Angela Carter’s radio play ‘Vampirella’ (1976) opens with a chorus of birdsong, with doves cooing and a lark singing in the musical accompaniment of the title character’s long and sharp nails against the bars of a birdcage. The melancholic vampire asks herself, “Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song…”, only to be interrupted by the screech of a bat.
This is an apt prelude for Carter’s take on ‘Sleeping Beauty’, from fairytale romance to creepy horror story.
The idea of replay is everywhere at work in this allegory of creation where the female vampire refuses to follow the predetermined script and takes her fate in her own hands: the “new song” line is not only repeated in the radio play, but also echoed twice in slightly different circumstances (a game of tarot which always presents the same configuration of cards) in the associated short story ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, included in Angela Carter’s famous collection of “stories about fairy stories “, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979).
In the preface to ‘Come Unto these Yellout Sands’ (1978), Carter explains that she “took the script of ‘Vampirella’ as the raw material for a short story, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. It was interesting to see what would and would not work in terms of prose fiction” (p. 10).
Radio, she says, enables her “to create complex, many-layered narratives that play tricks with time. And, also, to explore ideas, although for me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms” (p. 7). She goes on to elaborate on the different possibilities opened by the two mediums as follows: “In radio, it is possible to sustain a knife-edge tension between black comedy and bizarre paths. […] This is because the rich textures of radio are capable of stating ambiguities with a dexterity over and above that of the printed word; the human voice itself imparts all manner of subtleties in its intonarions. So ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, a Gothic tale about a reluctant vampire; the radio play, ‘Vampirella’, is about vampirism as metaphor. The one is neither better nor worse than the other. Only each is quite different.”
These comments on the impact of the medium on intonations shed light on the dynamics of creation in Carter’s work, whose remarkable inventiveness derived from the interplay of her various activities as children’s author, translator, fiction writer, fairy tale scholar, editor journalist and cultural critic, as well as her continual experiments in retelling old stories — including her own — in different genres, mediums and styles.
While the term “reformulations” (p. l0) used by Carter in this passage to describe her own writing evokes the magic formulas associated with the fairytale, the ominous phrase “raw material” humorously tropes the creative process es a form of cannibalism or vampirism. It hints at the possibilities offered by unusual generic combinations (or transfusions) for transgressive retellings, but also reveals the inherent hybridity of literary genres. Indeed, as I will show below, Carter’s reworking of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ quickens to life that which remained dormant in her main source, Perrault’s ‘La Belle au Bois dormant’, and gives it new bite.
‘Vampirella’ links Gothic horror and the fairytale through the Countess, a self-loathing vampire who imagines that she is ‘Sleeping Beauty’, thereby fusing two powerful myths of femininity: the femme fatale and the belle endromid.
The leitmotif of the birdsong encapsulates the character’s melancholic musings on the curse of being born a vampire condemned to repeat her ancestors’ crimes in a language that is itself marked by repetitions:
I am compelled to the repetition of their crimes; that is my life. I exist only as a compulsion, a compulsion…
The “beautiful somnambulist” (p. 105) passes the time in a dream-like state, “an endless revery, a perpetual swooning” (p. 90), wondering whether she will be able to escape a pre-ordained fate. Then she declares “I am both the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and the enchanted castle; the princess drowses in the castle of her flesh” (p. 90), the character signals her self-estrangement in the shift from the first to the third-person as well as in her identification with the fairytale heroine and the castle in which she is confined, thereby playing on the ambiguous title of Perrault’s ‘La Belle au Bois dormant, where “dormant” (“sleeping”) qualifies the wood surrounding the castle as much as the princess herself.
Carter’s vampire stories suggest that the fairytale and Gothic fiction have in fact a lot in common, including a fascination for intermediary states, (self-)transformation and the blurring of the boundaries between the human and the non-human, as well as a constitutive generic hybridity and parodic self-consciousness. Because she deliberately draws on Gothic clichés, the countess’s self-dramatization as an embodied castle reactivates a staple feature of the genre.
The pleasant dreams of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ run into the nightmare of the living-dead condemned for all eternity to live in the castle of their flesh and feed on the blood of the living. As the countess declares to the Heroin stilted language, periodic sentences and pathetic accents:
I do not mean to hurt you, I do not want to cause you pain. But I am both beauty and the beast, locked up in the fleshy castle of exile and anguish, I cannot help but seek to assuage in you my melancholy…
The caged bird with which the female vampire identifies represents the conflict of body and soul, fate and free will, compulsion to repeat and capacity to change which is at the heart of Gothic literature. It thus captures the countess’s quandary trapped as she is in “the timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires” and the age-long tradition of vampire stories associated with her father, Count Dracula.
We remember that in Perrault’s rale, one of the gifts of the fairies to the baby Princess was the ability to sing like a nightingale (“la cinquième qutlle chanterait comme un Rossignol”). This image becomes central in Cater’s ‘Vampirella’, revolving as it does around the Countess’s aspiration to “sing her own song”. The vampires pet bird, however, is not a nightingale but a “skylark” (p. 9B).
Like Shelley’s musical and literary bird, whose heart is said to pour “profuse restrain of unpremeditated art”, the Countess longs for free expression and self-determination.
In Shelley’s poem, the bird suggests a spontaneous, natural form of poetry through song. Although, as a creature of light, joy and freedom, the skylark is opposed in many ways to Carter’s heroines, the romantic poet also likens it to a lonely maiden in a palace tower who soothes her lovelorn soul with music, not unlike ‘Sleeping Beauty’s creepy sisters ‘Vampirella’ and the ‘Lady of the House of Love’.
The leitmotif of the bird song in these vampire stories thus plays a complex and manifold role as it comments on the situation of the main character: a poor “nightbird” (p. 102) trapped in the “castle of her flesh” (p. 90) who aspires to the condition of the emblematic skylark. Enclosed in the “vast, ruined castle” (p. BB) of her ancestors, she is condemned to the endless repetition of her crimes and, on another level, to the prison-house of literary referentiality and its inescapable echoes.
By invoking romantic, lyrical poetry through the musical bird, as a symbol of the redeeming power of love and song, the Countess seeks to liberate herself from her predetermined fate and from the constraints of the Gothic genre that keeps her captive.
Even the gloomy atmosphere of the Transylvanian castle in which she lives (whose battlements evoke “broken teeth”, p. 89) is not unrelated to Perrault’s conte, when we recall that the Prince’s first impression on entering the sleeping Castle is one of horror, as it confronts him with silent images of ruin and death (“c’était un silence affreux, I’image de la mort s’y présentait partout”).
Likewise, the claustrophobic images of the body as prison can be related to the heroine’s subjective perception of her condition as a “belle endormie” condemned to passively submit to a Preordained fate and to the male gaze.
The radio play, however, relying as it does on words and sound effects, shifts the visual economy associated with the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale to the aural stimulation of imagination, since for Carter “radio always leaves that magical and enigmatic margin, that space of the invisible, which must be filled in by the imagination of the listener”.