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From the Publisher"America's greatest ghost story." -Dennis William Hauck, Haunted Places
"Too compelling to put down." -Fangoria
Known throughout Tennessee as "Old Kate," the Bell Witch took up residence with John Bell's family in 1818. It was a cruel and noisy spirit, given to rapping and gnawing sounds before it found its voices.
With these voices and its supernatural acts, the Bell Witch tormented the Bell family. This extraordinary book recounts the only documented case in U.S. history when a spirit actually caused a man's death.
The local schoolteacher, Richard Powell, witnessed the strange events and recorded them for his daughter. His astonishing manuscript fell into the hands of novelist Brent Monahan, who has prepared the book for publication. Members of the Bell family have previously provided information on this fascinating case, but this book recounts the tale with novelistic vigor and verve. It is truly chilling.
"Too compelling to put down." -Fangoria
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.
The book purports to be a recently discovered manuscript written by Richard Powell, an eyewitness of the Bell Witch haunting in Robertson County, Tennessee, 181721. Monahan says that his first skeptical reading of the manuscript led him to six books confirming the authenticity of the events. Indeed, Richard Powell, the long-dead narrator, is himself a skeptic who seems to know all the devices of poltergeists, and in particular how poltergeist activity within a home reflects a family's psychic torment. Poltergeists (racket-makers) do not attack from without but rather are a spiritual pustule erupting from within a deeply troubled household. The poltergeist in this case seemed set on doing away with John Bell, the head of the family, while at the same time gradually evolving a rather homey tie with the other family members that lasted for three years and was witnessed by many. The spirit first showed up as something invisible gnawing nightly on bedposts, raining rocks on the roof, ripping covers off beds, and repeatedly slapping 12-year-old Betsy Bell and pulling her across the floor by her hair. At times the spirit allowed itself to be touched; it gathered news from afar for the family; lectured on theology; sang sweetly in four different voices; and rescued children in trouble. For three years, the spirit joked, lectured, ran off frauds and charlatans, and even nursed Bell's sick wife, producing nuts and berries for the invalid out of thin air. Even so, it afflicted the father with palsy, tics, and neuralgia, and at last watched him die. What produced the poltergeist? It's unfair to reveal here Monahan's reasonable yet supernatural answer.
More artful, if less exciting, than Monahan's brainy bloodsucker operas—but all immensely satisfying.
Posted January 11, 2009
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