Sunday, July 02, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: GreenLit: An American Haunting - The Bell Witch by Brent Monahan

GreenLit. It's the fiction that led to the fade-in. These are the "at a theater near you" books — the literature whose adaptations got the greenlight to production and projection on to your neighborhood silver screens.

Ah, the obligatory Sacred Indian Burial Ground - the reason all haunted houses are haunted is because they are built upon ancestral and sanctified Native American land, of course. Ho-hum. You don’t even shudder to think it any more, and what should be a frightful story might instead become a tale of misery and no imagination. The reader goes harumph in the night, and rolls his eyes.

I exaggerate for effect, of course, just as An American Haunting may stretch what purports to be the truth - the book is, after all, a gussied-up, ghosted-out memoir that “fell into the hands” of the re-teller, novelist Brent Monahan. But since the legend of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, one of the most famous and heavily documented cases of a violent haunting in American history (though not without its detractors), enticingly entails so many of the supernatural elements we hold so shakily near and dear to us -- poltergeists, apparitions, disembodied voices, multiple personalities, witches -- it perhaps also calls for a myriad of possible explanations, including the one about disrupted deep-sixed Chickasaw and Cherokee riled and rising up, their hunting grounds become haunting grounds.

I don’t know how such ghoulish opportunities for Central Casting and the Prop Department plays out in the current movie version of the book -- lukewarm reviews, poor word of mouth and prohibitive ticket prices are enough to scare me off -- but in the book there is the time and cohesive circumstance to fully consider such Indian graves as “had been found in woods on the Bell property when more land was being cleared for crops.”

And who were the Bells? They were the farming family of John Bell, who had settled in the early 19th century in Robertson County, and who had got the upper hand in a land dispute with an eccentric neighbor, Kate Batts. A vengeful Kate vowed upon her deathbed that she would get even with John, and indeed the haunting began on this occasion in 1817.

Starting with “supernatural visitations," such as a large black animal and a girl in a green dress swinging from a tree, events evolved soon enough into poltergeist activity, but not of the merely mischievous kind. Snatching blankets off of sleeping family members and clawing at walls became more intimidating with incoherent choking and strangling noises, loud shrieking and cursing.

Then after gaining vocal strength to the point of being able to converse, the spirit confirmed suspicions and announced herself as “Kate Batts’ Witch.” She also took her haunting up a few more notches, slapping and pinching people, mostly those she took a disliking to. By this time “Kate” had branched out beyond the Bell family, also targeting neighbors and visitors (including future President Andrew Jackson).

Indeed, Kate could travel for miles around, and haunt and taunt two people at the same time - an ability facilitated by the “fact” that a “family” of spirits emerged, calling themselves Black Dog, Jerusalem, Mathematics, and Cypocraphy, each with a different personality.

All of these episodes, though often presented matter-of-factly, as befits a detailed documentation, are eerily evocative and make for a solid -- if not supreme -- scare, mostly from being ostensibly rooted in events at least believed real. There are some goofs and gaffes, such as an occasion where there was a diversion set up “whilst the ’witch’ was busy entertaining strangers” - this distraction made despite the evidence previously established for Kate’s ubiquity and omniscience.

The most successful parts of An American Haunting -- effective perhaps for its dichotomous clash -- concerns the latter years of the haunting into 1821 when the bizarre multiple personalities had diminished from the scene. Kate emerges more as a fully realized lone spirit, one that could discourse about theology but who also, like a psychotic housewife, in hum-drum dreary tones “droned on with its usual prattle, alternating gossip with vicious verbal barbs at John.”

Indeed, it’s a contradictory development that could be the antithesis of a spooky story if it were not for some increased torments, physical and mental. These assaults rained down increasingly upon John -- by this time Kate has reiterated and spelled out her death bed threat that she will “get even” by killing him -- and upon, almost inexplicably, his adolescent daughter Betsy.

The ending, not to be divulged here, is a mixed affair. A startling development, but one that seems attuned more to modern insights, neatly but nonetheless disturbingly ties up the loose ends, wrapping up in almost anachronistic fashion the disjointed parts of a haunting whole.


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