JON DOYLE on a writer’s avoidance of an easy answer
FLEEING a murky past involving mysterious deaths and accusations of usury in the slave trade, John Bell moved his family to a house near the town of Adams, Tennessee in 1804, looking to start afresh.
Bell had been excommunicated from the Baptist church for his trouble, so settling in such a devout area would have been difficult enough. But a series of inexplicable incidents made the situation considerably more challenging.
Strange animals appeared on their land, black canines that tailed the slaves, unknown birds of extraordinary size. Lights danced in the surrounding fields. Bell’s daughter Betsy claimed to see a girl dressed in green swinging from the branches of an oak tree before vanishing into thin air.
As though encroaching inwards, such occurrences began to centre on the Bell home. Bedposts were gnawed by invisible entities, the sound of some great winged thing beat against the roof.
Non-existent dogs were heard fighting, invisible chains rattled, disembodied knocks traced along the walls. Soon sheets were being pulled from beds, the children hit and scratched and stuck with pins. A voice emerged, strangely mechanical, claiming to be a disturbed spirit.
The spiritualism movement was in full swing at the time, seances and ectoplasm performances a solid source of entertainment in nineteenth century America, and people travelled far and wide to visit the Bells. The spirit, or witch as she came to be known, filled the house with ungodly smells and spoke to her visitors, answering their questions and descending into lewd gossip about those in attendance.
“The Witch never slept,” wrote Martin Ingram in 1894, “was never idle or confined to any place, but was here and there and everywhere […] invisible yet present, spreading all over the neighborhood, prying into everybody’s business and domestic affairs.”
More than the Bell’s personal curse, the entity seemed drawn to turmoil and shame, both delighted and disgusted by man’s folly and determined to air it in public for all to see. “[The witch] caught on to every ludicrous thing that happened,” Ingram continued, “and all of the sordid, avaricious meanness that transpired; divining the inmost secrets of the human heart.”
Inspired by a childhood fascination with ghost stories and a mental image of Robertson county as a “mythic place” existing in its own “strange fairytale geography,” William Gay travelled to the Bell Farm with his uncle more than 150 years after the family’s encounters with the witch.
Gay (1941-2012) (left) wasn’t a published writer at that point, his first stories not making magazines until 1998 and his first novel later still, just a Tennessean carpenter and decorator with a will to explore the unknown. This was before the Bell Witch road signs and midnight tours, the land still private property before being developed as a tourist attraction, so the two men poked around quietly as darkness fell.
They walked through the woods to the last remnants of the Bells’ house that had long since been demolished, found the graveyard where Bell’s tombstone had been stolen, a number of graves dug up. “Though we were trying to maintain a degree of detached curiosity,” Gay wrote, “it was undeniable that this was an eerie place.”
Only the eeriness didn’t stay in Robertson County.
Gay’s uncle was a tough Tennessean, “a man with the bark on” as Gay put it. A boy who lied about his age to land on the beaches at D-Day, fighting across France before being injured at the Battle of the Bulge; who returned home and took to drinking and brawling, sleeping in boxcars and jail cells before eventually settling down into family life.
Imagine the surprise then when he arrived at Gay’s house months after their witch-hunting excursion, distressed as all hell. He spoke of hearing voices, mumbling, loud bangs. He saw balls of blue light.
“The thing has followed me home,” he said.
The refusal to provide explanation is ultimately the key component of Gay’s horror. To fail to understand is to become vulnerable, for in a game with no rules anyone can lose, but to pretend to understand is surely more dangerous still, opening one up to the punishment reserved for the arrogant and vain.
Which might explain Gay’s non-committal attitude on the truth behind the Bell Witch.
“If I stacked the things I know next to the ones I don’t,” Gay wrote, “I wouldn’t have a very tall stack. Every question is multiple choice, and truth depends on your frame of reference. It sometimes seems an act of hubris to even form a conjecture.”
(Cont. next column)
If there was one thing that the Bell Witch could not abide it was human pride and foolishness, and nothing could be more foolish than trying to explain her away with some cool rational thought.
Gay’s essay on the Bell Witch, collected in the book Time Done Been Won’t Be No More, is indicative of his approach to both writing and the mysteries of life.
The list of possible explanations he provides for the phenomenon includes poltergeists and black magic alongside hoaxes and pranks, the suggestion that the witch represented some Freudian manifestation of repressed trauma on the part of one of John Bell’s children treated with interest if not conviction.
Born out of the Southern Gothic tradition, Gay is beholden to the arcane and unexplained, as though to err on the side of rationality would be to underestimate the depth and darkness of our earth.
“I don’t know if there’s any truth in all this business,” he wrote, “I don’t suppose anyone else will ever know. But I do know that the world is a strange and wonderous place.”
Such an attitude is intrinsic to the Southern Gothic style, a genre that could be said to have been born upon the collapse of the Confederacy.
The loss of identity at the end of the war coincided with destitution, as though the violence and desperation of the conflict returned home with the defeated troops, and through the great fracture in the grand narrative of the South emerged nightmares and fever dreams.
If the central truths of God, white supremacy and southern exceptionalism were not lost, then they were muddied by a myriad of other beliefs and considerations, a world where nothing was true and everything was possible. Ghosts and witches might not be natural, but in those new days, nothing was.
More than a hundred years later, William Gay’s fiction battles to maintain this grey area of the human experience, the liminal space between rational explanations in which things both wonderful and hideous might roam (a method that goes right down to the language, his tone veering between Cormac McCarthy’s Biblical eloquence and a distinctly colloquial Appalachian twang).
In Twilight, the protagonist hires an unhinged hitman to get revenge against a local undertaker with a habit of desecrating and mutilating his clientele, the characters given little depth that might explain such a predicament.
See too Gay’s short story ‘The Paperhanger’, where the mystery of a missing child transmogrifies into inexplicable evil, as though the devil himself stepped out of the flames for a short while to grace us with his presence.
Motivations and reasoning are not missing due to writerly failure but the complete opposite—the lack of explanation purposefully disorientating and disturbing the reader, revealing the only certainty in Gay’s world to be our inability to understand it.
Therefore, his novels and stories encompass everything: bad men both plain and misunderstood, sad men likewise, and men twisted by some demonic force and operating according to no discernible end. Attempts to rationalise such individuals lead nowhere, and many of the peripheral characters of Gay’s work read like the lost souls of the previously convinced—figures from miscarried fables cursed to wander the land long after the moral of their stories has been lost to time.
“[Gay] writes with the wisdom and patience of a man who has witnessed hard times and learned that panic or hedging won’t make better times come any sooner,” Tony Earley put it for the New York Times. “He looks upon beauty and violence with equal measure and makes an accurate accounting of how much of each the human heart contains.”
The Bell Witch stayed with Gay, literally or otherwise.
One of several works released after his passing in 2012, Little Sister Death is a fictionalised version of the tale, John Bell replaced by a frustrated author named David Binder who moves his family to a haunted farm in the hope of breaking his writer’s block.
Unsurprisingly, the plan is misguided, the ghostly dread exposing cracks in Binder himself and culminating in an explosion of violence that mirrors that of the house’s previous occupants.
In this way, Little Sister Death doesn’t so much flirt with the supernatural but give it name and invite it through the door, though simple explanations for such forces are withheld. Binder might be possessed by a spirit or demon or his own ruinous ambition, but possessed he certainly is, Gay presenting evil as an intangible and timeless thing that lies dormant in spaces, waiting to take root in the heart of susceptible men.
Jon Doyle is currently working on his debut novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University, Wales. His writing has appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, Review 31, Cardiff Review and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames