Wishful thinking

7 months ago 81

Women with great hair fleeing mysterious houses became an iconic signifier of the modern gothic romance depicted on the dust jackets of pulp fiction in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and Anna Biller’s sumptuously stylized fairy tale Bluebeard’s Castle wholeheartedly embraces this aesthetic. From its cover depicting the flame-haired heroine in the grounds of an eerily moonlit mansion to its opening scene recounting her escape from a possibly murderous husband, this book leaves readers in no doubt about the kind of story they are entering.

What follows is an enjoyably theatrical meta-gothic homage with nods to (among others) Daphne du Maurier, Ann Radcliffe, Barbara Cartland, Mario Bava and Alfred Hitchcock, which offers an acerbic commentary on the dangers of believing too fervently in happily ever after. The shy romance novelist Judith Moore believes she is doomed to be forever overshadowed by her glamorous sister Anne, until a chance meeting on a Cornish beach with the aristocratic Gavin Garnet leads to a whirlwind Paris elopement. Gavin takes his bride to an imposingly turreted castle in the depths of the Somerset countryside, “more theatrical than practical”, an eighteenth-century folly complete with bat-infested attics and a Sir Gawain and the Green Knight-esque medieval chapel. As Gavin’s behaviour grows more disturbing the increasingly isolated Judith begins to suspect that her husband may not be all he seems: “Sometimes she felt he didn’t exist at all, but was merely an illusion created by her desire”.

Bluebeard’s Castle is both a fantasy and a nightmare, with the film-maker Biller employing the same sense of celluloid artifice and lusciously heightened reality that characterized her retro horror masterpiece The Love Witch (2016). This book was conceived as a screenplay, and its filmic origins are clear both in Biller’s wealth of movie references and her story’s set design, from Judith’s rococo boudoir, “fitted with blue damask and oak wainscotting”, to the glittering masked ball that deliberately recalls the ill-fated costume party in du Maurier’s (and Hitchcock’s) Rebecca. The novel appears to take place in the same cinematic universe as that of The Love Witch; while it is nominally set in the present day, its version of Somerset feels more like the off-kilter, hallucinogenic England of 1970s Italian giallo directors such as Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci, filled with paranoia, magic-hour light and “ancient oaks with intensely orange autumn leaves, and fairylike silver birches with mottled trunks and witchy branches”.

The colour-drenched settings are accompanied by an abundance of sensory details as Biller recounts the pleasures of scones with blackberry jam and venison with truffled potatoes, or Judith’s sexual awakening following her marriage; then there are the terrors of her lurid dreams about her husband’s locked chamber. The most macabre of these features “five female mannequins [in] jewel-coloured gowns and synthetic wigs, [with] blood on their plastic throats”, who come to life in a scene directly referencing Bava’s fashion-house slasher Blood and Black Lace (1964), as well as echoing Georges Méliès’s early silent film Barbe-bleue (1901). One of Biller’s overarching concerns in this novel is the uncanny valley between a person’s true self and the layers of artifice they either place on themselves (through clothes, masks or outright deception) or have bestowed on them by others (through love, fear or wishful thinking). Judith’s realization that she “didn’t want a husband who was too real” is matched by Gavin’s apparently perfect mirroring of her needs, “echo[ing] all of her tastes and values without adding his own”.

In its exploration of Judith’s bedazzlement by her husband, Bluebeard’s Castle also raises more serious questions about gaslighting, love-bombing, patriarchal power, abusive relationships and the vampiric allure of Bluebeard-like men. Like The Love Witch’s titular enchantress, Elaine, Judith puts her faith in the power of love to protect her: “Through intense and targeted love”, she reflects at one point, “she would eventually win his heart, so that he would never dream of straying or hurting her in any way”. Anna Biller’s novel casts a chilling light on the kinds of real-world fairy tales we are all still so often encouraged to believe.

Elizabeth Dearnley is a folklorist, writer and artist living in Edinburgh. Her most recent book is Fearsome Fairies: Haunting tales of the fae, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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