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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

“Bewitched” (1926) is superb tale. I was struck by Edith Wharton’s visual portraits of both the landscape (natural and built) and her characters—and how these two sets of fading New England images reflect each other. Wharton’s subtle hints, which build tension as the narrative progresses, serve to create more doubt than resolution. I was not surprised to learn that Wharton (1862-1937) and Henry James (see “The Turn of the Screw,” 1898) were close friends: for both authors, the artful psychology of doubt worms its way into the reader and lingers. Wharton’s footprints in the snow may be a hoary motif in folk literature, but it performs nonetheless, as does this image: “The snow continued to fall in a steady unwavering sheet against the window, and Bosworth felt as if a winding-sheet were descending from the sky to envelop them all in a common grave.”

The presence of New England’s history of exhuming vampires is likewise subtle in “Bewitched.” Its most graphic portrayal (stake through the breast) ironically is also the least authentic: “Prayer ain’t any good. In this kind of thing it ain’t no manner of use; you know it ain’t. I called you here, Deacon, because you remember the last case in this parish. Thirty years ago it was, I guess; but you remember. Lefferts Nash — did praying help him? I was a little girl then, but I used to hear my folks talk of it winter nights. Lefferts Nash and Hannah Cory. They drove a stake through her breast. That’s what cured him.”

Cured him of what, we wonder. “Sylvester Brand raised his head. ‘You’re speaking of that old story as if this was the same sort of thing?’”

“Ain’t it? Ain’t my husband pining away the same as Lefferts Nash did?”

“The Deacon shook his head. ‘The man’s a sick man — that’s sure. Something’s sucking the life clean out of him.’”

Later, the mysterious wasting ailment is linked to certain families: “They say her lungs filled right up . . . Seems she’d had bronchial troubles before . . . I always said both them girls was frail . . . Look at Ora, how she took and wasted away! . . . Their mother, too, she pined away just the same. They don’t ever make old bones on the mother’s side of the family.”

When Wharton alludes to New England’s vampire tradition without mentioning vampires or consumption, she reflects the ground-level reality of its participants. Wharton had ample opportunity to learn of this tradition from published and oral sources: growing up in New York City, with access to periodicals that regularly published such accounts; summering in Newport, Rhode Island, a few miles from where Mercy Brown was exhumed in 1892; living in her country home in Western Massachusetts, fertile ground for therapeutic exhumations.

 
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