Monday, January 23, 2017

Dost hear that, yolk devils? My review of The Witch

Thomasin and Caleb at the brook

*** quite atrocious spoilers be found in this review ***

My sister was here visiting the week before Christmas, and we decided to do the very Victorian thing of indulging in a ghost story for the holidays. The idea of the movie The Witch appealed greatly to us. We are the descendants of Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced trial for witchcraft in Massachusetts in 1656 and again in 1674, decades before the Salem hysteria. She was found innocent both times. I'm also the author of The Witch's Trinity, a novel about medieval witchcraft—in fact, it was uncannily during the course of writing the novel that my mother learned of our connection to Mary Bliss Parsons.

We settled down to watch while my husband settled the kids to bed. We kept the sound low to not drift up to them, and I'll readily admit we have an elderly television, but even so it was astonishing how much of the movie we could not hear.

As in, we basically could have turned the sound off and gotten roughly the same amount of information.

It is not an exaggeration to say it was as if we watched a silent film with some atmospheric music and a bit of dialogue here and there.

We would periodically pause the movie and confer with each other about what we'd gleaned, like archeologists trying to reconstruct a pot out of potsherds. A typical exchange:

Sister: So, the mom thinks Thomasina stole her silver cup.
Me: Oh! Wow. I totally didn't get that.

We thought her name was Thomasina throughout the whole movie because we just couldn't hear.

Although I'm sure in real life, the actor who plays the father is considered to have a majestic voice, in this setting it registered as Grendel with a head cold.

The visuals were splendid enough to keep us going although I did ask my sister if she wanted to continue and she kind of shrugged. As the movie came to a close and the screen blacked out, I said to her, "If the credits start to roll now, I'm going to give the finger to the screen." The credits rolled, and I flipped the bird.

"That was pretty bad," she said. I felt doubly guilty because the night before, my husband had inflicted The Great Muppet Caper Movie on all of us.

She went to bed disgruntled, and I went to imdb and wikipedia to figure out what the heck we'd missed.

It turned out: a lot. Funnily enough, the dialogue actually was an important conveyor of plot!

I told her in the morning what I'd learned and we both decided we'd like to watch it again sometime with closed captioning turned on.

Part Two

Fast forward a few weeks. I watched the movie again on Friday the 13th (of January) with captions turned on. I watched on my Kindle screen in bed.

The movie vastly improved, but still feels like it didn't accomplish everything it might've. As a person whose creative work is reviewed online, I know how much a review can sting (right now on Amazon, the first review in the queue for one of my novels is one-star and says nothing more than "Awful"). So I apologize in advance, and will add that I feel the acting in this movie was superb. Every single actor was riveting, credible. The cinematography was incredible, the costuming and sets powerful, I'm not sure how to judge directing, but that seemed very well done too! I think the weak link here was the script.

Things the script did right:
  • Authentically conveyed the language of people newly arrived from England to the New World
  • Created timed suspense over secrets family members had been keeping from each other (the precious cup, the idea of placing Thomasin with another family)
  • Authentically conveyed a family working together to create subsistence in a harsh environment

Things the script could've done better:
Created more horror.

When I think about narrative arc, it's about introducing trouble, which builds and builds until some climactic event happens. In this movie, the worst thing that happens takes place in the first eight minutes.

Where do we go from there? There's quite literally nothing worse than that old woman using her child-sized mortar and pestle. Or the way her hands travel over his naked body (disturbing on multiple levels) before the knife glints in the shot.

Worse, we know right away that there are witches. This is not a story the baby comes back and tells the family—we see it as "objective" observers, and thus it must be true and must be happening.

I was thinking, what if the two abductions of the story were reversed? Caleb disappears first, and we can still see the transformed woman beckoning him into her embrace, but we can wonder if he is really seeing what he thinks he is. It would create a helpful ambiguity. Maybe he's eaten ergot bread or is growing into mental imbalance as well as puberty...

Then, if the baby disappeared after Caleb, we would have some sort of reference point for what we feared would happen to him: and then what really does would leave us far more shocked and upset.

And by the way, the shot of the seductive woman embracing Caleb: it was unclear to me whether the crone's arm that grabs him was her arm or that of someone standing behind her. If the former, the angle was a little off somehow.

Mother and twins, Thomasin in the background

Questions the movie didn't answer for me even upon two viewings:
1. Did the family come across an already-existing farm or build one? They first survey an empty field in front of the "evil tree" but when we next see the complex, the viewpoint has changed, so it's unclear whether it was built on the same stretch of land. If the farm was already built, there's some instant backstory about whether this evil property continues a cycle of luring in settlers. But (thinking aloud here), I think the plantation in the beginning that expels them must've been Plimouth, and therefore there probably weren't too many other folks preceding them into the wilderness.

2. What is the thinking with that tree? Source of power? Source of broomsticks? It features menacingly in several shots, but we don't learn why it is a "featured" tree.

3. What happened to the twins? At the end, the shed has been ripped apart and the two goats (other than Black Philip) lie half-eaten. I don't know if the children were abducted like Caleb was (for what purpose, then?) or like the baby was (aren't they too old to be flying ointment material?). I wondered if Thomasin would find them at the witch's cabal but it looked to be only grown women there.

4. Why would Thomasin accept the offer of an entity that killed everyone in her family? I'd need to see some proof of that "living deliciously" because it kind of seemed like the witch (es?) lived in a nasty little hovel.

I liked thinking about what would have happened if the mother had succeeded in strangling Thomasin. Would she then be offered the book to sign and the chance to join the cabal in the woods? I assume, though, that Thomasin was selected because of her beauty and nubility.

Continuity: We never see Thomasin clean her face but when she awakes there is no blood around her mouth, only on her neck and chest.

This movie takes all the ignorant, superstitious things people believed about witches back then and made them true. I'm sure some women and men who faced the noose or the stake are spinning in their graves right now.

I didn't find the movie scary but I found it somewhat haunting; it's a compliment that I wanted to watch it a second time. I loved its promise, and I wish it could've offered a stronger build-up of tension and mounting horror.

The title of my post comes from movie dialogue: I thought it was pretty awesome. That's what the father calls the twins when he suspects they may be witches.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Five Interesting Facts about Lizzie Borden

Lizzie on the left, Chloe Sevigny on the right

1. She was very active in the church.

An avid volunteer at the First Congregational Church, Lizzie served on the Ladies' Fruit & Flower Mission (organized to take fruit and flowers to sick people in hospitals or at home) and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (anti-alcohol). She also taught Sunday School, including to young Chinese boys who were the sons of immigrants. 

Is it any wonder the jury had a hard time seeing this diligently benevolent woman as a murderer? It must've been a long con.

2. She had a taste of the good life.

Two years before the brutal murders of her father and stepmother, Lizzie took a "Grand Tour" of Europe with some distant cousins. She was gone for a full 19 weeks, from June 21 to November 1 of 1890. Probably a wonderful time in which the household in Fall River took a few, calming deep breaths, while she witnessed the wonders of the Continent and the British/Irish isles. 

Lizzie's scrapbook of this visit, replete with photographs pasted in and her careful writing beneath, still exists in the archives of the Fall River Historical Society. Of course, it must've been difficult to settle back into her narrow life when she returned: no more of the grandeur of museums and statuary.

April 1912 (22 years after Lizzie was there).

3. She was bossy.

Multiple accounts exist of her being proud, haughty, and willing to speak her mind. Once she returned from the Grand Tour, she had so many souvenirs and gew-gaws to display, that she and her older sister Emma swapped bedrooms. It's important to note that one larger bedroom funneled into a smaller one—almost as if the second bedroom were a closet to the first. Lizzie had traditionally slept in the smaller room, but somehow a change was effected after her return. Did Emma offer, or did Lizzie demand? 

Gimme your room! And this chair!

4. She loved animals.

The largest bequest in Lizzie's will was to the Fall River Animal Rescue League ($30,000 in 1927 dollars!). She was known to love and cherish the pets she had after the murders; there is no mention of pets beforehand. Was part of the "problem" that she wasn't allowed to keep a dog in the house? Lizzie ordered expensive, carved tombstones for her dogs. 

And of course: the pigeons. Lizzie kept pet pigeons in the family barn. Two months before the murders, her father killed them all because neighbor boys had been breaking into the barn to mess with them. Apparently, her father hadn't understood the sentimental value and care she lavished on them (or did he?) Was the pigeon slaughter just one more straw that was put upon the proverbial camel's back?

No...don' hurts... [from]

5. It is possible she tried to poison the family.

Eli Bence, a druggist in Fall River, tried to testify that he had seen Lizzie try to purchase prussic acid (click link for more on this), but his information was suppressed during the trial. When was she trying to buy this poison, more commonly known as cyanide? Oh...just THE DAY BEFORE THE MURDERS. 

In writing The Murderer's Maid (my novel about Lizzie Borden from the maid's point of view), I had to decide how to tackle this sticky issue. Did she really try to purchase poison? Why did the judges (three of them!) decide the jury shouldn't hear Bence's testimony? And isn't it interesting that in the days before the murders, the entire household was vomiting, and Mrs. Borden even told the doctor she thought someone was trying to poison them? 

Typical drugstore of the era

I get tense just typing all this, want to go back in time and throttle the judges! Ha ha. This is when history is at its best, when our emotions get caught up in it. 

If you enjoyed this post, you may wish to read Five Interesting Facts About the Real Bridget Sullivan. You may also wish to read my novel based on the case:

Buy links for the Murderer's Maid are here:

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My other historical novels:

A medieval German woman is accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law.
"A well-constructed novel and a gripping, well-told story of faith and truth."
           —Khaled Hosseini, international bestselling author of The Kite Runner
“Beautifully written, nary a word out of place, and with a few moments that throw you beyond—the way good books do.”
           —San Francisco Chronicle
A San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2007

Buy links for The Witch's Trinity:


A Boston prostitute shows up in San Francisco at the very beginnings of the Gold Rush, and quickly learns she's in dangerous territory with a killer targeting her kind.
"LOVED Woman of Ill Fame! Nora Simms is hilarious, heartbreaking, tough, perceptive...
and one of the most engaging characters I've ever met between the pages of a book." 
                   Diana Gabaldon, author of Outlander, now a Starz miniseries
"Mailman serves up vivid description, sparkling prose and a Gold Rush prostitute as scrappy as Scarlett O’Hara."
                    Oakland Tribune

Buy link for Woman of Ill Fame ebook:

Set in a house museum in Oakland, California, a Goth docent connects with the spirits on the property to learn the truth about a long-ago death.

Buy link for House of Bellaver ebook:

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Five Interesting Facts about the real Bridget Sullivan, maid to Lizzie Borden

The real Bridget on the right, Kristen Stewart on the left

1. She was restless.

Bridget moved to the U.S. from Ireland in 1886. For the next two years, she lived in three different states: Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Quite a lot of traveling for a young immigrant in her early 20s. Even within the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts, she worked for two other families before coming to be the Borden family maid in 1889.

2. She tried to quit.

Bridget was unhappy at the Borden household and tried several times to end her employment. It is said Mrs. Borden begged her to stay and raised her wages.

Abby welcomed Bridget's presence in the tense household

3. She knew more than she said.

The prosecuting attorney Hosea Knowlton always thought Bridget had something to do with the murders, or at least had incriminating information she was holding back.

Suspicious Hosea Knowlton

4. She had a strong brogue.

Bridget's Irish accent was so deep that at times during Lizzie Borden's trial she was not understood. In particular, when she spoke of "keys," it was thought she was saying "case."

5. She had a nickname

Whether Bridget welcomed it or not, Lizzie called her "Maggie," the name of a previous maid. Was it Lizzie being sloppy, finding it too darn difficult to learn a new name, or was she being affectionate? Was it meant to be demeaning? Bridget claimed in court that she didn't mind being called Maggie, but a person's name is one of the most profound and integral parts of their identity.

. . .
This is just a teaser. Want to hear more? Want to know what ordeals Bridget faced in that terrible, tense household? My novel  The Murderer's Maid: a Novel of Lizzie Borden tells the story from Bridget's point of view, with a lot of facts and a little fiction.

Order it here:

Some of my other historical fiction:

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