Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: "Fitcher's Brides" by Gregory Frost

The Charter girls' new stepmother is a very religious woman--and her religion of choice is Elias Fitcher, whose prophecies schedule the end of the world for October 1843. Whether they want it or not, Vernelia, Amy, and Kate are going to be among the saved--and the married--on that day.

While their hapless father mans the turnstile allowing penitents into Fitcher's commune, the charismatic preacher courts each of his daughters in turn. But life as the bride of God's final prophet is far from heavenly. A darkness hides inside the walls of Harbinger House, and in the marriage bed.

  2.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

I love retellings of fairy tales. Tangled, Spindle's End, The Phantom of the Opera--they're all beautiful riffs on very old stories, near and dear to my heart. Here's one most readers may not be as familiar with, though--the talevof "Fitcher's Bird."

(That's not a typo--it's bird in the original and brides in the retelling.)

The story of "Fitcher's Bird"--sometimes also called "Bluebeard" because some French dude couldn't pronounce "tch"--has a couple of different variations depending on the region. It's a fun little romp about finding yourself married to a serial killer who keeps the bodies of his previous wives in the pantry. For some reason, Disney hasn't picked this one up for a feature film yet. Perhaps after they're done brutalizing "The Snow Queen"?

Anyway, some tellings include a helpful moral along the lines of curiosity killing the cat, where cat = new bride and killing = killing. Perrault's "Bluebeard" variant gives all its sympathy to the poor betrayed husband, who is disappointed to find wife after wife falling into the trap he has laid for them and, quite understandably, has to murder each one and try again.

In Fitcher's Brides, Gregory Frost pretty much apportions blame correctly--though when your starting point is "creepy preacher," the reader knows who they should be rooting for. It's clear how much fun (if that's the word) Frost has constructing the fates of the three Charter sisters and the religious cult community of Harbinger, all through Elias Fitcher's machinations. Halfway through the book, though, it dawned on me that Frost has no compassion for his characters. He doesn't love them. Even emperor of modern horror Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, AKA "Evil Santa," write with love for their doomed characters.

That's a tough critique to quantify, though, so let's move on to some more concrete grumps.

(Fair warning: when I don't like a book, I don't hold back from spoilers.)

The first half of the book is a little tricky to read, because Frost switches viewpoints so often--not with the time-honored and respectable scene shift, but rather in the middle of a paragraph. He doesn't write in third person omniscient so much as than third person schizophrenic. The narratorial camera zooms in and out of the perspectives of the three sisters without warning.

For instance: a paragraph begins with Vern mentions Amy partway through, and then refers to "her younger sister"--by which the reader is supposed to understand refers to Kate, Amy's younger sister, rather  than Amy again (herself younger than Vern.)

Does that sound confusing?

Good. It is. To make it worse, Frost writes heroines like he doesn't talk to women very much.

What Frost does well is set the world. The era of 1843, the frontiers of upstate New York, are evoked in magnificent detail. Even though I couldn't tell whose perspective I was following, I felt the coldness of the Charter's new house, predating insulation; I felt the creak of old floorboards and that musty sensation of old furniture. The amount of work that goes into lighting a house gets a great deal of attention. Neither electricity nor gas lighting has reached the town of Jekyll's Glen (great name, by the way), and candles can't be mass-produced by machine--someone must do the work of mixing tallow, beeswax and spermaceti, twisting and dipping the candle wicks, to make a mere dozen candles at a time. It's exhausting work that makes me feel infinitely fonder towards my lightswitches.

Up to a point, I loved the book's attention to psychology. Frost spends some time playing with the "mesmerists" that were popular at the time, Western society having just discovered the fun and games one can play with hypnotism and knocking on tables. The cult at Harbinger is perfectly set up for mass hallucinations with a side of groupthink.

Most importantly, Fitcher pulls off gaslighting his three successive brides with disturbingly masterful success--convincing them that they are mad, that they are deluded, that they are dreaming his abuse. Having had my own gaslights flicker in the past, I was very interested in seeing whether (and how) Vern, Amy, and Kate could break out of the psychological webs Fitcher catches them in.

Which brings me to my final grump: the supernatural element and the conclusion of the book. Because Frost had chosen such a great historical setting--fictionalizing the actual Great Disappointment of October 1844 when a whole lotta people expected the Rapture; setting up psychological explanations for the spiritualists and the cults; gaslighting the heroines--I wanted earthy, phenomenological causes for the eerie events in the book. I wanted the theme of deceptive beliefs to be concluded in the main plot. Why spend all this time and research on an era when people were duped into believing in the supernatural through psychosis and sleight of hand, only to end the book with poorly-explained and unforeshadowed magic?

Elias Fitcher is the devil. That's the conclusion the book draws. The actual devil, not a devil in human form.Gone to waste all the tricks Frost developed for him, of tricking and manipulating the girls, of charming his cultists.

Instead of complex psychology, we're given devil horns and a pitchfork, which he jabbed right into my suspension of disbelief (and interest in the book.) It deflated with a faint little whine of regret.

I suppose I would still have to call the book "engaging," since I did read it until 3 AM (in self-defense, because after Vern opened the door I knew I wasn't going to be sleeping anyway.) It's almost a well-spun retelling that's shaky on the dismount, if we measure shaking on the Richter scale. If you choose to read it, this your yeeeech factor warning for spooks, gore, and Scenes With An Egg.

Thanks (I think?) to Traci for recommending this one!

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