Saturday, August 29, 2009

All That Lives: A Novel of The Bell Witch by Melissa Sanders-Self

"All That Lives" tells the story of one of the most famous hauntings and unsolved mysteries in American history from the viewpoint of one of its victims--Betsy Bell, the youngest daughter of John Bell, a prosperous tobacco farmer in Adams, Tennessee, who suffered great abuse at the invisible hands of the entity that became known as "The Bell Witch."

The story begins in 1819 when nine-year-old schoolgirl Betsy Bell ventures out into the woods to collect autumn leaves to decorate the schoolhouse for the upcoming Harvest Pageant. A pall of spine-tingling fear is cast over the day when she steps into a pocket of cold air and feels a pair of invisible hands descend onto her shoulders. This is the calling card of the entity that will come to torment Betsy and her family with a vengeance four years later.

The novel then moves ahead four years to a mild spring night when Betsy is thirteen. A persistent tapping on the glass of her bedroom window draws Betsy from her bed, where she is curled up under the quilt with stomach cramps, as she rises to investigate she feels the first blood of womanhood flow between her legs. The arrival of the spirit at the same time as the menstrual blood is perhaps a significant parallel as some paranormal investigators believe there is a strong connection between puberty and poltergeist activity.

The tapping on the windowpane continues in the nights to come, joined by more baffling and inexplicable phenomena--rapping on the walls, a noise like a rat gnawing on the bedpost, the flapping wings of a flock of invisible birds, smacking lips, gulping, choking, and gasping breaths, the sound of splintering wood as if the furniture is being smashed to kindling, and showers of stones that fall down the stairs. The Bell family put all their faith and trust in God and prayer, but nonetheless meticulously search the house from top to bottom for some rational, earthly explanation. The roof is examined for loose shingles that might flap in the wind and the floorboards are even taken up in search of rodents, but no natural cause can be found. The horrors continue to escalate as the unseen entity begins to yank covers from the beds, and violently jerk and twist Betsy's long yellow braid. It slaps her face with such force that a red handprint lingers, stabs her with invisible pins, and hurls her down onto the floor into fainting fits in which she lies motionless, unable to speak, in a state of oppressive breathlessness. Strange lights are also seen floating over the fields and peculiar "witch creatures" bedevil and perplex the Bells, their slaves, and neighbours.

Betsy Bell endures the worst of the torments, but her father John Bell is also afflicted with an intense discomfort in his throat that feels like a twig stuck sideways, preventing him from swallowing. An undercurrent of incest runs throughout the relationship between John Bell and his "darling daughter," though this is more implied than explicit. No actual sexual encounters are described though there are disturbing hints knotted together with Betsy's feelings for her father: "I feared the absence of his love much more than I feared his unwanted touch," she thinks as she lies passively on her bed after suffering the spirit's attentions, and her father unlaces her stays. Each time John Bell carries his "darling daughter" upstairs after a spectral assault an incestuous encounter is implied in discreetly worded language that draws a curtain over a loathsome sight Betsy would rather not have us see and most readers would rather not witness; the knowledge is disturbing enough.

By this point two men of God, Reverend Johnston and preacher Calvin Justice, have been brought in to try to banish the entity. Word of the phenomena quickly spreads and the curious descend on the Bell homestead. The spirit thrives on their attention and quickly finds its voice and begins to regale the eager audience and the beleaguered Bells with recitations of scriptures, songs, stories, gossip, tidbits of prophecy, and malicious taunts. It even reveals a secret adulterous affair in the community which leads to tragedy. And with malicious glee it sends the family on a wild-goose-chase in search of a tooth knocked from the jawbone of an Indian whose grave was disturbed, and later on an even more onerous search for a buried treasure, before it finally reveals its true, blood-chilling, purpose: "I shall torment John Bell out of his life!"

The entity, now commonly called "The Bell Witch," is also intent on destroying Betsy's burgeoning romantic feelings for her handsome young suitor Joshua Gardner. "Betsy Bell, do not have Josh Gardner!" it thunders repeatedly as it tries to tear the young couple apart. But young love, and first love, is difficult to ignore.

When John Bell takes to his bed, the spirit gleefully takes credit; glorying in the role of murderer and boisterously singing "Row me up some brandy o!" as he expires, then seeing him to his grave, and making a mockery of the solemn funeral procession, with a spirited rendition of "Oh here's success to whiskey, drink it down, drink it down!"

But the spirit also shows a compassionate side and stays to nurse his widow, kind, gentle-natured Lucy Bell, when she comes down with a bad case of pleurisy. To tempt her fragile appetite and aid her recovery it makes the roof rain showers of summer fruit down onto her sickbed even as the trees are bare and the earth frozen and carpeted thick with snow.

Betsy is consumed by fear that the spirit means to murder each member of her family one by one. She begins to live only for the moment and takes advantage of the lax parental supervision brought on by her father's death and her mother's illness to meet Joshua Gardner secretly in the woods. Sometimes they make love, other times they play like little children. But Betsy is angered and frightened by Joshua's desire to discuss their future; he begs her to be his bride and cross over the mountains with him to the fertile lands of Kentucky to start a farm, a family, and a new life together. But Betsy hesitates and procrastinates, in tears and fear, as the seed the spirit's persistent cries of "Betsy Bell do not have Josh Gardner!" has planted takes root inside her mind. And is there perhaps something about Joshua himself that, despite his earnest words, waters that seed and helps give it life?

The book ends with an incendiary confrontation between Betsy and her demon, giving full vent to the battle royal raging inside this tormented young girl's soul, and showing that good and evil are not always white and black, sometimes they bleed and blend together to create shades of grey.

Though some may find "All That Lives," to be, at times, a slow read, I think the pace well suited to the mode of life it depicts--a routine and hardworking existence in early, rural 19th century Tennessee interspersed with simple pleasures and Sunday church services--shattered by supernatural events. It also serves to capture the mounting frustration the Bell family suffered day by day as they endured this otherworldly onslaught that turned their quiet, respectable home into a carnival atmosphere and made them the subject of gossip and rumours. Some liberties, in the form of omissions and elaborations, are taken with the actual events, at least as they have come down to us in the historical record, but, in a novel this is to be expected and does nothing to detract from the fascinating history/legend of The Bell Witch. Of the fictional treatments of the story currently available, this one stands the highest in my estimation.

1 comment:

Nathalie Uy said...
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