The tale of Bluebeard, reenvisioned as a dark fable of faith and truth
1843 is the "last year of the world," according the Elias Fitcher, a charismatic preacher in the Finger Lakes district of New York State. He's established a utopian community on an estate outside the town of Jeckyll's Glen, where the faithful wait, work, and pray for the world to end.
Vernelia, Amy, and Catherine Charter are the three young townswomen whose father falls under the Reverend Fitcher's hypnotic sway. In their old house, where ghostly voices whisper from the walls, the girls are ruled by their stepmother, who is ruled in turn by the fiery preacher. Determined to spend Eternity as a married man, Fitcher casts his eye on Vernelia, and before much longer the two are wed. But living on the man's estate, separated from her family, Vern soon learns the extent of her husband's dark side. It's rumored that he's been married before, though what became of those wives she does not know. Perhaps the secret lies in the locked room at the very top of the housethe sin-gle room that the Reverend Fitcher has forbidden to her.
Inspired by the classic fairy tales "Bluebeard" and "The Fitcher Bird," this dark fantasy is set in New York State's "Burned-Over District," at its time of historic religious ferment. All three Charter sisters will play their part in the story of Fitcher's Utopia: a story of faith gone wrong, and evil coun-tered by one brave, true soul.
About the Author
Gregory Frost is the author of several well-received novels, including the fantasies Tain, Renscela, and Lyrec, and the SF novel The Pure Cold Light. He lives near Philadelphia.
Series creator Terri Windling has been a champion of adult fairy-tale fiction for over two decades, editing such anthologies as The Armless Maiden and the Snow White, Blood Red series with Ellen Datlow.
Series artist Thomas Canty has worked on many fairy-tale collaborations with Windling, in-cluding all the volumes of this series.
Read an Excerpt
By Frost, Gregory
Tor BooksCopyright © 2003 Frost, Gregory
All right reserved.
They climbed the gangplank to the steamboat, the three Charter sisters. As the eldest, Vernelia led them, followed by Amy, and finally Kate, the youngest at sixteen. The plank was wet but someone had thrown a layer of grist onto it so that feet could find purchase in the climb.
In the middle, halfway between land and lake and part of neither, Kate stopped and turned for a final look at the town of Geneva.
The wharf and streets teemed with people, more than the girls had ever seen gathered in a single place, even on the commons in Boston on the Fourth of July. Certainly all of the people below had not come down the Cayuga & Seneca Canal with the girls, their father and stepmother: No canal boat could have held so many. Even the steamboat that would carry them to the southern tip of Seneca Lake could not have held this many.
Spencer coats and shawl collars bumped up against buckskins, carriage dresses, cloaks, and bustles; polished beaver and stovepipe hats, gipsys, capotes, and lace cornettes flowed around bales and boxes, wagons and valises. The girls's journey across the wharf had been a clumsy, dodging stumble behind their father and stepmother; yet from the higher vantage there was a liquidity of purpose, as pockets of activity swirled like eddies in the bend of some greater human river. They had spent but a day in this town, knew nothing of its secrets, but Katewas compelled to unriddle the place in a final glance, and she might have done if Amy hadn't grabbed hold of her from above and hissed, "Kate, you're holding everyone up!"
Indeed, below her everyone was staring, and reluctantly she continued her climb.
Vern had already stepped off. Amy reached the top, then clumsily descended as if she might topple; but a hand caught her elbow and steadied her.
A young gentleman in a sharp blue coat stood on deck and, taking Kate's hand, helped her climb down on three boxes. "Mademoiselle," he said. "Welcome aboard the Fidelio, the finest steamboat in New York State." He couldn't have been much older than Vern--nineteen or twenty perhaps, and his French accent was not very believable. He had a little strip of a mustache on his lip that looked more like a line of ash than hair, but Kate was too polite to let her opinion show. She smiled demurely and thanked him for his assistance, calling him "Monsieur."
He bowed, the gallant knight, and answered, "Charity never faileth." Amy stood tugging at her green wool pelisse, but she looked up from beneath her bonnet and blushed as he spoke, as if the comment had been directed at her. Then she said, "Come now, sister," and took Kate by the elbow. The young man had already returned to his duty at the head of the gangplank.
It was the early spring of 1843, and much of New England was on the move. People headed west in droves, into new territories, some running to keep ahead of civilization, others intending to drag civilization into the wilderness. Still others had been swept up in one or more of the religious frenzies that had burned across New York State, one upon the other, for over half a century--one of which had dislocated the lives of the Charter sisters.
The two girls meandered across the deck, past bales of cotton and wool, and trunks and bags toted by servants, and families gathered around their belongings, and even at one point three men kneeling in an open passage and playing at dice. Amy averted her eyes but Kate watched shamelessly until she was pulled away. "It's not ladylike to stare that way," Amy instructed.
"Just wait till I tell Vern."
By then they had spotted their elder sister. She stood beside their father and stepmother just ahead, at the rail. Mr. Charter stared out across the lake at the crisp blue sky.
Vern saw her sisters and called out, "I swear I cannot turn my back a moment. If you two should ever get lost, what would I do?"
Lavinia, their stepmother, pushed forward like some blackgarbed ghoul, blocked Vern with her body, and spoke over the girl's words: "Young ladies do not mill about! How is it that from dockside to ship you could not keep up with your own kin?"
Vern stared daggers at the back of Lavinia's head but said nothing, leaving it to Amy to account for herself; but the middle sister had never been able to express what she felt to her stepmother, and barely to her older sister, who had acted as mother to the two younger girls for most of the past six years.
In the silence into which no one could insert a response, their father turned finally from the rail. His heavy-lidded eyes expressed a rooted weariness until his gaze settled upon his three girls, and then his face composed a smile, though the eyes somehow did not participate--eyes that had borne such iniquities, such calamities, as the girls had no appreciation for.
Mr. Charter had lost his savings in the financial panic of '37, and it was Lavinia's money which now, six years later, kept the family afloat. Lavinia was paying for their relocation to Jekyll's Glen from Boston. Lavinia had secured Mr. Charter's new position. When the girls married, it would be up to Lavinia to provide them with a dowry. They didn't believe she ever would, just as they had come to accept, in traveling here, that they were probably never going to marry. Nevertheless, the girls maintained a polite if chilly truce with this stepmother none of them had ever desired.
If Lavinia had made their father happy, they might have rejoiced, or at least accepted her. Instead, she had stolen him from them as surely as if she'd replaced him with a changeling. It was Lavinia who had led Mr. Charter to the tent of Elias Fitcher, where his brain began to burn with the twin lights of judgment and salvation. It was she who had brought the end of the world into their house. And it was she who, by manipulating their father, now brought their household to the end of the world.
* * *
The three girls leaned on the rail and watched the blue waters of the lake slide swiftly by. The shoreline moved slower at a distance. The smell of pine rode the blustery wind across Seneca Lake from the trees that hemmed it in all around. The hills above had been cleared for farming, and even now tiny figures were visible there, though the ground couldn't be much past spring thaw.
Beneath their feet the deck thrummed with the chugging engine, vibrating up their legs. Behind them various people strolled the boards, and snippets of conversations flitted by.
"A sick philosopher is incurable--"
"I hear'ed news of a gold strike a'way out west in Ohio."
"And will you be goin' there yourself?"
"He is among us even now, I tell you. Cast about you..."
"Landed gentry? Why, how can we be when we're on water here."
Sometimes they glanced back, if the voice was pleasant and sounded young enough that a handsome man might be at the end of it. Often they played a game of imagining who they would marry, how life would be, how many perfect children they would bear. "It has to be a tall man," Amy would say. "He must be clean, too, well groomed," Kate would throw in. Then they'd both look at Vern until she put in something of her own: "And we'll have six children, all girls." From there they would refine the description, change the number of children or detail the color of the phantom husband's hair, or else pick a city to live in and describe the house they would manage. They had played the game back home in Boston and to pass the time on the slow canal boats that had brought them across the state to Geneva, and the lake, and their advancing destination. Their fancies flew in the face of the very reason for their journey, which made the need to pretend all the more poignant.
Then abruptly as the Fidelio crossed the middle of the lake, the breeze blew colder, as if they had passed into some deep moist cavern of air. The two oldest girls stood in the partial shadow of the pilothouse and stack, and they drew their cloaks and shawls tighter around their shoulders. All three trembled for a moment, glanced at each other to see if the sensation was shared, and discovering that it was, traded their uneasiness. Then, as if each had heard her name called, they turned slowly about.
A man stood a few feet away, considering them. The girls squinted and shielded their eyes to see him, but he'd chosen to stand so that the morning sun seemed to ride upon his shoulder. Its rays flared across him, blinding them to all but his general shape.
He wore a long gray coat, and a white cravat. He was tall and rail-thin, and his hands at his sides curled and uncurled slowly. Beyond that the girls couldn't make out more than the shadows of his features.
While she shaded her eyes, Vern said, "Sir, is there something you wish of us?"
Vern's stance spoke more defiance than her tone, while Amy, true to her nature, blushed and glanced down at her feet. The two of them held hands in mutual support. The wind blew Kate's fair hair into her eyes. She tucked it back under her silk bonnet and continued to squint at the interloper.
"Oh, no, young miss, not the slightest." His voice was dark and smooth as syrup, delicious, as if Kate could taste it. "But you are all such beautiful creatures, aren't you, that one has to stop and take you in. I simply cannot help myself, as what man could? You must pardon me." He bowed, and this afforded Kate a momentary glimpse below the dazzle of the sun, of a long, severe face and blue eyes as cold as stars. He continued. "Pardon me as I have beheld the fruit of the garden and found it delectable. But is it wise for three such as yourselves to travel into this undiscovered country unchaperoned?"
"Our...father," Vern began, "is just across there."
The stranger did not turn his head to where she pointed, but asked, "You are none of you married, then? Are the men of this world so blind?"
Now Vern blushed.
"I will see you again, I hope. In this life surely before the next." He bowed slightly again, then turned and walked off.
They watched him weave through the crowd, and it wasn't until he was out of sight around the far side of the pilothouse that they found the sense to react. Amy pleaded, "Kate, let us move down so that we're in the sunlight with you. We're freezing." They shuffled along toward the nose of the boat, clinging to the rail as if they couldn't stand without it. The sunlight was reinvigorating.
"Who was he?" Kate asked.
"He was dreadfully forward," replied Amy, "whoever he was."
"I think I've never met anyone like that in my life," said Vern, and the tone of her comment--as if made in private--caused her sisters to glance her way in alarm, for she sounded as if she had enjoyed him. She laughed when she saw their looks. "You don't know, my dears, but you will one day, what it is that we women need in men."
Amy stood dumb, uncomprehending.
Kate shook her head, dismissing the avowal in a gesture. She focused her attention across the deck, after the stranger.
She had acted her eldest sister's confidante many times--a role that Amy was ill-equipped to handle--and she was fully informed of Vern's notions of womanhood, of sundry insubstantial claims, but mostly of Vern's one great indiscretion, after which the pretense of sagacity had given way to blind panic until, after some delay, Vern's monthly flow had arrived. She loved her eldest sister dearly, but found the wisdom dispensed on the strength of one hasty and ill-chosen congress most absurd. Who was she acting the queen for then--Amy? Still, there had been about the stranger something beguiling, Kate admitted. His voice had shaken her as well.
She determined that she wanted a better look at him. She excused herself then and headed for the pilothouse. Vern called after her but Kate didn't acknowledge that she heard. She pushed past men and women in their travel clothes, saw her stepmother look up and nearly catch her eye, and ducked her head and drove quickly through the crush, into pockets of odor, of bodies that had traveled long in the same clothes, of cigars, of pine tar, of water-soaked wood, past the moist spray and hiss of the turning wheel. She came up for air far enough away that Lavinia would not see her, then strolled ahead with purpose. She could not find him. Then, as she approached the back of the pilothouse and stepped through a gap between two crates, she brushed up against the young man who had helped her onto the boat deck.
He regarded her with shy amusement, head turned slightly down as if he knew he'd been forward earlier and now must account for himself. But Kate didn't care about that. "You--why, you helped everyone on board today, did you not?"
It certainly wasn't the question he'd expected, or perhaps hoped for, and he hesitated a moment before answering almost in defense, "It's my job."
"No, I mean--there's a man on board here who has accosted my sisters and myself, but now I can't find him."
"Oh, well," he said, and puffed up, "I am the person you need. I know 'em all."
"You've lost your French," she replied, a small tease, then went on to describe the man in gray.
She'd hardly begun when the young steward said, "Why, I know him, sure. He's over this a'way." He led her through the throng. "There you go," he said, and pointed.
The man stood with one foot up on the lower rail, at the stern of the boat, the tail of his coat hanging straight to his knee, and as if sensing their interest glanced over his shoulder at them. He was not so tall nor as thin, and sported a short red beard.
"Ma'am?" he asked, and the voice was one she'd never heard.
"No," she told her guide, "that isn't he. This man was much taller, thin as a sapling, and his eyes..." She could not find words to describe them. "He'd a wide white cravat at his throat, like a preacher might."
"Oh." He scratched his head, then pushed back his cap. "No, I surely don't recollect such a gentleman, and the way you set him, I think I surely would."
"I'm sorry. But, that is, I might not have seen everyone who boarded?" He smiled sheepishly. "I did sort of concentrate my efforts on you ladies."
She couldn't help but laugh. He was very sweet. "Thank you for your kindness, sir," she told him, and he tipped his cap and returned, fairly glowing, to his work.
Kate circled the rest of the way around the pilothouse. She scanned this way and that but saw no one resembling her stranger, and by the time she reached her sisters again she had concluded in some ineffable way that the man in gray had never been among them at all.
Copyright 2002 by Gregory Frost
Excerpted from Fitcher's Brides by Frost, Gregory Copyright © 2003 by Frost, Gregory. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is as truly disturbing as any tale of Bluebeard should be. I was surprised at times, but in the right ways. I was occasionally frustrated by the things the sisters didn't put together and the fact that they took it for granted that the world really was going to end. The reader had a sort of eerie position in the story following each of the three sisters in turn.
A dark retelling of an already dark tale. Gregory Frost has masterfully imagined this classic fairy tale (a combination of BLUEBEARD and THE FITCHER BIRD) in 1843 in upstate New York, amidst an end-of-the-world "Utopian" community under the leadership of Elias Fitcher. Three girls, Vernelia, Amy and Catherine Charter, are brought to the community when their father and step-mother fall under the preacher's influence. Fitcher is a charismatic, but ominous figure. Ghostly voices whisper through the walls of the girls' old house, seductive and mesmerizing. With the world about to end, Fitcher, determined to spend eternity with a wife, marries Vernelia, the eldest. When she is taken into the heart of the community, away from her family, Fitcher quickly reveals his darker instincts. Women disappear, men commit suicide, mysterious shadows roam the halls... Erotically charged, full of brutality and treachery, this novel goes places the original tales only hinted. It's a rollicking, at times uncomfortable read. An exploration of lust, masochism, messianic psychosis and the nature of evil combined with social commentary. Highly recommended.
I normally enjoy Terri Windling's Fairy Tale Series, but this one left me cold.
I love fairy tale retellings in general, and this one in particular was really good for me. I loved how Gregory Frost interpreted Bluebeard's bloody tale and put it in a historical setting, with characters that are very realistically drawn. A very worthwhile read.
Interesting retelling of the Blue Beard tales. Like the originals and like most early versions of fairy tales, this one is not for children.
This is a masterful combination of the "Bluebeard" and "Fitcher's Bird" fairytales, set in New York state in the 1830s. Vernelia, Amy, and Kate have been uprooted from Boston by their father and stepmother and brought to Harbinger House, the apocalyptic community led by the Reverend Elias Fitcher. At Harbinger House, hundreds of men, women, and children live and work communally while they wait for the end of the world, which according to Rev. Fitcher will occur in just three short months. When Rev. Fitcher makes it clear that he has no desire to spend the next life alone, it is Vern who marries him, little realizing that she is in unimaginable danger -- as is the entire population of Harbinger House.This book is thoroughly creepy and lives up to the bloody precedent set by its source material. Frost also makes excellent use of the obsessions and fads of the time, touching on Spiritualism and communication with the dead, mesmerism, and of course apocalyptic fervor. The story moves slowly, but builds to a truly terrifying and exhilarating climax.
Story is slow and rather painful to start and is really too long overall. The premise is good and once you figure out (mostly) what is going on then it gets better. However, there is some strange things that happen that drive the plot but never really make sense and most characters are inherently unlikable. Strangely, it is a good story when it's all over.
As a child, I read tons of fairy tales, and Bluebeard was one of my favorites. Gregory Frost did a marvelous job of telling the Bluebeard tale in a new way, yet keeping to the truth of the story. I was especially impressed with the way in which he was able to incorporate so much historical information without any of it seeming forced or overly showy. It all fit together seamlessly. Fitcher's Brides is an enthralling book, which is fitting, since the story is about enthrallment. It is a real page turner and I stayed up until 2 in the morning reading it because I couldn't put it down. If you like fairy tales, ghost stories, gothic novels, or simply want to read an extremely well-written, beautifully told story, read this book.
On his estate near Jekyll¿s Glen, New York, Reverend Elias Fitcher and his flock await the end of the world here in our Lord 1843. Elias and his faithful work and pray knowing that he will lead the way through the gate of Heaven when Revelations begins. Elias casts a spell on many of the local residents who become firm believers in his end of the world pitch. This includes the Charter family, at least the parents, who moved from Boston after the financial collapse of the Panic of 1837. Elias decides that when he enters Heaven, he will have a wife with him. He chooses the oldest of the three Charter sisters, Vernelia as his spouse. She quickly realizes that her husband is not a messenger of God, but more likely the Angel of Death as she hears rumors of vanished wives and followers. Vern wonders how she will survive and if not will her middle sibling Amy and then her youngest sister Kate be the next two brides. FITCHER¿S BRIDE is a tremendous retelling of the Bluebeard legend that catches the key warning themes. Especially embedded into the powerful plot due to a robust cast are that of the dangers of total faith in a person or institution without questioning, and the underside perils of lust, avarice and curiosity killing the cat (Fitcher insured satisfaction didn¿t bring them back). The novel contains a strong introduction that explains the Bluebeard saga, but though well written is not necessary for a reader to peruse if they just want the entertainment from a tremendous adult fairy tale. Harriet Klausner