by: Arthur Phillips
published by: Random House, 2007

A movie was released in 2005 that was based on a true story. The movie, and that story, are described this way: "Between the years 1818-1820, the Bell Family of Red River, Tennessee was visited by an unknown presence that haunted the family and eventually ended up causing the death of one its members. Starting with small sounds around the farm, and the sighting of a a strange BLACK WOLF with piercing yellow eyes, the sounds escalated into full brutal contact with the certain family members, causing psychological and physical torment. The attacks grew in strength, with the spirit slapping, pulling, dragging, and beating the Bell's youngest daughter. The Bells searched for rational explanations and ways to rid their house of this entity, but to no avail as the spirit began to communicate with them through sounds, and eventually multiple voices that sounded like the wind. The cause of its actions could always be felt, but no being could be seen, and no explanation found- only the promise that one day it would kill one of the family members. Fearing that the haunting was caused by a local woman -branded a witch- who had put a curse upon the family as a result of a land dispute, the Bells tried desperately to find ways to get rid of the woman's curse, yet the attacks and disturbances only escalated. It was not until a manuscript of the local schoolteacher -who lived on the property during the disturbance- was found in 1998 that the horrifying and shocking answer to what caused this haunting would finally be unveiled." (IMDB)

We seem to really like the idea of incest and the Victorian family. Is that because we'd like to insist that any time the family is central to our cultural values, we are being duped, because the family is really a hotbed of repressed sexuality, and rife with child abuse of the most disturbing kind?

Angelica is another "he did it, he did it not" story of an unhappy Victorian menage, a triangulation of mother, father, daughter, in which the mother is depriving the father of his marital rights, is lonely and sexually hungry herself, and the daughter is coyly (and may I say, with rather too much verbal and emotional sophistication) playing one off against the other as only wicked, sexually precocious four-year-olds can do.

Joseph Barton is the pater familias, a biological researcher with a rather phlegmatic, unexciting temperament. He is, in his wife's opinion, positively vile: harsh, punitive, demanding, cold. We first learn about her husband, Joseph, through the eyes of Constance, the mother, as told by a grown-up Angelica. Angelica attempts to relay - to her psychiatrist, presumably - what each of the four main characters in the little family drama were experiencing at one particular period of the family's history. Thus we learn the story, second hand, character by character.

It is through Constance's eyes that the "ghost" story promise in the book blurbs materializes. Distraught that her four-year-old will no longer be able to share the marital bedroom (we are to assume she used her daughter as a buffer between her and sexual intimacy), Constance begins to imagine that her daughter is in deadly peril from a haunting, which manifests itself in blue specters hovering provocatively over her daughter's sleeping form, which whispers secrets to her innocent child, and which plants sly suggestions on her lips. As Constance introduces us to the happy little nuclear family, we learn that she is not the grand lady she pretends to be. Rather, she is a shop girl who has "jumped the counter," marrying up into the gentility, however unappealing her husband may be (we get the impression that his gross physicality and masculine temperament are distressing to Constance in the extreme, though she can also be carried away with sensuality on occasion).

As the haunting continues, Constance sinks further and further into physical, emotional and mental collapse. Hope comes in the form of Anne Montague, who takes over the narrative of the story for Part 2.

Anne Montague is a older woman who has managed to make her way in the world sans spouse, though she was married at one time (and we must believe that this was not a pleasant or profitable experience). Now devoting herself to spiritual endeavors - such as, helping women in precisely Constance's predicament - Anne sails into the household like a majestic ship, all raised sails, prominent prow, and deadly earnestness of purpose. She "knows" the ghostly world (a not-uncommon avocation for ladies of the later Victorian period), and is sure she can pinpoint the cause of the haunting, and help to rid the house of it. Not surprisingly, she discovers a previous inhabitant of the house was a man who preyed "in a certain manner" upon his own very young daughter. The unspoken thought is finally expressed: Angelica is victim, either in reality, or in the spiritual equivalent, of the sexual advances of her father's sexual energy, activated and impelled by the ghost.

Constance, in a moment of heroic sexuality, is determined to become the substitute victim for Joseph's carnal desires, and is both shocked and chagrined when he does not leap upon her sighing and protesting frame. There is not, in fact, a small amount of jealousy aroused in Constance at the notion of her husband preferring her own daughter over herself, as wife and mistress. Constance's emotions are divided between protective she-bear, and furious betrayed lover. Could Constance, in fact, be "haunting" the little girl, perceiving her, however subconsciously as a threat?

Add to this unhealthy mix not a little sensual intrigue between the two women (gourmet dinners served to them alone in a candlelit living room, where they hold and pet one another in sympathy and encouragement), stir in a little under-the-covers selfish pragmatism from Anne, determined to keep poor Constance relying upon her in every possible way, and the cloying, draped, scented air of the story is just about overwhelming.

Joseph's story, arriving as it does in third place in the narrative, is a breath of fresh air. Poor Joseph: not very attractive (we are told his thighs are like tree trunks), of a scientific though Mediterranean temperament (he is Italian, and therefore, only "second level" gentry), and not very well-liked by his wife, he stumps along, attempting to understand, to woo, to control, and finally to confine his increasingly erratic wife, and understand his now coy, now infantile, now terrified child.

While we are left a bit muddled about what really happened in the brownstone townhouse, I was fairly well convinced that Joseph lacked the selfishness to actually attack his child. No, it is more his very aura that becomes a threat to both Constance and Angelica: he is male. He is other. He is a disturbance in the otherwise feminine nature of the home, and a source of noise, energy, confusion, illicit feelings - even rivalry - between the mother and daughter. Joseph seems to try to straighten things out, to restore some peace and order, and becomes, as men are apt to do, increasingly angry and domineering as he fails repeatedly to do so.

It is Angelica who has the last word. It is Angelica who reveals to us that Mama has been dallying with Daddy's best friend; who reveals Papa's fumbling attempts to comfort her and be a good father; and from Angelica we learn that in fact, Mama was the abused daughter of an evil father. Or is that true? After all, we are hearing it from Angelica, and as we know by the time we reach the end of this disturbing, heavy, tricky novel, that Angelica's word is not to be trusted.

This is a book you should read and then discuss - it's the kind of story you want to straighten out. You feel compelled to get all the emotions and urges and motivations nicely classified and understood, just so they won't spin around in your mind at night while you're trying to fall asleep - and so you can assure yourself that you weren't alone in wondering if that unhealthy possibility - which after all, we shouldn't even be thinking about - might not explain it all, and might not be the real story behind the story.


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