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All That Lives: A Novel of the Bell Witch    by Melissa Sanders-Self order for
All That Lives
by Melissa Sanders-Self
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

All That Lives pulls the reader into the daily lives of a god-fearing and loving family in 1800s Adams, Tennessee, where people lived 'sharing in the wealth and abundance of nature, in accordance with the laws of the Divine.' The parents are Lucy and Jack Bell, and there are six children - five boys and Jack's 'darling daughter' Betsy. Betsy is an innocent who is anxious to please her parents, and especially her strict father. He is a hard-working, respected man who runs a tobacco plantation on the labour of his slaves. Lucy Bell appears to be a loving mother.

However, discordant notes begin to ring in the reader's mind even before the legendary Spirit known as the Bell Witch starts raising havoc with the family. There is something nasty in the patriarch's treatment of slave children on the plantation - the Bell children's acceptance as normal of a distasteful incident involving Betsy's childhood friend Little Bright, makes it even worse. Indeed there are several bizarre aspects of their lives that the children accept, such as a leashed owl in the barn, which their father feeds live sparrows.

The story develops slowly. After Betsy Bell reaches puberty, the Bell Witch begins to manifest with poltergeistic attacks, focussed on her. The local Reverend prays and beseeches the Spirit, to no avail except that it addresses him contemptuously as 'Old Sugar Mouth'. Neighbours gradually become aware of events and develop their own theories; some blame a local eccentric and the doctor diagnoses mass hysteria. People come from near and far to witness the infamous Bell witch, which, in addition to tormenting Betsy, begins to target her father with its abuse. It also predicts doom for some members of the community, but then saves the Bell children from harm.

As events unfold, it becomes a question of what is worse, the external horror or the canker within the family. The Witch eventually acts to excise it, though its motivations remain obscure, since it also warns Betsy against her budding romance with Josh. As it says to her 'Your feeble mind cannot comprehend knowledge of all that lives.' All That Lives is indeed a curious and haunting tale, that raises many questions. Why did the poltergeistic effects begin after Betsy's puberty? How could Lucy Bell, the perfect mother, be so unaware of what went on? What did the Spirit see in Betsy's future? Why did it torment the family for so long? Read the book to find your own answers.

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