Friday, 28 October 2016

The wolf tales in Angela Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber

This essay examines the stories The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice in Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber. A shorter version was commissioned by the British Library for its Discovering Literature archive or critical essays. If you like this you may also like my essay on Susannah Clapp's biographical account, A Card From Angela Carter.

Angela Carter’s 1979 collection of original fairytales, The Bloody Chamber, is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of 20th Century fiction. Dazzlingly varied in tone and register, this masterful collection is cavalier, lushly romantic, chilling and ferociously entertaining. It combines postmodern self-awareness with the otherworldly glamour and unashamed intensity of classic horror and fantasy fiction. 

The individual stories glance bullet-like off stock fairytales from Bluebeard (in the title story), Beauty and the Beast (in the stories The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride) and Little Red Riding Hood (in The Werewolf and The Company of Wolves) and shoot away in completely new directions which are highly inventive and intensely unnerving. Others, like The Lady of the House of Love and the last story, Wolf-Alice, explore vampire, zombie and other occult mythology. All hungrily circle and re-circle certain core themes including death, sexual attraction, survival in hard surroundings, romantic love, human sadism, human hypocrisy and the animal world, particularly animals’ innocent expression of physical hunger, threat, fear and tenderness. Throughout, the characters and their fates resist generalisation and retain their sharp otherness; they do not always comply with a sentimental reader’s desire for natural justice.

In The Bloody Chamber, Carter replaces the simplistic morality of karmic balance, in which good and evil are easy to spot and rewarded or punished accordingly, with an alluring and unsettling complexity and a stewed atmosphere of amoral seediness like a rankly sexy perfume you can’t stop smelling. She understands the value of a good cheap thrill and deploys to brilliant effect the black PVC glamour and histrionic atmosphere of Hammer Horror films, the nocturnal shocks of rural Gothic melodrama and the sordid vampiric mingling of desire and decay. Yet at the same time there is an interesting human disdain to The Bloody Chamber. The stories create an environment in which all transformations and supernatural permutations are possible; yet always the very worst motivations, actions, self-justifications, cruelty and hypocrisy come from the plain humans, not the witches and not the wolves. 

In this essay I look at the last three stories in The Bloody Chamber: The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice. All three examine with infinitesimal subtlety and distinction the psychological, physical, sociological and moral differences between humans, wolves and werewolves, the natural world and human societies, natural cycles and human pathology. 

The first story, The Werewolf, is told with abrupt, brittle relish. A short tale of not even three pages, it sketches a familiar Gothic pastoral scene in frighteningly flippant shorthand: we are in a “Northern country” of “cold weather”, “dark and smoky” interiors, “cold hearts” and “wild beasts in the forest”. Life is “harsh, brief, poor” and flowers don’t grow. The ghastly supernatural intermingles with the bleak natural: vampires are warded off with garlic, children are born with second sight. Interaction with the uncanny offers no thrill of contact but instead compounds local paranoia and misery. Human society is punitive, suspicious and credulous, its puritanical patriarchy shot through with a hypocritical sexualisation: women suspected of being witches are stripped before being stoned to death. The supernaturals seem to be having a far better time: the devil hosts witches’ bacchanals in the cemetery, which is a “bleak and touching township” where they exhume and consume corpses (a practice which comes up again in the final story, Wolf-Alice, where the perpetrator acts not with exultation but with misery). 

The linking of death and consumption, corpses and food, is made explicit when we learn that mourners leave small loaves, not bouquets, at graves. Survival, if not peace, is maintained through mutual preying and consumption: the ‘little red riding hood’ character of the young girl protagonist who walks through the forest to visit her grandmother is the daughter of a hunter. Like him, she knows how to use a knife and, like all the town’s inhabitants, she is on guard both against animal predators like wolves and against naked men who are feared not because they might be sexual attackers but because they are werewolves. Teasingly, the child is dressed as wolf-prey, in victim drag: a “scabby coat of sheepskin”. 

When a wolf does indeed attack the girl it has red eyes like the devil. However, in keeping with the sympathetic way wolves are described throughout these stories, Carter reminds us that the animals are “less brave than they seem”. It flees when the girl cuts off its paw and gives a “gulp, almost a sob”; it is “disconsolate” and “lollops off” like a cartoon character. 

Halfway through the story snow falls, obscuring the past and wiping away the first part of the narrative like a white interval curtain. The little girl arrives at her grandmother’s home and the grandmother is “like a thing possessed” - indeed, it seems she is a werewolf, the same one who attacked the girl. In an unpleasant yet aptly misanthropic twist, the neighbours come in, see a wart on the grandmother’s severed hand, have her for a witch and stone her to death. The moral: being a werewolf won’t save you from sexism.

The Werewolf is not a story about werewolves but about human meanness of spirit and the uniquely human appetite for judging others and then collectively enjoying seeing their punishment through to the death. The werewolf, meanwhile, flees when it encounters an opponent who can best it. This is not a world in which natural justice prevails but one in which whoever is left standing is the winner. The grandmother’s crime is not being a man-wolf but being a female witch and she is murdered not out of self-preservation but superstition. The social context allows no place for debating moral rights and wrongs and the story satisfies its characters while leaving the reader morally unmoored. It ends with a grim if (to us) unjust settling of the situation: the girl, apparently content with the cancelling out of both witch and werewolf threats, happily replaces her murdered grandmother, moves in and “prospered” in her house. 

The next story, The Company of Wolves, is a macabre, luxuriantly disturbing horror. It is recounted in a wordy, cheesy B-movie voiceover where every blood-curdling, spine-chilling adjective progressively makes the audience less afraid of the “carnivore incarnate”, “as cunning as he is ferocious”, who is shortly to stalk the pages like a vaudeville pirate. The story’s shifts in tone are abrupt, like a badly cut film, and the description is one of cheap magicians’ tricks which give the scenes a dazzling effect – a “diabolic phosphorescence.” As in cardboard make-do stage sets, the pine trees at the edge of the forest are a “portal” to another world. The story is soaked in panstick, limelight, fake ice and plastic sequins and told as if accompanied by a church organ playing a tune of hysterical extremity. 

Wolves are described with seductive, mesmerisingly shifting descriptions borrowing from theatre and amateur dramatics: their eyes are yellowish, reddish, unnatural green, likened to “candle flames” and “sequins”. Their howl is, again taking from stage and performance, an “aria of fear”, entertaining and beautiful even when expressing dread. Like film stars whose charisma is powerful yet hard to pin down, wolves are compared to elusive things, “shadows” and “wraiths”. In winter they are rendered “lean and famished” with “slavering jaws” and a “lolling tongue.” Carter always represents wolves sympathetically, either as great mythologised figures, as vulnerable creatures or as ordinary animals bearing the weight of humans’ projections and fears. 

By contrast the humans in this story are denuded of charm and glamour. We are lumbering, immutable, noticeable by our “smell of meat”. Humans have none of the allure of the supernatural world; they are poor, tired, hungry and threatened, the local children are “grave-eyed” – that is, both somewhat serious and somewhat dead – and live on “acrid” milk and “rank, maggoty” cheese, food which is decaying like the dead. Just like the girl in the previous story, the children carry knives for self-defence. 

Winter strikes and, like a long Halloween night, produces a bubbling-over of all the delicious horrors of the folkloric population: “all the teeming perils of the night…ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres…witches [like the one in Hansel and Gretel] that fatten their captives in cages.” This village, in which common fairytale characters and magical abilities manifest, is not a place of creativity and delight but one of isolation and vengeance. It is a place of loners like the “mad old man” religious maniac who lives in a hut and the jilted bride who, like the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty, curses the rest of her wedding. The narrator projects tragic self-awareness onto wolves, who howl to express their “misery”. The wolves are represented as romantic souls, howling “as if their hearts would break” with “inherent sadness”, “vast melancholy”, “despair” and “ghastly sadness” “as if demented or deranged”, a revenant product of “the longest night.” All of these are of course human delusions, the sickest of which is the perversity of asserting that a wolf is so disgusted by itself that it wants to be killed and “half welcomes” it due to “his” own “irremediable appetites”. This reasoning is a hint of what is to come and indeed what features frequently in all the stories in this collection: sadistic humans’ justification for their own violence, the projection of their own sadism onto innocent others and the themes of masochism, shaming, judgement and punishment meted out to undeserving targets. 

Apparently, the plain wolf is the “worst” of all the diabolical characters in the village, the narrator tells us – worse even than a human who tricks, kidnaps and murders children. The narrator in the story is not neutral or the voice of reason, but instead employs illogical exaggeration to reflect “our village” and its hysteria about wolves. Human motives are imputed to wolves in the description of the animals as cunning and “unkind”, when unkindness is a jarringly human trait. The hunter who traps a wolf does to it what no wolf would ever do to an animal it killed: he cuts off its head and paws “as a trophy”, to exult in his act, only to see it turn into a man. 

As ever, the worst beasts a girl could encounter in the forest are men. The Company of Wolves features an anecdote thrown in early, almost as an aside, in which a woman marries a young man who flees to the forest and turns into a wolf. The woman remarries and has a son. The first husband returns, sees that his wife has slept with another man, calls her a “whore” and attacks her son. He turns back into a wolf, is murdered by the second husband and turns back into a man. When the woman sees his corpse and cries over it, the second husband beats her. Wolf man or full man, these husbands are exactly the same in their abuse of women, attacking their wife or her son to punish and hurt her. Just as in The Werewolf, in an environment in which all things are apparently possible, a woman still cannot escape patriarchal judgement and male violence. 

As in The Werewolf a seasonal change – there a snowfall, here the winter solstice – ushers in the next act in the story. As the narrator says, with lugubrious self-awareness, the solstice is a “hinge” which lets in new narrative possibilities and thins the line between the mortal world and the supernatural world, enabling a time when “things do not fit together as well as they should.” The winter solstice is the night on which to practice dark magic, a portal to the occult. Later on in this creepy story the same image is used again, but even more ominously dishevelled: “the malign door of the solstice still swings upon its hinges” like a gate to the underworld. 

The second part of the story looks at the set-up of the story of Little Red Riding Hood again, just as the tale of Beauty and the Beast is examined twice in the collection. Once again a “strong-minded child” sets off to visit her grandmother. Unlike the hard and wary girl in the previous story, this one is blithe and confident, “quite sure the wild beasts cannot harm her”. Whereas in the previous story, the child’s strength is a product of a tough life in which survival skills have been learnt by necessity, the child in this story has very different roots. Her strength comes from the sense of inner protection provided by happiness and emotional security: “she has been too much loved ever to feel scared.” Her innocence is her arrogance is her shield. Her virginity, she thinks, conveys a psychic protection like a spell, an “invisible pentacle”, “a magic space” which makes her “afraid of nothing.” The forest is “like a pair of jaws” yet such is her sense of being cared for by a benign world that these jaws do not eat her up but hold her protectively like Jonah inside the whale. 

The previous little girl wore an ironic sheepskin even though she was the perpetrator, not the victim. The girl in this story is a victim who thinks she’s a protagonist, an object who thinks she’s an agent. Her delusion is obvious in her red shawl, a brazenly confident colour which is (just to state the subtext clearly) “ominous but brilliant” and likened to blood on snow – an allusion to another story in the collection, The Snow Child, which focuses on a father’s apparent “love” for his daughter, which is expressed through sleazy objectification and rape. A theme throughout the collection is the sick narrative that perpetrators tell themselves (and their victims) to erase their abuse through the perverse blurring of right and wrong, decency and abuse, love and hate, erotics and violation, coercion and choice.

In many ways The Company of Wolves is a classic portrait of a sociopathic abuser. The girl who is on her way to visit her grandmother meets a man in the woods. He is not a wolf, nor is he a naked man-wolf. He is, instead, ordinarily human, clothed, charming and jovial. He does not look like a monster and his manner is “comic yet flattering.” The girl falls for it immediately and unquestioningly, giving him her basket with its weapon inside it. She also falls for his trick – a wager that he can get to her grandmother’s house first, and if she loses she has to kiss him – because she wants to lose to him and have a kiss. She overlooks the signs of his violence: his rifle, his flashing wet teeth, the dead birds he’s carrying.

Like all abusive men who get away with it, the man’s first skill is one of impersonation: he is adept at pretending to be good. He tricks his way into the grandmother’s house by pretending to be the granddaughter. He murders her, then tricks the girl into coming in by pretending to be the grandmother. He is not a werewolf at all but simply a man who, he says, “loves the company of wolves”. Like everyone else in the stories, he projects his own foibles onto them and then ‘identifies’ with this delusion to justify himself. Wolves, after all, do not deceive, manipulate, trick, torture or violate for fun. 

There is a horrible murder scene that is redolent or triggering of rape. The man strips naked to attack the elderly woman on the bed. The blatantly sexualised attack is only completed “when he had finished with her” and she is obliterated, utterly objectified and stripped of every human identifier. She not even referred to as “she” – only “the inedible hair” and “the bones”. Like the other human hunters in the collection he keeps a trophy to exult over his kill – the grandmother’s nightcap – and sits “patiently, deceitfully” for his next victim, concealing the “tell-tale stained” sheets, again a grotesque image of a sexual attack. 

As in all patriarchal societies a young woman is considered more attractive than an older woman and while the man can murder and consume an old woman if he chooses to, only “immaculate flesh [really] appeases him”. In a sharply sick twist – so common in this collection and part of its unnerving genius – the young girl on her way is a willing martyr to his abuse. She is that classic of the horror genre, the white-clad virgin sacrifice. Her innocence is no protection, it turns out; her feeling of being within a near-magical psychic shield was pure naivety, evidently. Her emotional wholeness now looks like the arrogance of ignorance. Yet luckily for them both, she is a masochist, infected by the classic women’s fantasy of subduing and changing an abusive man. 

Or is she? Angela Carter skilfully and devastatingly presses hard on the disturbing line between fear and submission, choice and force, humiliation and annihilation, self-sacrifice and self-preservation. There is a full-blown true horror moment when the young woman sees a “tuft of white hair” belonging to her murdered grandmother and realises clearly that “she was in danger of death.” She then gives herself to him apparently “freely” “to save her own life” because she “knows she was nobody’s meat” – overlooking the obvious riposte that if one offers oneself to save one’s own life, it is hardly a free choice. Unlike the wolf-stabbing girl-assassin of the previous story, she knows “the blood she must spill” is her own or she won’t survive. At the heart of this story is the hideous coercion that needs no violence, as the girl already knows what the “tender wolf” is capable of. Like many perpetrators the man himself gloats in his abuse and its horrific parody of lovers’ intimacy, crooning skin-crawlingly, “dear one”, “my pet” and “my darling”.

The story presents a young woman who rewrites her entrapment and sexual assault as a glorious rite in which she “never flinched”. The now-phlegmatic narrator describes her with pity and irony as a “wise child” who sleeps “sweet and sound” between a wolf’s paws. Her fantasy is to “pick out the lice from his pelt” and eat them “as he will bid her.” Being locked in a room with her grandmother’s murderer becomes an opportunity for sexual self-realisation, apparently, in which victim and perpetrator share the same misogyny and sexist ageism and get off on it – “the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.” Incidentally, there is an unpleasant misogynist ageism that runs through all of the stories: the stock character of the “old woman” as comically disposable collateral damage, murdered by man, beast or man-beast and then replaced by satisfied young women. The stories are fixated on young, in some cases barely pubescent, women’s self-fulfilment and self-realisation. 

The Company of Wolves is a horror tale about a trapped, abused girl who goes to her fate with a resignation she rewrites as acceptance. “Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid”; she behaves with the nihilistic bravado of the damned. It is a lingeringly disturbing depiction of female hopelessness in which a victim who serves herself up to an abusive man is somehow brave and her complete abandonment to debasement is a kind of greatness of spirit. 

There is a return to the full-blown theatricality of the opening of the story as the girl’s ‘submission’ plays out, a terrible climaxing high pitch of tragic choral sound and midnight mass-like light. Wolves howl outside the door like a choir in lament and their eyes “shone like a hundred candles” just like, in the other stories, candles surround the biers, coffins and catafalques of dead or undead women. Sex, murder, sacrifice, submission and rape melt into each other in horror with an appropriately hammy soundtrack of howling, creaking hinges and fierce strings; the wolves’ noise is expressed in a rococo laying-on of descriptions as a threnody, a Liebestod (a death-lament), a clamour and a prothalamion. In a brilliant, haunting phrase the winter solstice permits the mingling of all things. Man, beast, predator, rapist, sadist, masochist, murderer, victim, virgin, sacrifice, martyr, consecration, corpse, seduction, violation, abuse, desire are all conflated sordidly together in an ambiguous and disturbing ooze as “the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through.”

The final work, Wolf-Alice, is a sorrowful and sweet story about a young woman who has genuinely grown up with wolves, rather than incorrectly claiming some affinity with them as a way to justify personal abusiveness, as the murderer in The Company of Wolves does. Wolf Alice is a young girl who has been raised tenderly by wolves after being abandoned by her mother. Just like the girl in the previous story, her confidence and certainty are the result of having been loved when she was growing up. Her encounter with the world of human values and practices is a lowering one. 

Wolf-Alice celebrates nature’s innocence, earthiness and tenderness. Its central character is simple but not stupid and the story’s narrative tone is one of terrible bathos and sympathy for this human foundling who, not being a wolf herself and not having been socialised around humans, is mute, with no human language of her own. She is described as a “pup”, “lonely” and adorable, making a “bubbling, delicious” sound. Wolves are not enemies to be feared but her “foster kindred” – an adoptive family related to her through love, not blood. Their significance for her is not predatory but maternal and protective, nourishing – they have “suckled” her and when she is apart from them they howl across “an irreparable gulf of absence”, the world “irreparable” hinting at a wholeness that has been permanently broken. 

Wolf-Alice presents a new and liberated female physical standard which is very different from the delicate human martyr-beauties in all the other stories. Wolf Alice’s skin is callused because of her enhanced speed which is “not our pace”, she “trots or gallops” on “long, lean and muscular limbs”, her nose is long and sensitive – a “useful tool” which makes her enviably competent. An embrace of the animal self requires a radical change in psychology and a rejection of the human valuing of sight, female beauty and female appearance; in the animal world it is better to smell interesting than to look pretty. 

Alice’s wolf upbringing enables her to flout the rules of human femininity and the warnings given to women, in particular the standard fairytale admonition that young girls should not venture into the forest alone. In fact the forest is Alice’s domain, the safe space in which to “wander when she can”, where nothing is off limits. She is “wild, impatient of restraint, capricious” – all the things a nice young lady is not supposed to be. She does not exist to react to events but “lengthily investigates” whatever intrigues her senses in the moment. 

Carter reminds us in this closing story, as she has hinted throughout, that it is dangerous to anthropomorphise animals, that they do not mythologise us in turn and that humans and animals are distinct from each other: “her pace is not our pace”, “her nose is sharper…than our eyes”, “she spend her first days amongst us”. Yet Carter also makes a seemingly contradictory case for socialisation and nurture rather than nature: Alice is ‘really’ an animal although she is technically a human. She is not pushed and pulled by masochistic or sadistic human desires but lives in a perpetual present, “without hope” and also without desire. In an inversion of The Tiger’s Bride, in which a tiger husband licks off his bride’s skin to reveal a beautiful animal pelt, Alice’s tragedy is that although she is ‘really’ an animal, to the outside world she is a young woman and will be treated as such. “It is as if the fur she thought she wore had melted into her skin” – a warning that she is about to be disabused through her contact with the human world. 

Humans bring pain, persecution and misery. It was “peasants’ shotguns” that killed her adoptive wolf-mother and humans who “tied her [Alice] up by force”. She is taken in by nuns who poke her with sticks “to rouse her”. It is at the hands of the nuns that she learns bodily shame, hygiene and embarrassment. Her stay is a “mutilation” of her real nature - that is, an unnatural wounding of it. While in the natural world her howls are “a language as authentic as any language of nature”, in the human world her voice is only “a rustle of sound”, a “whisper” that is “obscure”. Literally and socially, Alice has no voice; she is a nobody. In the non-individualistic animal world this would be good and normal. In the human world it makes her subject to the power of others, it ensures her captivity and exploitation. The wolves looked after her because they thought she was an “imperfect wolf”; humans mistreat her because she is an imperfect woman – they are motivated not by protectiveness but “fear”, denial and self-hate because she represents “what we might have been.” Instead of being inspired and changed by the possibilities Alice presents, human society tries to change her to fits its template and, when that fails, pushes her out of sight. 

As in many of the other stories in this collection – The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, the Erl King, Puss in Boots and The Tiger’s Bride – an innocent young woman finds herself isolated in a rich man’s home. Yet unlike the ‘ladies’ in the other stories, who do not realise until it’s too late, Alice knows that “beds [particularly marital beds] are traps”.

Alice is parcelled off to a Duke’s castle, where she is used as a servant. The castle is a place of exile, an alien territory in which anything can happen, yet in this last tale Carter eschews the sexual chemistry and predictably genre-faithful sado-masochistic emotional pull of previous stories. The Duke is not a love interest, a tormentor, a counterpart or a nemesis. He is strange, and Alice is strange, but they’re strange in different ways which do not impinge upon each other. Alice does not become the lady of the house but instead behaves with a highly refreshing lack of human narcissism and taught femininity, like a stray dog, sleeping in the hearth and using ball gowns as sheets to roll about on. Unlike ladies taught to narcissistically watch themselves in the mirror at all times, she does not recognise her own reflection. Indeed the mirror is, as it is for all women in the human world, an “invisible cage”. 

Meanwhile, just like the horrible supernatural creatures in The Werewolf, the Duke is cast as an ancient Nosferatu figure, undead but alive, jaded, “damned”, arrogant, shrivelled, “meagre” and unhappy. He haunts graveyards like a zombie, goes about only at night like a vampire, casts no reflection like a vampire and eats corpses like a cannibal. Like an animal, his skin is described as a “pelt” and like a werewolf he responds to the full moon as if it compels him – a ray of moonlight is like “an imperative finger” from a “governess”. Like a ghost he makes animals nervous and like any predator humans’ doors are “barred [to him] for miles”.

Wolf-Alice charts women’s evolution writ small. Left to her own devices in the castle, Alice learns about time through matching her menstrual cycle to the moon’s cycle; from the mirror she becomes self-conscious, individualistic; she becomes the centre of her own narrative and sees herself standing out from nature rather than merging with it. Her expression becomes one of “sombre clarity”, it is “veiled, introspective”. She discovers vanity when she puts on the white dress of a young bride the Duke has devoured and notices that she “shines” in it. To book readers and film watchers she resembles the classic young female martyr of horror films in this dress. Out in the graveyard one night she also resembles a figure from supernatural mythology to the townspeople within the story: they think she is the ghost of the dead bride fulfilling another generic narrative – that of posthumous revenge – against the vampire-zombie-cannibal-werewolf Duke. 

Wolf-Alice turns into a non-carnal, non-romantic story of animal comfort, in which the wolverine tenderness Alice has known enables her to ‘save’ the Duke, who is lying injured in his bed. In an echo of the ending of The Tiger’s Bride, Alice licks the Duke’s face like a dog consoling its master. As she does so, the Duke’s reflection slowly appears in the mirror. After so much high drama, horror and thrills both cheap and chilling, Carter’s masterpiece of fiction closes with a celebration of sensuality, tenderness and warmth which comes from the innocent natural world, far from the perverse eroticism, flashing glamour, gender politics and scheming sexual power-plays of humans.

If you like this you may also like my essay on Susannah Clapp's biographical account, A Card From Angela Carter.