Generally Gothic Bookworm Readalong: Lore in ‘Little Sister Death’

Whilst some of you are still making your way through Little Sister Death for the #generallygothicbookworm read-along which Gothic Bookworm and I have been hosting throughout December, we’ve decided to postpone our final, spoiler-filled blog posts until after Christmas…

Having finished the novel ourselves, however, we’re both too filled with feelings to stay silent until then! You can read Gothic Bookworm’s preliminary review here; she’s done a great job of alluding to the plot without ruining anything! Because I’m not sure I can trust myself to discuss the plot without picking it all apart and exposing spoilers, I have instead decided to share two things:
1) The folktale of the Bell Witch Haunting
2) My response to the text excluding any discussion of the plot at all.

© Generally Gothic

The Bell Witch Haunting

First reported in 1817, The Bell Witch Haunting is a folk tale originating in the southern state of Tennessee, USA. A Tennessee-native himself, William Gay cites the local legend as an influence upon his own southern gothic novel. To avoid spoilers, I won’t comment on any parallels, differences, or implications this folk story may or may not have with/to/on the novel. I will simply tell you the tale.

The tale takes place in rural Tennessee, on a farm near a small town called Adams. The year is 1817 and the farm’s owner, John Bell, has just been startled by the presence of a large black dog. When he shoots his gun at it, the creature disappears entirely, in a manner surely impossible for a living creature.
Around this time, the farmer’s son, Drew, sees a strange bird of incredible size that vanishes as he tries to approach it.
As these ghostly animals are visiting the men, Besty, the farmer’s daughter, tries to befriend a girl dressed in green that she sees swinging from a branch of an old oak tree but, as you will have come to expect, this unknown girl eludes the Bell girl becoming a whisper on the air.
Dean, a slave to the Bells (because these were dark days in the history of mankind) becomes familiar with the same dog-like presence spotted by his master. It appears before him daily, in the same place, no matter the time, as he innocently walks to visit his wife.

Soon sounds begin to fill the Bell house. Knocking through the walls though no-one is on the other side. Dogs fighting though there are no dogs. Chains rattling across the floor though there are no chains to be seen.

From sights through sounds, the haunting then takes on a far more menacing physical nature. John Bell becomes afflicted by a paralysis that contorts his mouth and for a time keeps it locked, uncomfortably, there.
In the bedrooms the children’s bed covers are violently whipped off them in the dead of night. Their hair is pulled. They are covered in scratches from hands that cannot be seen. And little Besty Bell is unhappily the favourite, receiving slaps and beatings and pricks from invisible pins.

All the while, Mrs Lucy Bell is treated with kindness. The entity, who came to be known as the Bell Witch, sings to the farmer’s wife and leaves offerings of fresh fruit for her alone to feast upon.

Four years after the family’s first encounter, Betsy Bell calls off her engagement to her love. This sacrifice appeases the ghost, for a while, but it promises to return in seven years time.

True to its word, seven years pass and the Bell Witch returns. Now married to another and a mother of two, Besty Bell and her sons are visited once more. This time, Betsy pays the ghost witch no heed and, dejected, it leaves the Bells forever changed but, at last, alone…

The 19th century Bell family home, Adams, Tennessee. Artist uncredited, 1894. Via Wiki Commons.

My Spoiler-Free Thoughts on Completing Little Sister Death

© Generally Gothic

“𝓗𝓮 𝔀𝓪𝓼𝓷’𝓽 𝓼𝓾𝓻𝓮 𝓲𝓯 𝓲𝓽 𝔀𝓪𝓼 𝓰𝓸𝓸𝓭 𝓸𝓻 𝓫𝓪𝓭 𝓸𝓻 𝓲𝓷𝓭𝓲𝓯𝓯𝓮𝓻𝓮𝓷𝓽 𝓫𝓾𝓽 𝓱𝓮 𝓭𝓲𝓭 𝓴𝓷𝓸𝔀 𝓲𝓽 𝔀𝓪𝓼 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓼𝓽𝓾𝓯𝓯 𝓸𝓯 𝓷𝓲𝓰𝓱𝓽𝓶𝓪𝓻𝓮𝓼.”

The composition pictured above, which was a coincidental occurrence on placing my book down to grab something mundane from my pocket, pretty much sums up my opinion of William Gay’s Little Sister Death. It’s an obscure association though, so stick with me!

The object hanging from the wall is a soil sieve or gold pan, and it represents the process with which I read this book. My copy (an ex-library book, which made it feel rather rebellious) is now covered in scribbles as I sought the gems in a sometimes messy collection of passages. Some sections shone brightly – others were fool’s gold.

The narrative is published posthumously from the author’s notes and it’s clear, on completion, that it’s not a finished text. Some threads carry through wonderfully; others are left loose even in the final pages.

The tin, or rather the text printed upon it (which always amuses me), describes the effect that the narrative had upon me. I was enraptured. I wanted to devour it like a whole tin of reading biscuits; they’re superior, don’t you know?

In my own strange way, what I’m trying to express is that I enjoyed this book, even though it was far from perfect. Some scenes, symbols, and story lines were fantastic. Some caused me to gasp aloud. Others felt flat, and there were even some ridiculous mistakes in print that the editors should have picked up on.

As I mentioned, Gothic Bookworm and I have finished Little Sister Death now, and are excited to publish spoiler-filled posts on our blogs soon. That will come after Christmas (because some of you are still reading, and the holiday season has us busy with important things such as fireside cake and festive bookworming)… As will the announcement of our next short #generallygothicbookworm readalong! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts, no matter how far into the novel you may currently be.

Thank you to everyone who got involved and read along with us. We hope you’ll join us for the next one! If you have any requests, suggestions, or violent demands, let me know below, or on Instagram.

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