In 1979, two years after translating a selection of Perrault's fairytales, Carter published The Bloody Chamber, a series of "revisionings" of some of the best-known fairytales, including Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast.
The book is a supremely well-achieved critique and reformulation of stories that have been shaped by our society, and which shape it in turn. In the 1970s, myth and folklore was coming under fresh scrutiny in numerous ways – Bruno Bettelheim's Freudian reading in The Uses of Enchantment, Ann Sexton's poetry cycle Transformations, the incisive critiques of Jack Zipes – but nowhere is the strange, warped power of the originals harnessed so strikingly as in Carter's work....
Alongside these inversions are stories in which the hidden content of fairytales is made explicit.
Most indelible of these is The Fall River Axe Murders (1987), her study of the allegedly murderous New England spinster Lizzie Borden. Here, the discord between Carter's forensic tone and fairytale details – a wicked stepmother who "oppressed her like a spell'; the detail that virginal Lizzie is menstruating on the day of the murders; talk of slaughtered pet pigeons baked in a pie – instils a heavy, malign tension. Carter, wickedly and perfectly, breaks off her account moments before chaos is unleashed, the story left like a blood blister about to burst.
|Emma & Lizzie Borden|
No wonder Carter was so attracted to this case.
A mythology has built up around this gory story - childhood games and rhymes have been penned, movies made, history rewritten numerous times - it's a fairy tale just waiting to be.
No-one will ever know the truth, but Carter extracted her own truth - a universal truth - the consequences of a repressed, loveless life.
What the girls do when they are on their own is unimaginable to me.