On the back of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, an endorsement from Jonathan Lethem compares Aimee Bender to Angela Carter. I had never heard of her, but I loved Bender’s debut collection and I’ve been known to enjoy a Lethem novel or two, so I promptly put The Bloody Chamber on hold at the library. A month or two later, it came.
First of all, I just have to say, this work has nothing in common with Aimee Bender’s aside from a faint leaning toward the fantastical. While Bender’s prose is spare and modern with little ironic flourishes, Carter’s is rich and Baroque. Complex, mythic, layered. Her stories have the heavy overtones of sex and magic inherent in the traditional fairy tale, while Bender’s surreal tales dryly juxtapose elements of the fantastic with the mundane. These dense, lyrical stories are far more comparable to the work of Francesca Lia Block than that of Aimee Bender. However, while the Lethem’s comment proved patently untrue (maybe it allies more closely with her novels? or was recommended by a publicist?), I did greatly enjoy Carter’s collection.
The Bloody Chamber includes ten stories based, with varying degrees of fidelity, on popular fairy tales–Blue Beard (the title story), two takes on Beauty and the Beast, and three versions of Little Red Riding Hood, as well as Puss in Boots, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and, somewhat less well known in the United States, the Erlking. The stories are structurally simple and stylistically lush, dense with repeated images of caged birds, flowers, blood, and beasts.
The tales are mostly set in the years leading up to World War I, in a Europe in which horse-drawn carriages and automobiles mingle on the roads and the contradictory systems of magic and logic agitate on one another’s boarders. The setting is more driven by atmosphere than any afinity for or loyalty to the past. Carter has created a neo-gothic world of secluded mansions and forests primaeval, a close cousin to Du Maurier’s Cornwall. In keeping with the collection’s 1979 publication date, however, the stories have a distinctly second wave feminist sensibility and explore issues of female sexuality and power, examining the limitations and restraints of femininity and offering surprising glimpses of strength and transcendence.