wrote which was designed to be ‘out-and-out funny’. The story is narrated by a cat name Figaro, who helps his master to become ‘friendly’ with a young woman in the hope that the man will fall out of love with her once he’s ‘had’ her. But the story develops in an unusual direction …
Worth reading for Carter’s hilarious and accurate description of a cat licking its … well, we won’t say any more.
5. ‘The Erl-King’.
An Erlking is a woodland spirit, who in this story is not dissimilar to the Green Man of English folklore. While in the woods, a woman is seduced by the Erl-King, who turns out to be another variation on the Bluebeard figure, in the habit of collecting unfortunate brides. But Carter’s spirited heroine will find a way to secure her freedom …
6. ‘The Snow Child’.
The shortest tale in The Bloody Chamber, ‘The Snow Child’ is not even two pages long, but in a few hundred words Carter incorporates a number of elements from different snow-themed fairy tales, but its most important influence was a grisly tale collected by the Brothers Grimm which they chose not to publish.
A Count sees snow on the ground while out for a ride with his wife, and wishes for a child ‘as white as snow’ (so far, so Snow-White). He makes the same wish when he sees a hole in the snow containing a pool of blood, and a raven, whereupon a woman ‘as white as snow’ appears before him. The Count is fascinated by his wish being granted like this, and neglects the Countess – who exacts a revenge upon both of them. We won’t say what else happens, but Carter’s stories are known for being dark and for not shying away from taboo elements.
7. ‘The Lady of the House of Love’.
This is a vampire tale, and began life as a radio play, Vampirella, in 1976; Carter reworked the script into this story. The story is notable for its reversal of Carter’s usual structure: here, it is a pure and innocent young man who is seduced by the more worldly wise female character, while he is travelling through Transylvania, the home of vampires.
Ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and arguably before with the works of Sheridan Le Fanu and others, the vampire has exuded a latent (or maybe even not-so-latent) eroticism, but Carter keeps us on our toes with this story, a thoughtful exploration of men and women’s different attitudes to sexuality and virginity.
8. ‘The Company of Wolves’.
This is the second of a trio of wolf stories in The Bloody Chamber, and perhaps the most controversial because of the ways in which the adolescent Little Red Riding Hood ‘tames’ the big bad wolf until she can happily share its bed. However, the story’s feminist ‘message’ is apparent in the girl’s refusal to be anybody’s ‘meat’, and in her demonstration of agency at the story’s conclusion.
This is another werewolf story included in The Bloody Chamber. This time, the wolf is also a duke, whom the female character saves after he is shot. The story pays particular attention to the ‘disgusting’ aspects of nature which repel us for often irrational reasons.
10. ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’.
Let’s conclude this pick of Angela Carter’s best short stories with a later tale, from her 1985 collection Black Venus. In some respects, this book represents a departure from the fairy-tale worlds of The Bloody Chamber: in Black Venus, the focus is on reimagining the lives of real people from history, such as Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, both of whom were important influences on Carter’s own writing.
And ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’ is a kind of mock-biography of the nineteenth-century pioneer of both the short story and Gothic fiction, and so it’s a fitting tale to end with – but the whole of Black Venus deserves to be better-known (and read) alongside The Bloody Chamber. Carter is especially interested in the women in Poe’s life: the mother who died when Poe was only an infant, and the young bride whose early death also affected Poe greatly.