DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

The Bell Witch
by Brent Monahan
St. Martin's Press
ISBN 0-312-15061-X
199 pp/ $20.95

The "Bell Witch" is a bonafide "rural legend." The story of a haunting (and perhaps a feud between two families,) it has long held a place in American folklore.

With his The Bell Witch, author Brent Monahan claims to merely be coveying the words of a historical manuscript that seems to explain that legend. It was supposedly written in 1841 by Richard Powell, a teacher and later politician who married the Bell daughter around whom the haunting centers. Monahan even dutifully provides a semi-scholarly introduction (complete with verifiable footnotes) is so convincing that he has evidently confused librarians who have filed the novel under "non-fiction."

The story is simple, but like all good yarns, mystifying. What (to our modern paranormal-aware minds) seems to be a poltergeist begins pestering the Bell family in 1817. The abuse escalates as the "witch" vows to kill the family patriarch, John Bell, and torments Betsy, the teenage daughter, while simultaneously protecting her -- it interferes with Betsy's engagement to one young man and encourages the narrator, a mature, educated man, in his suit. Theories abound --the haunt is a demon; the "witch" has an unknown bond to young Betsy; the haunting is a curse called down by a neighbor -- but nothing is proven and no exorcism succeeds.

Despite the entity's threats and mounting viciousness toward John Bell, it seems more mischievous than evil to others. By 1820 the witch is comfortable ranging over a large geographical area, speaking to various members of the community (and discussing theology with them,) playing tricks, providing predictions and advice, even intervening to save lives. The story spreads, attracting a variety of visitors (including General Andrew Jackson, not yet elected to the presidency) to witness the phenomenon.

Monahan's historical detail to makes the early 19th century milieu credible. And his use of a "classically educated" narrator avoids the need for recreating difficult period or regional language while still taking care to use appropriate language for the era. The reader is drawn easily into the story and to these characters and situations from the past. The actual cause and resolution of the supernatural disturbances seems quite contemporary, but historically acceptable. Like any good "history" it reminds us that human frailty and evil have always been with us. Moreover it is a satisfyingly plausible resolution that, in retrospect, seems to have been there just waiting for the clever Mr. Monahan to connect the clues and show it to us.

The physical book is small, well designed and illustrated with what one assumes to be "period" drawings, since no illustrator is credited. But then Brent Monahan denies credit for The Bell Witch's narrative, claiming only to be its "editor," one hopes he and his genuine editor, Gordon Van Gelder, will accept the accolades this small treasure of a book engenders. It quietly shows, once again, that story is still the essence of fiction. -- Paula Guran

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Copyright © 2002 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.