Sunday, May 07, 2006

Witches, ghosts, and fear

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lois the Witch (1856) and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005), which I happened to read back-to-back this week, make a good pair. Both are essentially books about fear and the ways we conceive of and attempt to deal with life’s uncertainties. And both come at those questions through the unseen and the supernatural.

Lois the Witch, originally published in Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round and republished a few years ago by the wonderful Hesperus Press, is a novella set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1691, right before the witch hysteria. From its opening pages, when Lois, a vivacious English girl, arrives to live with unwelcoming relations, we can see how the tragedy is going to unfold. Gaskell presents a Salem whose existence is somewhat precarious: the colony is estranged from English protection, surrounded by increasingly hostile Indians, and suffering through the hard New England winter. But the fear those dangers engender is unacknowledged, transformed instead into a formless fear of the unknown:
Sounds were heard that could not be accounted for; they were made by the evil spirits not yet vanished from the desert palaces of which they had so long held possession. Sights, inexplicable and mysterious, were dimly seen—Satan, in some shape, seeking whom he might devour. And at the beginning of the long winter season, such whispered tales, such old temptations and hauntings, and devilish terrors, were supposed to be peculiarly rife. Salem was, as it were, snowed up, and left to prey upon itself. The long dark evenings; the dimly lit rooms; the creaking passages, where heterogeneous articles were piled away, out of the reach of the keen-piercing frost, and where occasionally, in the dead of night, a sound was heard, as of some heavy falling body, when, next morning, everything appeared to be in its right place ; . . the white mist, coming nearer and nearer to the windows every evening in strange shapes, like phantoms—all these, and many other circumstances, such as the distant fall of mighty trees in the mysterious forests girdling them round; the faint whoop and cry of some Indian seeking his camp, and unwittingly nearer to the white man’s settlement than either he or they would have liked, could they have chosen.

Add in Puritan refusal to acknowledge desire or passion—to the point that people can’t even speak openly (“Hush! you know not who may be listening; you are putting yourself in [Satan’s] power.”)—and the end begins to seem inevitable.

Gaskell’s psychology is acute, her descriptions powerful, and her story convincing. In less than a hundred pages, she presents the horrors of Salem and, without reducing their complexity, offers an explanation. It’s quite an achievement, and thanks are due to Hesperus Press for making Lois the Witch readily available.

Since this is a long post, and it breaks fairly naturally, the rest will wait for tomorrow.

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