The Bell Witch by John F.D. Taff
Published by Books of the Dead
Publish date: July 2013
Review by: Alicia Banks
Synopsis: The Bell Witch is a historical horror novel/ghost story based on what is perhaps the most well-documented poltergeist case to occur in the United States. It tells the story of the Bells, an early 19th-century Tennessee farm family who begin to notice strange occurrences—odd noises, bangings, gurglings. Eventually, an entity reveals itself to the family, calling itself, simply, the Witch, and makes it clear from the outset that it was sent to kill the patriarch of the family, John Bell.
Our thoughts: I first heard mention of the Bell Witch nearly 15 years ago in a documentary. The documentary itself was on the Blair Witch, but a section of it was about The Bell Witch with various comparisons. I found the story both intriguing and extraordinary, mainly because there were so many witnesses to the disturbances.
The family that was terrorized, The Bell Family, lived on a farm in rural Tennessee, in a town now called Adams (it was called Red River at the time) in the early 1800s. The farm land is still used for that purpose to this day though the family home no longer stands.
The cast of characters is as follows: Jack Bell, patriarch of the family, is one of the two family members The Witch abuses the most. Her goal is to ultimately kill him. Betsy Bell, Jack's daughter, is the other family member that takes the brunt of the abuse. Lucy Bell is Jack's wife, and she and The Witch form some kind of a bond in spite of horror that's surrounding. John Bell is the oldest son of Jack and Lucy Bell. He is married and owns his own farm but still comes by to help the family when needed. Three younger sons, Williams, Zach, and Drew are physically assaulted by The Witch during the haunting. The slaves of the Bell family, specifically Saloma, Naddy, Adam, Harry, Sam, and Anky, round out the people living on the farm grounds. In addition, there's Hank Gardner, Betsy's boyfriend, Reverend Johnston, a local farmer who has been given the honorary title of Reverend for taking on the duty of attending to the spiritual needs of the area's residents, Richard Powell, the local school teacher, Dr. Hopson, the family physician, and even Andrew Jackson himself.
And then, of course, there's The Witch.
Supposedly born from a cave on the outskirts of the Bell property, The Witch, as she is only known by in this book (in historical accounts, she was called Kate or Cate as well), was never a human being. She is not a ghost; rather, she is a spirit or entity, according to her. She enjoys singing, terrorizing, and dropping f-bombs in her spare time. She attends church, leading the choir in hymnals there, and she's very chatty. Oh, and she can also tell the future and relay scripture like nobody's business.
She is a great source of entertainment for the community in this part of Adams. Gaggles of people witness her talking, singing, and other antics throughout the book. Even Andrew Jackson makes a visit to his old friend, Jack Bell, in hopes of witnessing The Witch in action, arriving armed with his very own ghost hunter. His wishes come true; she puts on an excellent performance during his one night stay.
The big question is this: Why is The Witch terrorizing this family? What's her purpose? You'll get no spoilers from me, but I will say it was apparent from the very beginning of the book. There is no mystery here, no "Aha!" moment at the climax. The plot is predictable and not just because it's a fiction novel loosely based on a true story. Even if you'd never even heard of the Bell Witch, you can figure out what's going on within the first ten pages. That doesn't necessarily make the book a bad one mind you. It's simply not its strong point.
Taff does an excellent job with his characters and scenery. The reader gets enough attention to detail concerning the entire Bell family and the Adams community with whom they interact. There are nasty little secrets in many closets of those around town, and The Witch knows them all. The descriptions of The Bell Plantation and the new church being erected are done well; you can see them in your head when reading. Things like that are always a plus to me as a reader. Taff is a good writer. He has a way with words.
In the end, Taff's The Bell Witch is an entertaining book. As a reader, I was looking for a little more scare and a little less schtick. The horror just wasn't quite there for me. I wanted to have to go to bed with the lights on after a read. That didn't happen. Instead, I laughed out loud a few times, and I did start to research a little more on the historical documents and accounts of the actual haunting. The book wet my appetite for more on the subject. I share Taff's enthusiasm for an interesting real-life American Gothic story. If you're interested in the same, check out The Bell Witch.