An Update on the Next Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery — and Tracking the Bell Witch

Officially, I’m saying Guilt Is a Ghost: A Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery will be released this autumn. However, things are proceeding very nicely, and it might be available in early fall. Maybe late summer. Or even midsummer!

This is a “synquel” to Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries, already available from Brom Bones Books. I call it a synquel because the two novels overlap in terms of the years covered. While Guilt Is a Ghost is a traditional novel — one featuring Vera’s investigation of a single, very involved haunting — Help for the Haunted is a “composite novel” (or short story cycle). It includes thirteen cases with threads that weave in and out of them to make the book more cohesive.

Which should you read first? It doesn’t really matter. Still, if you held a poltergeist to my head, I’d say start with Help for the Haunted. After all, it’s available, and you’ll learn more about the main characters, giving you insight into some of the details in Guilt Is a Ghost.

Both novels involve a lot of verifiable history. For instance, William James has an important role in Guilt Is a Ghost. James was 1) very real, 2) a Harvard professor, 3) a pioneer in Psychology, 4) the brother of novelist and ghost-story writer Henry James, and 5) an important figure in “psychical research” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Psychical research is now known as paranormal investigation.

William James
William James (1842-1910)

The forthcoming novel also mentions a very different historical personage: the Bell Witch. This folkloric figure appeared in Tennessee sometime in the early 1800s. Some versions of the legend involve the vengeful ghost of Kate Bates, who plagued the Bell family. Vera Van Slyke felt the story didn’t carry much weight. She said the same about one of the primary sources of information regarding it: Martin Ingram’s 1894 book An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch. You might prefer reading the handy synopsis of the book published in an issue of the Hartford Herald of that year.

On a lark, I went searching for online documents that predate Ingram’s important but dubious book. One of the earliest documents I found is an 1856 article titled “The Tennessee Ghost,” published in the Green Mountain Freeman. As with Ingram’s work, readers’ doubts might be raised because the writer is attempting to recall events from “some thirty years ago, or upwards.” Interestingly, the specter is referred to only as the Tennessee Ghost and the Bell Ghost. Kate Bates and the word “witch” are not there. In fact, the writer ends by attributing the ghostly phenomena to one of the Bell daughters and her talent as a ventriloquist. (As I note in Spectral Edition: Ghost Reports from U.S. Newspapers, 1865-1917, newspapers before the Civil War almost always took a skeptical view of ghosts.)

The only other pre-1894 source that I’ve managed to find online is an 1886 volume titled History of Tennessee, from the Earliest Time to the Present. The relevant reference is from a chapter on Robertson Country, and it’s only a paragraph long, so I’ll quote the whole thing:

A remarkable occurrence, which attracted widespread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adam Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the “Bell Witch.” This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The freaks it performed were wonderful, and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary. A volume might be written concerning the performances of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted. It is merely introduced as an example of superstition, strong in the minds of all but a few in those times, and not yet wholly extinct.

I’m especially intrigued by the last two lines. Unlike the 1856 article, no physical explanation is “attempted,” but the story is still presented as evidence of the power of superstition.

It seems that the Bell Witch was indeed “strong in the minds of all but a few” once upon a time. Illustrating this point, Ingram cites the court trial of Thomas Clinard and Richard Burgess. A jury exonerated these men from murdering a coworker who boasted of his ability to cast spells on others. A member of the legal counsel recalled that “the lawyers handled the Bell Witch affair for all that it was worth in the defense of their clients, presenting the analogy or similarity of circumstances with good effect on the jury,” according to Ingram.

Now, I can’t reveal how the Bell Witch specifically relates to the case Vera investigates in Guilt Is a Ghost. However, I will say that the impact of the Bell Witch is felt by at least one of the characters. And felt strongly. After all, whether or not there’s anything to substantiate the story of the Bell Witch, the beliefs that this legend reinforced were powerful enough to free two men from being punished for killing someone who claimed he could bewitch them. William James might have referred to this as “The Will to Believe.”*

*The same book linked here includes James’ essay titled “What Psychical Research has Accomplished.”

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