|Art by Kristina Tsenova|
"The Bridegroom" by Amelia Mangan (7079 words)
This story is very moody, very gothic, and quite a bit unsettling. It's the gothic feel that gives the story most of its mystery, the isolation and question of what is coming, what is real and what is fantasy. The story opens with a birth of a girl, one who is apparently disfigured, though the story does an excellent job of calling into question this and really everything. The setting is a sort of idyllic but distance manor, complete with servants and a hedge maze large enough to get lost in. Valentine, the girl who never sees her own face, lives with a mother and father who don't hear her, that don't really want her. At eighteen she is to be given to Uncle George, a force of darkness and destruction. His coming portents the complete collapse of the world that kept Valentine isolated, and I loved the way that [SPOILERS!] he's never seen, how he arrives but that the story cuts out just at the moment of confrontation. It recenters the action away from him and back to Valentine's confrontation with herself, with her own face. The importance is placed not on the pillars of fire and ice but on the face in the reflection of the window.
There's a lot going on in the story that seems designed to unsettle and bring doubt into the story. The story is timeless in many ways, stuck in a sort of English countryside of gothic times but with radios, with limousines, with weather services. Valentine's plight, then, is timeless: her lack of value because she's a woman, the way she is told she is ugly, the way her voice is completely ignored. It at once places these struggles into the distant past and also echoes them forward, refuses to stay comfortably distant. The surreal nature of the story, the way the servants are locked in a sort of fever state, the way the parents are locked in denial, the way Valentine serenely takes everything in, it all builds to this strange and unsettling ending, the arrival of Uncle George, the moment of Valentine confronting herself and her bridegroom. And with the confrontation, the implication that there is a choice as well, or perhaps a fate that needs to be reckoned with.
Because Uncle George seems to represent on one hand a loss for Valentine. If he is the titular bridegroom, as is strongly implied, then he is her husband. He is the fire and ice that consume, and there is a definitely foreboding. At the same time, he is also her freedom, arriving at the day she turns eighteen and becomes (legally, at least) an adult. He is her sudden agency, then, her freedom, and his ravaging of the countryside can be seen as Valentine's anger let free, her sense of injustice at her imprisonment and isolation and degradation mirrored outward. There is a sense that he is, in some way, her, is her reflection, ugly and dark and yet magnificent and beautiful as well. And the reader is denied seeing his face as much as they are denied sight of Valentine's. What remains is a slightly ambiguous story but one filled with a sense of the repressed returning, of justice riding up in a black limousine. It's a dark story, but an evocative one that very nicely builds its atmosphere, it's setting, and it's character, and leaves the reader breathless, afraid to look down lest they realize they aren't on solid ground anymore, that the moment of recognition might send them plummeting into the inky depths. A great Halloween read!