Book Review: "Bellman and Black" by Diane Setterfield
5/5 - A Modern Gothic Masterpiece...
The Modern Gothic is a difficult genre to write in seeing as it is one of the most written genres of the 20th and 21st centuries. Novels by Shirley Jackson and Stephen King have often been cited as the greats of their time. Daphne Du Maurier, Anne Rice and Susan Hill are the women who took it over in the mid-century most notably considering Du Maurier’s friendship with Sir Alfred Hitchcock by which her books “Rebecca”, “The Birds” and “Jamaica Inn” were made into films. But, as women took over the modern gothic, we arrive back to one of the greatest writers of all time - Shirley Jackson. The atmospheric gothic being set up by her adept method at portraying psychological horror, her method has been copied by many authors throughout our own time. One of these authors who uses Shirley Jackson’s methods successfully is Diane Setterfield. In her book “Bellman and Black”, she blends together the past and present in this modern gothic to present her reader with a clashing of time periods. The old representing the terrifying past from which the protagonist tries to run away from and the new in which they are constantly paranoid that the past will come back for them. A lot like the predicament Nellie finds herself in within “The Haunting of Hill House”, this book “Bellman and Black” has a protagonist on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of some moves that may prove fatal.
William Bellman is a ten-year-old boy and the book starts off with this ominous message about what people see right before they die. William Bellman is celebrating his tenth birthday with his friends and they are running around outside playing games. Using a catapult and a rock, William launches a stone at a rook: a black bird that dies upon impact. We see William Bellman grow up to work in his uncle’s dye factory in which a man called Mr. Lowe doesn’t take well to the new guy and accuses him of being nosey into his work. But William Bellman is just trying to fill his time. He falls in love and gets married - having three lovely little children then on. All this while, people around him seem to be dropping like flies. All this time there is a man dressed entirely in black, waiting in a graveyard for him. All this time, he knows there is a debt to be owed - he just has no idea how he is going to pay for it. Littered with chapters entitled “&” in which we learn facts about the ‘rook’ birds - this book is a gothic psychodrama masterpiece and echoes back to the weirdness of a Hitchcock film with all the mind-games of a Shirley Jackson novel.
Beautifully written, the characters each take on a very fulfilling personality. We feel as if we know them personally. William Bellman for example, and his mother - Dora. We feel like we really do get involved in both their work lives and their intimate lives. When we learn about William’s father, there is some aspect to feel sorry for him because he did not bring this on himself and yet, he still pays the price for that which his family call a mistake. When we involve ourselves with the plot at hand though, there is a serious sense of urgency in the atmosphere. William keeps working to fill his time, he cannot wait, he cannot stop and he cannot keep up with it all.
In conclusion, I think that this book is the perfect midnight read and honestly, if I could read it again for the very first time then I would. It is a brilliantly crafted and very clever piece of the modern gothic with an atmosphere that will make it feel all too real.