Bad reviews are easy to write. Good reviews, even easier. Middle-of-the-road reviews, on the other hand, are tough to crack. But that’s where I find myself today as I’m putting my thoughts together on John F.D. Taff’s new book The Bell Witch.
The book is based on a well-known haunting that took place in Tennessee in the early 1800s. Numerous books have been written on the subject, and films ranging from The Blair Witch Project to An American Haunting have been based at least in part on the legend. Taff’s version is a fictionalized account of what may or may not have actually happened, but a little research shows that he’s sticking quite close to what’s accepted as fact in the case.
In Taff’s book, the Bell family begins experiencing strange events that seem to be centered around their daughter, Betsy. When the girl falls into an unexplained coma, the manifestations begin. These early events are classic poltergeist activity – objects moving on their own, bedsheets being torn off by invisible hands, harsh slaps that seem to come out of thin air. These initial actions are spelled out by Taff in prose that makes them feel exceptionally creepy.
The Witch, as the entity is referred to throughout the book, also speaks to the family, and this is where I began to lose my enthusiasm. At first it’s just whispered taunts in the ears of her victims, which I was fine with. I mean, what’s more frightening than an unexpected voice in a darkened room?
But before long, the Witch becomes downright chatty. Her words go from taunting, creepy and confrontational to cozy and conversational, and it derailed any menace I felt from her. As she moves into this phase of her relationship with the Bell family, she seems almost hurt that they try and avoid her, her previous actions notwithstanding. She tells them that she really only has “business” with a couple of them, and seems to want to get friendly with the rest. And it’s not just the Bells she talks to, either; at one point she “shows up” at the opening of a new church. Now, you’d think a disembodied and vaguely threatening spirit voice would be cause for pandemonium in a church congregation, but before long the Witch is the life of the party, sharing gossip (and fruit) from far-off places with the parishioners.
At this point in the book I really couldn’t understand the choices Taff was making. He’d gotten off to a truly creepy start and seemed to be constructing a classic, frightening ghost story, then took a left turn into “Casper the Friendly Ghost” territory. But I decided to look a little into the “real” Bell Witch legend, and I saw that many of the accounts describe incidents of the spirit carrying on full conversations with the Bells and with others in the community. In trying to create a fictionalized account of something that many believe really happened, Taff is just incorporating events as they have been described.
That being said, I find it hard to criticize Taff for taking this route. It may not have been the story I wanted, but it was the one he felt compelled to tell. An author’s one and only job is, I believe, to stick to his vision of the story he’s putting on paper, and it seems to me that’s exactly what Taff has done.
Ultimately, The Bell Witch fell a little short for me, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Taff’s ability as a writer. It’s a book I’m still comfortable recommending to others, because what works or doesn’t work for me is all about personal preference. I think others may find a lot to like in the book. Taff is a good writer with a smooth, engaging style, and based on what I’ve seen in The Bell Witch, I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.