penguins

penguin bloody chamber coverSome Penguin Classics come in packages that are ridiculously enticing, and the foremost current example of this has to be the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Angela Carter’s 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber, which here gets an absolutely stunning paperback designed by Lynn Buckley and illustrated in leering, lapel-grabbing black-and-white by Alex Konahin. Here on the 75th anniversary of Carter’s birth, The Bloody Chamber, a book that’s had a long history of gorgeous book-designs, gets what might be its best one yet.

The hosting duties are taken up this time around by Magic for Beginners author Kelly Link, who reveals in her Introduction that The Bloody Chamber is for her one of those books:

I do know that since I first came across The Bloody Chamber, I have kept a copy with me wherever I have been living. I keep extra copies in the cupboard where we stockpile books that I can then, extravagantly, give away to whoever seems most in need of them.

I fancy that most readers have one or two of those books, the ones you buy whenever you see them, specifically so you always have copies on hand to give to people who haven’t read them, to press on those people like a Gideon Bible. I certainly have one of two of those books, the kind of book you love so much and so badly want people to read that you feel you’ve failed somehow if you aren’t able to put a physical copy in their hands the moment you recommend it. The Bloody Chamber has never been one of those books for me, but there’s something extra comforting in knowing it’s introduced here by somebody who loves it that way.

Certainly the open enthusiasm of the Introduction served to propel me into my first keyholere-reading of the book itself in probably thirty years (God only knows what happened to the cheesy old mass market I used to have), and I was instantly caught up again in Carter’s hyper-lavish use of language – and by the theme that throbs so close to the surface in all ten of these stories, the great murmur of longing that unifies these separate parts. The Bloody Chamber‘s stories are pastiches of well-known fairy tales and folk tales like Beauty and the Beast or Puss-in-Boots, but at their heart they contain the kind of profound psychological displacement that belongs purely to the 20th Century. In the title story, for instance, we watch a recently-married young countess as she boards a train with her new husband, going “into marriage, into exile”:

The train slowed, shuddered to a halt. Lights; clank of metal; a voice declaring the name of an unknown, never-to-be-visited station; silence of the night; the rhythm of his breathing, that I should sleep with, now, for the rest of my life. And I could not sleep. I stealthily sat up, raised the blind a little and huddled against the cold window that misted over with the warmth of my breathing, gazing out a the dark platform towards those rectangles of domestic lamplight that promised warmth, company, a supper of sausages hissing in a pan on the stove for the station master, his children tucked up in bed asleep in the brick house with the painted shutters … all the paraphernalia of the everyday world from which I, with my stunning marriage, had exiled myself.

That’s so quintessentially Carter, that detail about poetically doomed characters catching glimpses – through warmly-lit windows – into pleasant, settled worlds they will never know. If anything, that detail is heightened in Link’s favorite – and mine – among these tales, “The Lady of the House of Love,” a vampire story in which, according to Link, we’re shown that it’s possible “to blend together in one story the gothic, the comic, the camp, and the cataclysmic.” The vampire Countess in that story hates her supernatural nature even as she yields to it:

On moonless nights, her keeper lets her out into the garden. This garden, an exceedingly sombre place, bears a strong resemblance to a burial ground and all the roses her dead mother planted have grown up into a huge, spiked wall that incarcerates her in the castle of her inheritance. When the back door opens, the Countess will sniff the air and howl. She drops, now, on all fours. Crouching, quivering, she catches the scent of her prey. Delicious crunch of the fragile bones of rabbits and small, furry things she pursues with fleet, four-footed speed; she will creep home, whimpering, with blood smeared on her cheeks. She pours water from the ewer in her bedroom into the bowl, she washes her face with the wincing, fastidious gestures of a cat.

Into her world, briefly, comes that same sunlit glimpse of another, this time in the lucy and the bloody chamberform of a young officer, “blond, blue-eyed, heavy-muscled, visiting friends in Vienna,” but he’s only a glimpse – he’s gone again almost before she can register all the things he might have been.

I found the book effortlessly better and more beautiful than I remembered from the earlier reading a lifetime ago, and this sturdy new paperback only enhanced the pleasure. The front inside flap shows an ornate key, and the back inside flap shows an elaborate keyhole. Even if you’ve read The Bloody Chamber before – and especially if you haven’t – take the proffered invitation: turn the key, and enter.

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