Fitcher’s Brides by Gregory Frost
I was very taken with Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost so I tracked down two of his other books to see whether there was early promise. The first off the shelf was Fitcher’s Brides which is one of a series in which authors were invited to reinvent traditional fairy stories for the modern adult audience.
The world is rarely straightforward. We are forever caught up in social difficulties that require judgement if we are to avoid injury to ourselves or others. When we bring disaster on ourselves, it becomes a test of character to see whether we can emerge with any dignity or integrity. When we are victimised, the challenge is different. There is a natural tendency for others to sympathise. We have all been there at one time or another. We are all rooting for survival and, where appropriate, retribution for the victimiser. The underlying fairy story versions of Bluebeard’s Wives plot the lives of women caught up in the patriarchal system of marriage. It’s all very well for the vows to talk about the relationship being “for better, for worse” when the women were often not given a great deal of choice. The tendency was to marry them off to consolidate family property interests. This left many wives at risk of abusive husbands. Whether there ever was an explicit law based on the “rule of thumb” permitting husbands to beat their wives, there can be no doubt that many husbands have beaten and murdered their wives over the centuries. It’s therefore not surprising that such bloodthirsty men and their victims should have been captured in fairy stories for adults.
I admit to allowing myself to make a mistake. Terri Windling kicks off the proceedings with a nineteen page introduction. It summarises the concept behind the series and then indicates the history of the Bluebeard stories, cataloguing the different versions through the ages. It’s a very interesting read, but it gave me a number of very specific expectations about the novel and I found myself running a checklist as Frost either hit the mark of previous stories or was innovative. Upon reflection, it would have been better if I had read the book without any preconceptions.
The vehicle for the novel is a scaled down version of Millerism. In the period leading up to 1843/4, William Miller led an increasingly powerful national movement in the US (with some interest from the UK) predicting the end of the world in the Second Coming. When the world did not end as predicted on the 22nd October, 1844, there was great disappointment from the Millerites. The rest of the world went on believing they were all nuts. So, Frost has Elias Fitcher leading the faithful to Harbinger, a community buried in the wilds of New York State, where they will all be saved in the Ark of the Covenant. As a fictionalised version of the muted hysteria of the times, the book is highly effective, juxtaposing the faithful who are battening down the hatches for survival against the local townsfolk who are simply relieved that these strangers pass through without causing too much trouble. Had the novel remained a historically accurate depiction of the hysteria and deluded thinking of the Fitcherites, I feel it would have been rather better. In such a community, the charismatic leader could take any number of women as his brides and no-one would question him. That he might test his wives, invoking Eve’s failure to resist the temptation offered by the serpent, would give the whole narrative a ghastly inevitability as each wife fails the test and is slaughtered as unfit to be saved on Judgment Day.
Unfortunately, Frost introduces a dark form of magic into the situation and instead of Fitcher being a deluded Christian, he is either a deluded magician or an arch demon in human form — during a mesmerist demonstration held by the local townsfolk, he is called Mastema which would make him the latter. Thus, we find a potentially powerful book on religious mania subverted by unnecessarily ambiguous supernatural elements which are never really explained. If he is a magician, how does Fitcher reconcile his Christian beliefs with his powerful abilities to project “ghosts” and “dark angels” to different parts of the countryside? If he is a demon, why is there no triumphalism as he leads all his followers into Hell through a campaign of death and destruction on the appointed day for the world to end? Frankly, I do not think it matters which version Frost picks so long as there was consistency in its subsequent exploitation for terror. Making Fitcher a magician would have opened up a wonderful opportunity to explore how and why a Christian might use dark forces for what he perceives to be good in saving so many people. It would be a classic utilitarian justification to sacrifice the few for the benefit of the many. If Fitcher is really a demon, we could have been given a ringside seat as it gloats over the gullibility of all those who are led to slaughter at Harbinger. Feasting on the wives would be just an appetiser to the main course.
Thus, there is very good evidence of a powerful book lurking in there somewhere, but no kudos to Terri Windling as the editor in failing to direct Frost on how to make the best of the choices between a straight study in historical terror, a book of dark magic or a campaign to recruit souls for Hell. I also fault the editor for deciding to place her descriptions of the Bluebeard story before the novel. It would have been far better placed at the end. So I end with the thought that what actually appears on paper here is interesting but deeply flawed.