All That Lives: A Novel of the Bell Witch

All That Lives: A Novel of the Bell Witch

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by Melissa Sanders-Self

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Robertson County, Tennessee, early 1800s. The respectable Bell family is quietly working its rural farm, when something utterly horrific suddenly unleashes a reign of terror upon them and their entire community. The haunting begins with knocking on the walls. Before long, disembodied voices are heard whispering in the night, and spectral creatures are seen floating


Robertson County, Tennessee, early 1800s. The respectable Bell family is quietly working its rural farm, when something utterly horrific suddenly unleashes a reign of terror upon them and their entire community. The haunting begins with knocking on the walls. Before long, disembodied voices are heard whispering in the night, and spectral creatures are seen floating in the field. Then, 13-year-old Betsy Bell is brutally assaulted, and her father, John Bell, is violently tortured by an unseen force. The desperate townspeople, frantic with fear, gather to cast the demon from their midst. But a far more insidious evil lurks in the Bell home-more damaging and disturbing than the Bell Witch could ever be.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this debut novel, Sanders-Self paints a sympathetic portrait of an innocent girl and a community of simple, pious people under assault from forces beyond their comprehension. Historical accounts of the Bell Witch a poltergeist that bedeviled a family of Tennessee farmers in the early 1800s have inspired writers for more than a century. This tale adds little to the debate about the entity's purpose, but manages a credible period pastiche through its depiction of settlers struggling in the spiritual and territorial wilderness of early America. At age 13, Betsy Bell becomes the focus of the witch's torments. For more than a year, the Bell family is subjected to nocturnal noises, rains of stones, blows from invisible hands and, eventually, belligerent back talk from the articulate spirit. Over time, the spirit becomes a part of the household's daily life, unpredictably helpful one moment and destructive the next. Betsy offers more reportage than reflection, her chronicle of the family's forbearance against the being's malicious pranks often seeming no more revealing than a schoolgirl's diary. The author raises the usual speculations for why the spirit manifests most significantly patriarch Jack Bell's sexual molestation of Betsy but never explores them at length. The reason given for Betsy's Job-like suffering, revealed in a Socratic dialogue at the height of book's flashy finale, won't satisfy everyone, but readers will stick with the story to the end, if only because Sanders-Self allows them to share in what her heroine endures. 3-city author tour. (May 23) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
More than just another ghost story, this novel is based on the legend of the famous Bell Witch of Tennessee and has been extensively researched by its author. Like most good ghost stories, it turns the normal into the paranormal and shocks the reader with evil invading good. The heroine of the story, Betsy Bell, is the first to be affected by the evil spirit, but soon many feel its power and it starts to draw spectators from afar. Even more frightening than the physical and verbal assaults of the spirit and its disembodied voice is its ability to reveal the true nature underlying the surface of the apparently God-fearing people of her small town. It is no coincidence that Betsy is just entering puberty, as were other victims of poltergeists and witches throughout history. As she confronts the evil that seems to be coming to her from another world, so too must she confront evil in her familiar world and her own naïve sexuality and what terrors it brings. The story is told in the language of 1815, extensively in dialogue, and captures the flavor and attitudes of the times. It is not easy reading but has a richness worth savoring. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Warner, 450p.,
— Nola Theiss
Kirkus Reviews
Unchallenging, aimless historical absorbed by day-to-day drudgery, despite the poltergeist. Based on accounts of the Bell Witch (a well-documented phenomenon visited upon an 1820s Tennessee family), the story is narrated by Betsy Bell, the 13-year-old girl the Spirit targets its mischief on. At first, there are only strange noises in the walls, but not many days pass before the Spirit is physically accosting Betsy, slapping her about the face and pushing her down. The local reverend is called in the hopes that prayer will exorcise this mute demon, but then the Spirit begins to speak, reciting Scripture with the ease of a scholar, leaving the family shaken but intrigued by the bodiless voice that speaks to them at all hours of the day. Weeks pass, the family becomes notorious, rocks fall from the sky, and the Spirit begins to prophesy the fates of all. Outwardly, the Bell Witch should be ripe story material-creepy, but also psychologically complex if interpreted as a mass hysteria-though sadly All That Lives gleans little from it. The Bell Witch, it grows evident, has come to "save" Betsy from her father, who has been molesting her (though this is mentioned only casually), eventually killing Master Bell. Though the tale does raise issues-incest, the unknowable nature of God's will-it hardly examines them. Instead, it offers a finely detailed depiction of rural life, which could have been satisfying in itself had the reader bit been lured into the world of poltergeists. In the end, the Spirit becomes benevolent and decides to leave, but not before trying to convince Betsy that she's better off now that her father is unable to molest her-and she begins to see its point. If you're looking foran account of farm life circa 1820, stop here; but for a novel of substance, pass on.

Product Details

Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.75(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

All That Lives

By Melissa Sanders-Self

Warner Books

Copyright © 2002 Melissa Sanders-Self
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-446-69073-2

Chapter One


In the autumn of 1815 when I was nine I walked into the woods past the cornfield near our stream, filling a flat garden basket with leaves the color of cherry skins, rooster necks and Chloe's boiled corn. My prizes dropped from the gracious limbs of oaks, poplars, maples and elms standing tall as God above me and I was grateful, for we were soon to have our first schoolhouse harvest pageant, and Professor Powell had requested all of us to gather fall leaves for decorations. The stream played a loud song, running high from recent rains, and I searched carefully with my bare toes for round stones I might step to. I felt very content, admiring my beautiful leaves, but I was struggling to keep hold of my pile, for it had grown so large, some flew out on the breeze of my movements and when I jumped to catch them, others sneaked over the edge.

All of a sudden, I stepped into a cold spot. The air was abruptly brisk and also very damp, the way it is when you progress to the back of a deep cave. The bare skin of my forearms began to tingle and a shiver straightened my spine. I looked about, dusk was falling quickly on the land, the way it does that time of year. I saw the tree trunks turning black with night. In the distance, across the cornfield and up the hill, I could see the back side of our house, faintly glowing with the lamps already lit behind the window glass of the kitchen. Our house was hewn from the finest double logs in Robertson County and though it was far away and partly obscured by the trees in the orchard, it was a sturdy and comforting sight.

I had the impulse to bolt away but at that moment I felt a pair of icy hands on my shoulders and I cried out in fear, for they were real, yet there was no one there. I started forward, slipping up the bank, and when I reached the field I tore across it and up the hill into the orchard, my precious leaves flying from my basket. I saw a few pretty blood-red maple ones caught in the folds of my skirt. I looked over my shoulder to where I had walked by the stream and there I saw a light flash. I stopped, thinking there must be someone there. I called my brothers' names, suspecting Drewry or John Jr. of playing a game with me, but I only heard the early hoot of an owl in response. The light did not appear again and I saw no movement in the darkening woods. I stood still by the side of the road, frozen, watching to see what was coming, but then the dark wind of evening brushed my cheek and rustled up under my skirts and I ran, lickety-split, away.

I was late for the evening meal and when I entered our hall I saw Mother, Father and my brothers waiting to be seated at the table in the dining room. Father frowned at me and I was so ashamed, I said nothing at all about what had happened in the woods. Our entire family was present, and my eldest brother, Jesse, took the chair to the right of Father, who sat across from Mother, and as though we were arranged in order of age, John Jr., Drewry, myself, Richard, and Joel took our seats. Father said the blessing and Mother said Amen, then Chloe began serving boiled hominy, cornbread and sweet potatoes roasted in the ashes. A tense silence reigned at our table, as no one made any effort at conversation, and the only sound was the clicking of our forks on Mother's treasured china supper plates and from the kitchen came the hissing of the fire.

"Let us retire to the parlor," Mother said, folding her napkin by the side of her plate. She stood, leaving the lamps for Chloe, to aid with the washing up out back. Some nights Mother and I cleared the plates but most often Chloe managed it alone. I was happy not to do it and I quickly rose and followed Mother across the dark hall.

Father pushed his chair back from the table and came after us, taking one of the two lamps. I watched him carry the light to his handsome writing desk that occupied the front corner by the parlor window. Reaching inside, he withdrew his silver whiskey flask, his book of accounts in which he documented the running of our farm, and his quill pen and ink. I watched as he took a long drink and prepared to write.

"Take this candle, Betsy, and bring me out the hairbrush." Mother passed the light to me before settling in her chair with the velveteen cushion by the fire. I obediently went into the dark bedroom she shared with Father off the back of the parlor. I found the wooden brush with the wild boar bristles on her bedside table and I gripped it tight, hurrying from the room, for the dark shadows in the corners reminded me of the coldness I had encountered in the woods. I wanted to tell Mother what had happened. I returned and knelt in front of her on the hooked parlor rug before the fire, tucking my legs under my skirt.

"Betsy." Mother bent forward and whispered in my ear while untying and loosening my plait. "Your father cherishes your yellow tresses and the rest of you, as if you were real gold. He adores you so, try to be worthy of his affection." Her hand rested on my spine, warm as the box iron. This was a gentle reprimand, but I drew my chin closer to my chest. I knew Father loved me in a special way and I did repent my lateness, but into the silent atmosphere I could not tell my story. Even Joel and Richard, who often had to be prevented from wrestling after supper, sat quietly on the wooden bench by the entrance to the parlor, swinging their cottonstockinged feet from their dresses, loath to provoke Father. I focused my eyes on the carpet as Mother gently began to brush my hair. The rug had a bright border of red and blue flowers entwined and I found the pattern lovely to contemplate. Father put his flask, book and pen back inside his desk and closed the writing leaf with a bang. He stoked the fire with another log, then sat beside it in his hickory rocking chair, opposite my mother. He liked to read to us from the good book after supper.

"Darling daughter," he looked to me and I saw a certain brightness in his eye that told how he loved me like no other and would protect me always. Maybe I could tell him about the cold place in the woods. "Come and sit beside me, here." My hair was all undone and fluttered like the yellow flames of the fire when I stood. He bade me turn and kneel and he positioned his chair so the hem of my skirt was trapped under its wide legs.

"Tonight we shall hear no less than salvation history, for it shall instruct us on the right true path, eh, Betsy?" He placed his hand on my head and pulled my hair gently back so my neck twisted slightly and my chin tilted up. His eyes met mine.

"Yes, Father," I answered, feeling his genuine loving concern for my welfare and education. His fingers stroked the line of my jaw and came to rest on the nape of my neck. Perhaps I would not mention why I had been late. I wanted nothing more than to be worthy of his love.

"God," he cleared his throat and began to read, "at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets ..." He stroked my hair between the turning of the pages and his fingers grew heavy on my head. My movements were greatly restricted by the trapping of my skirt and soon my legs turned numb to pins and needles, but I did not protest, for it was Father's will that I should sit that way and I felt blessed to be his darling daughter. The words of the good book in my Father's deep voice acted like a lullaby on me and I began to feel myself drifting away. As I passed into sleep I wondered if perhaps I had imagined the cold place in the woods, for how could there be such a thing on God's good earth?


Excerpted from All That Lives by Melissa Sanders-Self Copyright © 2002 by Melissa Sanders-Self . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this new author could have put more 'meat' into the story, but nonetheless she was able to keep me turning the pages. As a history buff, this was a great story. As a horror story lover, I was left a little hungry in the end. She didn't examine a lot of the issues she raised, which left it kind of bland. And the ending hung just a little too much leaving me feel as if I just read all those pages for no gratification in the end. I would recommend this book to a history lover for it includes so much, in a wonderful style. I loved hearing about the slaves and the schooling, she did a magnificent job in my opinion. Too bad she wasn't able to keep up the rest of it. It actually took me quite a few references before I caught on about her father, and I kept waiting for it to be disclosed to the rest of the family once I learned the reason of the ghost's haunting, but it never came. I felt so let down when it was never brought into the main plot, just left in the background. It also took WAY too long for her love with Josh to become a real part of the book. So long in fact that once you actually start to root for these two young lovers the book is over and you have no idea what Besty ultimately decided. Good book but left a lot to be desired. Pick it up if you have nothing else to read as it will keep you interested, but if you have another book available pass this book by.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Early in the nineteenth century in Robertson County, Tennessee, thirteen-year-old Betsy Bell begins hearing strange tapping noises coming from inside the walls of her family home. A few days later, the poltergeist making the noise slaps Betsy in the face and pushes her down to the floor. Yet no visible manifestation is present.

Not long afterward, Reverend Johnston begins a prayer session that he hopes leads to God¿s intervention and ultimately removal of the mute demon. However, instead of exorcising the evil essence, the Spirit begins intelligently reciting Scripture in tones that the Reverend envies. Everyone is stunned by the revelation that the invisible voice eloquently speaks scripture. As rocks fall from the sky especially at Betsy and her father, the Spirit prophesies what the future holds for the Bells if certain fatherly molestation does not halt.

If a reader expects that ALL THAT LIVES is a nineteenth century Turn of the Screw or Poltergeist, they will be proven wrong. Instead the novel is more of a period piece that describes life on an 1819-1820 Tennessee farm beset by seemingly supernatural forces. The story line when looked upon as historical speculative fiction as opposed to a supernatural novel is an engaging insightful tale. However, as a supernatural or psychological suspense account of the famous Bell Witch this project falls short, but shows that Melissa Sander-self has the ability to tell a vivid story.

Harriet Klausner

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ladies beware-- this book has 'explicit female content' which most guys find 'interesting', if you know what I mean. The character is indeed female, so female reprecussions are more less neccessary. But guys who are now processing this into your brain, please beware--this is NOT a view easily for men.