In an abandoned village in Transylvania, Romania, is an old chateau, and in it lives a Countess, the “beautiful queen of vampires.” She is a young girl in an old wedding dress, and she cannot help her bloodthirsty desires, though she hates them. She spends her hours laying out Tarot cards and reading her own inevitable fate, or else strumming the bars of her pet lark’s cage. The house is dark, overgrown, and haunted by ghosts.
The scene now turns to Romania (first referenced by the “Romanian Countess” the Marquis had married in "The Bloody Chamber") and a kind of “bestiality” that involves a more traditional monster – a vampire. This time it is the heroine who is the monster. She is still young and virginal, but not innocent, as she must murder to live.
The Countess is inhumanly beautiful, with long sharp fingernails and teeth. She is a descendant of Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania. Every night she lays out the Tarot cards, wishing she was human, but her fate is always otherwise. She is attended to by a mute old governess who keeps her away from the sun and mirrors, and lets her out at night to feed on creatures in the garden. If a traveler ever comes through the village square and stops at the fountain to drink, the governess kindly invites him in.
This story is based on many old legends of vampires in Transylvania, Romania, and Vlad the Impaler, a famously cruel ruler in ancient times. The “House of Love” of the title is a reference to the Tarot cards. For all her long life, the Countess has only lived out her inescapable fate of death and murder – she is “the beast,” longing to become human.
The Countess wishes she could keep the rabbits from the garden as pets, but her hunger always overcomes her. In the same way she cannot resist killing the boys the governess brings her, after she serves them coffee and leads them to her bedroom. The governess then buries the remains in the garden.
Carter reverses the gender roles as the heroine is now the one with all the power – men are objects for her, literally food for her desires. Sexuality is again associated with violence as the Countess kills the young men in her bedroom, the “bloody chamber” where they think they are going to have sex.
One summer a young British soldier decides to travel through Romania on his bicycle, thinking humorously of “the land of vampires.” He has “the special quality of virginity,” and he is very much a historical person – part of the generation that will later die in World War I – but he is about to meet the “timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires.” He is supremely rational, as shown by his choice of a bicycle, which seems like a machine totally opposed to superstition.
The virginal hero is a man in this case. Carter moves from a vague, fairy-tale Europe to a literal time and place, dealing with the confrontation between modernity and ancient superstition. This is in a way a reference to her own project of finding both the myth in modern subjects and the modernity in ancient fairy tales.
Meanwhile the Countess lays out her Tarot cards, and for the first time ever she gets a fate involving love. The young soldier comes to the ominously abandoned village and drinks from the fountain. Then the governess appears, dressed neatly and smiling. She beckons the young man to follow her. As he leaves the village he is overcome by the strong scent of roses. They are everywhere, and “obscene in their excess.”
The Countess gets the “House of Love” for the first time and fears what kind of “metamorphosis” this means for her, as the only kind of consummation she knows is murder. The roses here become a symbol of that gothic, superstitious world and the corrupted sexuality of the Countess’s bloody bedroom.
The governess leads the young man to the mansion. He is momentarily frightened by its dramatic and foreboding appearance, but he follows the governess inside. She takes away his bicycle and he feels his “symbol of rationality” is gone. He steps into the castle of evil, but he is unknowingly protected by the “pentacle of his virginity.” The governess leads him to a room where a meal is set for one person only, and he bemusedly eats and drinks.
Carter describes virginity as a “pentacle,” a kind of magic sign that protects the young man and gives him a special power – the power of potential. He feels himself being drawn from the “real,” historical world and into the gothic, fairy-tale world of the Countess and most of Carter’s monsters.
After dinner the governess leads the young man to another room, and he assumes he is about to meet the house’s wealthy owner for coffee. They pass through some crumbling, dilapidated rooms with frightening family portraits in them and then come to a door. The governess knocks and then sends the young man in. The room is very dark, but eventually his eyes adjust and he sees the Countess, a pale young girl wearing an old-fashioned wedding dress. He is struck by her extreme beauty and unhealthy appearance.
This is another picture of a decaying, extravagant mansion. By now the many mansions of the many “beasts” begin to blend together, so that the beasts and their wealth all seem different incarnations of a single character. The Countess is also a virgin, dressed in white like an innocent bride, but she is a corruption of that innocence – half-virgin, half-monster.
The governess raises a light to the young man’s face, and at the sight of him the Countess cries out, knocking her Tarot cards to the floor. The governess gives her a pair of dark glasses to put on. The young man picks the cards up off the rotting carpet, noting how morbid they are for such a young girl. The Countess seems to recover when he touches her hand, and she makes some coffee for the young man. The governess leaves the room.
Just like in the Beauty and the Beast tales of "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride", the Countess and the young man inhabit two different worlds (she a world of magic and murder, he of rationality and humanity), and their encounter, which is associated with love and sexuality as usual, requires some sort of metamorphosis.
The young man notices that the bestial portraits on the walls resemble the young girl. The Countess serves him the coffee and tells him how lonely she is in her chateau, and that it is so dark because she has an “affliction of the eyes.” She seems like a doll or an “ingenious piece of clockwork” to the man as she speaks. The Countess has an inner dialogue where she thinks of the young man as her long-awaited bridegroom, and prepares to drink his blood, but externally she keeps chattering in French.
The Countess is here associated with the automaton maid of “The Tiger’s Bride.” The Countess, though powerful and immortal, is still an object helpless against her inner “clockwork” – her fate to murder and drink blood. The Countess wants to become a human, but she is helpless against her “bestial” desires, like a Marquis made more sympathetic.
Meanwhile the young man begins to realize the truth about this horrible castle, but he is still protected by his virginity and “lack of imagination.” Later he will be afraid during the war, but he is not afraid now. The Countess wants “consummation” but the only kind she knows is death, and she grows hungry. She imagines what will happen next: she will lead the soldier to her bedroom and he will bleed on her “inverted marriage bed.” Then he will be buried under her roses, feeding their rich color and scent.
Carter steps back and references the horrors of war, which are in a way more terrible than the horrors of vampires because they come from the “beast” within every person. The bedroom is the bloody chamber now, where the “bridegrooms” bleed as they lose their “virginity.” The Countess would like to actually have sex, but the only kind of “consummation” she knows is murder.
The Countess leads the young man to her bedroom, and at its morbid appearance he thinks of a story he heard about a necrophiliac brothel. The Countess starts to shake and cry, upsetting her usual ritual of disrobing and murdering. She drops her dark glasses and they break, and when she tries to pick up the splinters she cuts her thumb. It is the first time she has seen her own blood.
This story follows “The Snow Child” in its suggestions of necrophilia, the ultimate combination of sex and violence. The motif of a pricked finger returns, and like the snow child it will mean the Countess’s death. The Countess has her usual “ritual” of taking off her clothes – revealing her true identity – and then killing.
The young man goes to her and kisses her bleeding finger, and then he falls asleep or into a trance as the Countess feels the “pain of becoming human.” When the young man wakes up it is morning, and all the curtains are open and the caged lark is free and sitting on the windowsill. The Countess seems to have disappeared, leaving only a dress spotted with blood and a rose. The young man tosses the lark from the window and watches it fly away.
The metamorphosis in this story again comes about because of a kiss, but part of the Countess becoming a human means being able to die. The caged lark being freed recalls “The Erl-King,” and suggests that the Countess is at last freed from her fate as a murderous automaton. The spot of blood on the white dress recalls menstruation or the loss of virginity.
The young man goes back to the room where he had his coffee, planning on taking the Countess to a doctor, but then he sees her sitting dead at her table, slumped over the Tarot cards. She is holding a last rose for him, and he takes it. The governess then appears and sends the young man away, and he finds his bicycle and rides to Bucharest.
The rose is all that remains of the Countess’s world of bloody magic. Her gift of the rose suggests that she gave up her purity for the hero, as if he took her virginity. Again a (violent) metamorphosis of self is associated with sexuality.
The young man gets a call to join his regiment and he leaves Romania. Later he discovers he still has the Countess’s rose in his jacket, and that it isn’t dead yet. Remembering the girl’s “unexpected and pathetic” death, he puts the rose into some water. When he returns to his room later, the rose has grown huge and red again, giving off a potent odor. The next day the soldier’s regiment marches off to war.
The hero now returns to his world, where the monsters are all humans. Yet the gothic and mythical lives on even in the world of bombs and trenches – as these ancient tales are still relevant and potent in Carter’s hands.