Bluebeard's Castle

Anna Biller

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Bluebeard's Castle, by Anna Biller. It's not long after the successful mystery novelist Judith Moore falls in love with a handsome Baron at a party along the Cornish coast, that she marries him and moves with him into his secluded Gothic mansion. There, her new husband shows his manipulative, abusive side. And Judith finds herself battling the same kind of demons, tropes, and villains from the stories she knows all too well.

Being inside a church always made her feel good, and her anxious brow relaxed as she absorbed the peaceful and uplifting atmosphere. A few people were milling around admiring the architecture, and several worshippers were praying. She brushed past a group of tourists and sidled down one of the pews, groping in her handbag for her rosary. She touched the first bead and murmured to herself: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

She opened her lips to continue, when suddenly she was distracted by a young woman in an advanced state of pregnancy waddling down the aisle. She wore a short black maternity dress with a white dickie collar, her black patent leather Mary Janes clopping along the floor. As she came closer, their eyes locked.

The woman was Nancy.

Nancy paused, and then averted her eyes and hurried to the back of the church.

Judith sat confused, her heart pounding wildly. The girl looked miserable, and suddenly Judith felt guilty about the way she had been fired. She had nothing to fear from Nancy now, so she decided to ask how she was getting along.

She rose and strode to the back of the church, where Nancy was lighting tapers and placing them in black iron holders. She gazed at her pretty little face, grown solemn with the weight of pending motherhood. “Hello, Nancy,” she said. “How have you been getting on?”

“All right, I guess. I got another position. I’ve taken some time off for the morning sickness though.”

Judith thought she looked heartbreakingly young. “Congratulations on the baby. I didn’t know you had a young man.”

“I don’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. It ain’t been easy.”

The priest walked by in his gold-trimmed robes, smiling and nodding, and the women stopped talking until he had gone. Then Judith said, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Nancy’s tone became bitter. “Don’t bother yourself.

Anyway, your husband’s already helping a bit.”

Judith was seized with confusion. “My—husband? Why is my husband helping you?”

Nancy looked at her contemptuously. “Don’t you know?”

“Know?” repeated Judith, a wave of panic sweeping over her.

“Because he’s the father.”

Judith stared at Nancy in speechless horror, hoping it was some sort of joke. But then, as she looked at the girl’s hurt and angry face, she realized it must be true.

She rushed from the church and hurtled across the street, her eyes blinded by tears. A horn blared, and a car screeched to a halt. She jumped back. “Hey, look out!” a man’s voice cried out.

She looked up in a daze. “Sorry.” “You ought to be more careful!”

Pedestrians stopped and stared. “Are you all right?” a woman asked.

“I think so.”

“Here, let me help you.” The woman took her arm and guided her across the street. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“No, my car is just there.”

“I don’t think you’re in a condition to drive.”

“No, I’m fine . . . really. Thanks for your help.” And she got into her car and drove away. The woman was right; it wasn’t safe for her to drive. But somehow, she made it home. She drove back to Manderfield in a state of shock, her head splitting with migraine. She was angry with Gavin, and sorry for herself, and she felt like a fool. He has never loved me, she said to herself. The whole thing has been a lie, from the very beginning. That poor girl. I’ll send her some money. She pulled up to the castle and got out of the car, her head- ache so intense that she thought she would faint. Then she staggered up the drive and let herself in, dragging herself up the stairs one by one until she finally reached her bedroom. Once inside, she tore open the bag from the chemist and gulped down a handful of pills with water. She undressed, slipped on a yellow nylon tricot nightgown, and lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. She lay awake for a while, feeling nothing save the blinding pain of her headache. Then, miraculously, the pain subsided and she became drowsy. Sleep, she

thought as she drifted off. Sweet, beautiful sleep.

She was awakened by a dulcet-toned voice insinuating itself into to her consciousness. “Wake up, Princess. It’s time to get dressed for the party.” She opened her eyes and recoiled in horror. Her husband was hovering over her in his blue velvet smoking jacket, with his charming Dracula smile. “What’s the matter?” he said.

“Go away. Leave me alone!”

The day was dying, and the sunset bathed the room in a bloody light. He turned on the lamp, which flooded his face with a hard incandescence.

“What’s the matter?” he repeated.

She sat up shakily, woozy from the pills. “I ran into Nancy today. She’s pregnant with your child.”

“Is that what she told you?”

“Yes. Don’t try to deny it. Now I know why you fired her.

It’s all clear to me now!”

He walked away and poured a glass of water, the lamp casting diamond glints onto his hair. She stared at his handsome profile, and she hated herself for loving her vampire, with his commanding air, his glowing eyes, his pale face, and his slicked-back dark hair. But he didn’t love her; he had discovered other charms.

Finally he turned to look at her. “I’m sorry about Nancy,” he sighed. “It was all a stupid mistake. But I only did it to ease the pain.”

“The pain?”

“Yes. The pain of Tony and you. It’s obvious you’re in love with him.”

“But I’m not in love with him. Tony and I are just friends!”

“Then why did you lie to me about his visits?”

Judith fell silent, woozy and confused from the drugs.

Then she said, “Because I knew you didn’t like him.”

“An emotional affair is just as bad; you can’t blame me for finding someone too. But maybe it’s for the best. I don’t like you seeing Tony, but I’m not going to forbid it. And perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I saw a friend now and then as well.”

Judith felt plunged into a nightmare. Was he really suggesting an open marriage? And why was he trying to shove her into Tony’s arms? “I don’t want to have affairs with men,” she said, trembling with indignation. “And I don’t want to share you with other women. If that’s the way you want it, it’s over.”

He crumpled onto the bed. “How can you be so cruel?” he cried in an anguished tone. “I’m your husband, the only person in this world who loves you! But maybe you’re right to go. I’ve made a mess of things. And that slut Nancy, she . . . oh, I don’t want to talk about her. She doesn’t matter. But I suppose something like this was bound to happen, sooner or later. I’m just a savage—a beast. I’ve been so isolated in my life that I’ve never learned certain skills— like how to be monogamous. It seems I just wasn’t ready for marriage.”

She gaped at him, stunned. She knew she should be furi- ous with him, but his words were so outrageous that she was more astonished than angry. He was a savage, but he couldn’t help it; he had just never had a good woman to civilize him. She, on the other hand, had spent her entire life trying to placate cruel and brutal people, so she was in the perfect position to help him. Women must be constantly throwing themselves at him, with his good looks and charm, but none of them had made him want to be monogamous. Besides, he hadn’t married them; he had married her. She was enough woman for any man, and she would prove it to him.

She smothered her anger and spoke calmly, like a therapist speaking to a patient. “You were the one who begged me to marry you. Why did you do that, if you knew you couldn’t be faithful?”

“Because I thought I could change.” “And can you change?”

There was a long pause. And then he said, “Yes . . . I think I can. I have two selves: the good self that loves you, and the shadow self, that’s full of darkness. But with your love, anything is possible. You can make me whole again.” He gazed at her, and she saw the same love light shining in his eyes that she had seen that first day at the beach. He’d had an affair, but he had come back to her, loving and repentant. She had kept her man, and that was all that mattered.

She lay back, exulting in her victory. She was surging with pride at her deftness in handling her wayward husband. She felt loved and cherished once more, and warmth and happiness flooded her body. “All right. But I’m a one-man woman. If I take you back, you have to promise to be faithful.” “I promise.” He took her in his arms and kissed her. She closed her eyes during the kiss, which was long and intensely pleasurable. But she was so knackered from her weeks of sleeplessness, from the emotions of the day, and from the pills she’d ingested, that she dozed off.

Soon she felt a light tapping on her shoulder. “Princess . . .” She opened her eyes and saw her husband standing before her with a paddle, a pair of handcuffs, rope, chains, and a

blindfold, all of it new with tags.

“Happy anniversary, little girl. I got you some new toys.” “Thank you,” she said faintly.

“Show me your arse. You’re going to get a spanking.”

She looked up at him, feeling exhausted and ill. But she didn’t want to refuse him so soon after their reconciliation, so she dutifully turned over and presented her backside to him. Delighted, he roughly pulled down her knickers and struck her bottom with the paddle. Why was he spanking her? They had just endured a horrible trial, the worst of their married life, and she was still traumatized. Normally she liked being spanked, but now it just seemed like a punishment. She felt like one of the dolls she used to drag around by the hair and sadistically pull apart.

At first his pleasure in witnessing her submission was evident, but soon he noticed her lackluster expression and he stopped. “Princess, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I’m just not in the mood.”

His face darkened, and he yanked away the paddle and threw it violently across the room. “All right, Little Missy. I’ve done everything you said. I even agreed to be monogamous. But if we’re issuing ultimatums, then I need to demand some things of you as well.”

She lay back exhausted on the bed, pulling up her knickers. She was so tired; she just wanted to sleep. “What would you like me to do?”

“For one thing, you need to be more expressive in the bedroom. I’m bored to death with your vanilla lovemaking. All you do is lie there.”

She sat up, stunned. “But you ordered me to lie still! I’m not even allowed to—”

“True, but you don’t put your heart into it. You’re just going through the motions. I want to see genuine fear in your eyes.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just so tired. Maybe tomorrow . . .”

“It’s not just tonight. You used to be a good sport, but you don’t want to do anything anymore. All you want is vanilla sex. I can’t even spank you, let alone flog you! If I could just draw blood once on those lovely buttocks of yours . . .”

Normally she reveled in light flogging and other humiliations, which brought her to a greater pitch of ecstasy than milder amusements, but in her present state of exhausted illness something snapped in her, and she felt disgusted by the suggestion. “Why would you want to draw blood? Are you some kind of a sadist?”

“You really need to stop your kink-shaming. It’s offensive.”


He got up and paced again. “Yes. You’re turning out to be a sex-negative prude. I’ve always slept with any girl I wanted, and marriage has really put a damper on that. So you can at least cater to my sexual tastes, if nothing else!”

She looked at him incredulously. She felt like a meal he had ordered in a fine restaurant, that he was send- ing back because the chef had not prepared to his liking. “Your—sexual tastes? I’m not just a girl you picked up on the street. I’m your wife. And you’re treating me like a whore!”

“What’s wrong with being a whore?” he parried, with mocking amusement.

Her heart welled up with rage. “How dare you call me a whore, you—you Dracula! You stole my innocence, and you groomed me to be your sex slave. I was a virgin when I met you. I was completely innocent. And then you told me that you loved me, and you hypnotized me, and you—you raped me!”

His eyes burned with a proud exultation. “You can’t sell that tale to me. Remember, I was there. Little Miss Virgin made me carry her all the way back to the castle. And then she stretched herself out on the bed like a naughty Lolita, and she stared at me with bedroom eyes that said, take me.”

“No, I didn’t! I was drunk, and you—”

“You wanted an adventure. That’s the phrase you use in your books, isn’t it? In other words, you wanted me to ravish you.”

She had never felt so confused and disoriented in her life. She had wanted an adventure, but not in the way he said. She had wanted him to kiss her, but she wouldn’t have had sex with him if he hadn’t cornered her, and if she hadn’t been drunk. He must have known that, and yet he had deliberately . . .

She flung herself on the bed, the tears streaming from her eyes. “I loved you. And you took advantage of my innocence!” “That’s your story. It’s a story that preserves your virtue intact, which is very convenient for you. Tell yourself anything you like, if it makes you feel better. But the fact is, you’re not the innocent little girl you pretend to be. You were begging to be seduced. You’ve never loved me. All I am to you is a man who flatters you and pleases you in bed. If our marriage is a failure, you’re to blame. You live in a fantasy world. You don’t even care who I am as a person. You just want to fit me into a mold of the perfect lover, like one of your book heroes. I’m nothing but an object to you. If you want to know the truth, I did love you. But your heartlessness has killed that love!”

Judith’s mind became tormented with a creeping panic.

She had objectified him. She had tried to mold him into the perfect lover, in deliberate ignorance of his actual personal- ity. Had she read too many romance novels, which reduced men to their rippling muscles, their piercing dark eyes, their eroticized sense of menace, and their ability to pleasure a woman where and when she wanted? Her heart filled with anguish at the thought that she may have killed his love with her foolish romantic fantasies. “That’s not true!” she screamed, her mascara pooling her tears into black rivulets. “I love you!”

At this, he erupted into crazed laughter. “Love! What is love to you anyway? A man who whispers sweet nothings in your ear, who plucks flowers for you, who tells you you’re beautiful night and day? You don’t love me—you’re in love with yourself. You fell into my arms the moment I said you were more beautiful than your sister, even though you knew it wasn’t true!” He laughed again, and his laughter was like knives piercing her heart.

She had believed him when he had told her she was beautiful, and it had made her beautiful, because of the boost it had given her confidence. But at these words, all of that confidence drained from her in an instant, as if a vampire had sucked out every last drop of her blood. And now that he had taken everything from her, including her self-esteem, she hated him with a burning passion. “You monster!” she shrieked. “Get out of this house. Get out!

She threw a flower vase at his head, and he ducked to avoid it.

“Yes, I’ll go,” he said, his lip curling with contempt. “It’s not worth it, being shackled to you!” He stalked to the door and stormed out. His steps thundered down the stairs, and the front door slammed with a sickening finality.

The room swirled around in a blur, and she fell to the floor. She felt as if she had turned into a liquid and was being sucked into a vortex, like Marion Crane’s blood in Psycho. She spiraled round and round, trying to hold on to the sides, but to no avail. She heard loud sucking noises as she slipped down the drain, and she screamed, “No!”

And then everything went black.



From Bluebeard’s Castle by Anna Biller. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso. Copyright © 2020 by Anna Biller.

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