Unfortunately, Michael Schnessel, head writer of One Life to Live and one of my best friends, died young in life. He and I shared an interest in the supernatural and occult. Michael, in fact, told me not to write The Book of Common Dread because he believed nothing more could be dredged from the legends.
When he died, he bequeathed to me all of his horror/occult/supernatural books: a library of about 100 volumes.
One night, I happened to read a book on poltergeist hauntings. The Bell Witch tale riveted me. I immediately contacted a couple Tennesseana bookstores and emptied them of every book related to the subject. I quickly became convinced that at least several kernels of the tale were true. Moreover, I saw many clues not mentioned as such, particularly in the family diaries and the Ingram collection, that suggested that a very ugly event caused the haunting.
Fiction writers are liars, pure and simple. They lie for a living - and their readers willingly suspend their disbelief as much as they can for satisfying entertainment, education or both. Now, not many people seemed to complain when Robert James Waller wrote a book entitled The Bridges of Madison County and went to great pains and length to explain how the story was absolutely true. All one has to do is consult the National Geographic Index as I did to learn that NGS never published an article about Madison County or covered bridges before this book appeared. Waller simply wanted to make it easy for his readers to suspend their disbelief. Likewise, since I was dealing with what seemed to be the supernatural, it was important for me to "discover" another diary and to make footnotes that not only educated the reader, but which coaxed credulity in a subject area rife with general population disbelief. But there will always be those who "swallow an elephant while straining at a gnat": they fail to enjoy the wonder of this amazing true tale because I lied to them. Boo hoo. They must have coronaries when listening to their politicians.
You may know that one of my greatest heroes, Thomas Jefferson, took it upon himself to cut up the gospels and leave in only those passages he believed actually happened or were said. This same exercise has recently been done in a yearly conclave of theologians, to cut out the passages that, for example, demonize the Jews who did not accept Yehoshua as their messiah. Likewise, in preparing to write The Bell Witch, I read everything related to the so-called Bell Witch incident and sifted the wheat from the chaff. Clearly, when an amazing event happens in a rural society - before the advent of cameras and audio recording devices - the temptation to puff oneself up by adding a few words or an incident to an already-stupendous story is hard to pass up. I not only cut out the hyberboles and outright lies, but I also emphasized what I deemed important for the reader to grasp and used admittedly twentieth-century forensic techniques to deduce the mystery/crime behind the poltergeist manifestation.
For those who are fascinated after reading my account, I suggest reading the two family diaries and the Ingram collection and then drawing your own conclusions. I stand ready to debate anyone on my version of the story.
There is a motion picture called The Bell Witch, which is a local Tennessee production. I have not seen it, because it never had a national theatrical release and my local movie rental stores have not stocked a copy. I hear that it is not professionally done and suffers from a slavish attempt to be true to the events of the story. This is precisely what prevented Hollywood from approaching the tale before my "solution." A professional film was made, starring Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland and Rachel Hurd-Wood, using my book's subtitle, An American Haunting, because the producer was afraid that it might be confused with the execrable The Blair Witch Project.
To those librarians who debated online among themselves when the book came out whether it was fiction or non-fiction, they need only have looked on the information page to see that the real editor was not me, but the very intelligent, witty and churlish Gordon Van Gelder.
Critical praise for The Bell Witch: An American Haunting:
"Ever-intelligent horror novelist Monahan retells a true story...It's unfair to reveal here Monahan's reasonable yet supernatural answer. More artful, if less exciting, than Monahan's brainy bloodsucker operas—but all immensely satisfying." Kirkus Reviews
"Monahan keeps a perfect feeling of the period…Altogether entertaining." Gahan Wilson. [Mr. Wilson is the fiendishly funny cartoonist who has appeared for decades in Playboy]
"'Edited" by novelist Brent Monahan…the story is so remarkable and well told that readers may not care. The final pages are especially moving, and offer a potent thesis for what we have come to refer to as poltergeist phenomena." Douglas E. Winter Books
"Monahan's attention to historical detail to makes the early 19th century milieu credible. And his use of a 'classically educated' narrator avoids the need for recreating difficult period or regional language while still taking care to use appropriate language for the era. The reader is drawn easily into the story and to these characters and situations from the past. The actual cause and resolution of the supernatural disturbances seems quite contemporary, but historically acceptable. Like any good 'history' it reminds us that human frailty and evil have always been with us. Moreover it is a satisfyingly plausible resolution that, in retrospect, seems to have been there just waiting for the clever Mr. Monahan to connect the clues and show it to us.
"The physical book is small, well designed and illustrated with what one assumes to be "period" drawings, since no illustrator is credited. But then Brent Monahan denies credit for The Bell Witch's narrative, claiming only to be its "editor," one hopes he and his genuine editor, Gordon Van Gelder, will accept the accolades this small treasure of a book engenders. It quietly shows, once again, that story is still the essence of fiction." Paula Guran, DarkEcho.com
"The Bell Witch is too compelling to put down, all the more so because of its real-life "X File" quality. Whether you believe or doubt the story, it will certainly enthrall you…and most likely keep you up at night, too." Fangoria
Brent Monahan steeps us in a convincing recreation of a time nearly two centuries old. The author knows how to pick and depict just the right minutia to bring the historical backdrop to life without stifling us readers in a chorus of background noise." Ed Bryant, Locus