Have you ever read original versions of Little Red Riding Hood or the Little Mermaid? Depressing, twisted stuff, full of deep symbolism and quite grown-up themes. Most of the stories, Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm alike, got cleaned up considerably for your bedtime version.
But there’s been a recent trend of re-tellings of these tales for an adult audience. The Myths (published by Grove Atlantic in the US) has recruited superstar authors including Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman and Ali Smith to re-imagine both classic and little-known folk tales. I’m excited to read a 2010 collection edited by Kate Bernheimer called My mother she killed me, my father he ate me which includes forty riffs on traditional tales.
The real allure in these updated versions of childhood classics is the experience of uncovering the stories’ dysfunction, repression and eroticism. Angela Carter, in her 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, peels back layers of meaning on these stories. In her words, the collection was “to extract the latent content from the original stories.”
Carter’s best story I think is the first one – a version of the Bluebeard myth called “The Bloody Chamber.” In it, an innocent young pianist meets and marries a phenomenally rich man, who then takes her to his magnificent estate. She is given control of the entire castle, except for one room. Even as the reader expects every turn, the narrator’s slow realization of her predicament makes the story sing again.
“The Lady on the House of Love” is apparently based on a radio play called “Vampirella,” but the Gothic decay is familiar to any horror fan. A young woman lives in a decaying castle in Romania, keeping herself alive by feeding on the blood of the occasional male houseguest. A young, virginal Englishman on a bike tour stops by, and manages to vanquish her festering existence through his human vitality.
It’s a slim collection, but each tale fulfills a treacherous balance between the familiar and the creepy. I’ll give it my highest honor, which is the desire to actually own the book so I can come back to it, again and again.