I begin reading novels with the presumption of brilliance; I begin reading short stories with the expectation of disappointment. It is for novels to fail; it is for short stories to triumph. Call me a genre-ist, call me a novel-ist (no really, call me a novelist!), call me what you will.
Angela Carter’s collection (as recommended by E. – thanks!) The Bloody Chamber does so well as a collection it more than proves its burden of brilliance. And here’s my hypothesis for why it’s so great: it sets out to be a short story collection. Most of the other collections I’ve encountered read as patchwork efforts wherein a writer realized they’d amassed enough stories to call it a collection, puzzled out some central themes, maybe did some edits, and worked on a good title. With Carter, however, it’s clear – or at least I hope this is the case – that she decided to write a collection of fucked up fairy tales and did just that. So it’s no surprise that scenes repeat, characters share characteristics, the themes – curiosity, sexuality, youth, virginity – bleed (ha! get it? Bloody chamber?) from one story to the next. My terrible pun is evidence of this too, as blood and the colour red penetrate all of the stories as characters must confront the physical body and its (mostly sexual) urges. So many deflowered virgins.
I also enjoyed Carter’s willingness to see the human as one other kind of beast caught up in a fantastical world of desire and impulse. That we often behave without reason, or more often still, counter-reason, is exploited by Carter in a number of the stories when the reader watches in car-accident-attention-horror as yet another woman falls victim (or rather, agentally victimizes herself) to yet another beastly man or manly beast.
Here’s a good example:
“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never case to mourn their own condition” (112).
Swap out “beast” and pop in “human” and you’ve got the collection covered. Well, add a bit more blood and you’d have it covered.
Each story provides an unexpected narrative point of view (I loved, for instance, the animal perspective of Puss in ‘Puss in Boots’ – at long last a non-human protagonist I enjoyed!), some twist classic fairy tales, others simply allude to them. In either case the resonances make for a disturbing read.