Melissa Sanders-Self

"All That Lives: A Novel of the Bell Witch"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer AUG 1, 2002)

"As I passed into sleep I wondered if perhaps I had imagined the cold place in the woods, for how could there be such a thing on God's good earth?"

All That Lives by Melissa Sanders-Self

No one knew why the Spirit came to the torture the Bells. It certainly didn't seem like a benevolent presence. It started out as a tapping sound and grew into something that could rip the quilt off Betsy Bell's bed and then beat her without pity. For a pious, God fearing family near an equally God fearing and superstitious village of the 1800's, the accusations of demon possession and haunting are nearly as frightening as the visitations themselves. When the Spirit learns to talk, it can discuss scripture with the best of them, but then it turns around and makes cruel comments and jokes about the Bells and the villagers. It refuses to tell its purpose, but seems to harbor an especial hatred of Jack Bell, the father of the house, as much as it seems to genuinely like Lucy, the mother. When it saves the younger children's life, it adds yet another odd dimension to its character, and makes it even harder to discover its reasons.

Read excerptThis story is an interesting study in contrasts. The Spirit itself, supposedly all evil, does good, even as it laughs at and exposes the follies of the people around. Jack Bell speaks piously, yet we learn early in the story that he is sexually molesting Betsy. She doesn't refuse his advances because she doesn't know that they're wrong, and because she is frightened of losing his love. He is a frightening man, not particularly cruel, but not really kind either. The way he treats his slaves is awful, but he shows kindness in odd places...his overseer seems to really like and respect him. Lucy is incredibly sweet and good, but she never realizes what her husband does to her daughter. Both speak quite piously, but while Jack is more into a wrathful, fierce God: Lucy is more accepting, a believer in a gentle God, and when Lucy prays, you feel she truly means it. The contrast between the piety and constant prayers and the Spirit (named by a mean neighbor the Bell Witch) is fascinating, for we see that the prayers are only effective if someone truly good (i.e. Lucy) utters them. We also see how the constant persecution wears away at faith.

One thing that sets this book apart is the wording. The dialogue and narration both feel like perfect 1800's English. Sanders-Self gets the tone and cadence of the language perfectly, so you feel as if you're truly reading a first hand account of the haunting through Betsy's mind, almost as if it's a journal uncovered by the author. The setting is also wonderful, filled with odd little facts snuck in; things that make it feel right and proper. Nothing jars you out of the feel of this book, realistic yet threaded through with the supernatural. You're constantly waiting for the Spirit to speak, yet you're not sure if you want to urge the people in this story to take its words to heart or not. Truthfully, I kept thinking that Betsy ought to go off by herself and ask it, quite politely, what it wanted, because it's pretty obvious that it has some connection to her, but she doesn't... something that is probably quite in character for her. She is willful in some measures, but in others as meek as anything.

This book is based on the true tale of the Bell Witch, who haunted Robertson County, Tennessee from 1817 to 1821. What makes this story significantly creepier is the fact that there is an abundance of eyewitness accounts and collaborating witnesses. I think that Sander-Self's take on the story, centering the actions around Betsy and extrapolating from there makes a lot of sense, and makes for an arresting story. The fact that no one has ever satisfactorily figured out what the Bell Witch actually was, and reading passages that you find out supposedly actually happened give this story a sense of reality that makes it much more frightening.

Though, this is not a particularly scary read, just creepy and fascinating. Trying to figure out what the Spirit wants kept me turning the pages. Sometimes I got frustrated with Betsy, but all in all she's a likable character who we want to see happy. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking some of the creepier tones of Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially fans of his more supernatural works, such as Young Goodman Brown .

  • Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews

Read an excerpt from All That Lives at

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About the Author:

Melissa Sanders-SelfMelissa Sanders-Self was born in Tennessee and currently resides with her husband and children in Santa Cruz, California. She was educated at Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she received her BA with highest honors in Creative Writing and Literature. She produced and wrote the documentary film, Writing Women’s Lives. It aired nationally on PBS and is currently available from Films for the Humanities. She was awarded artist-residencies at both the Djerassi Foundation and the Ucross Foundation. She has previously published short fiction with New Rivers Press. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014