The Devil In Massachusetts – Marion L. Starkey

The Salem Witch Trials are one of those weird, macabre subjects that I end up spending a lot of time reading about, and I’ve always heard of Starkey’s book as being sort of the beginning of modern historical/sociological research into the hysteria (her’s is also the book that Arthur Miller used as much of the basis for The Crucible). The Devil In Massachusetts, while not exactly a rare book, is harder to find in the wild than The Crucible or Stacy Schiff’s 2015 history The Witches (more on that in a minute). 

 

As it happens, my wife and I took a short vacation to Boston over Veterans’ Day weekend, and we made sure to spend a day in Salem. I figured if I could find Starkey’s book anywhere it would be a Salem bookstore, and sure enough I was able to snag the last copy on the shelf at Wicked Good Books

So far, Starkey’s analysis does not disappoint. She is limited by the understanding of psychology at the time of her writing (1949) and I sometimes think she would color the actions of the young accusers and the reactions of their parents differently if she had the benefit(?) of knowing about the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and the QAnon hysteria we’re all currently living through. But still, she manages to pull apart what is a far more complicated story than anyone wants to admit while explaining every stage of the hysteria clearly.

It’s hard not to compare Devil In Massachusetts with Schiff’s book, which I labored through last year and which is extraordinarily detailed and well-researched, but organized and explained in such a way that makes it largely impenetrable. Schiff’s writing has a weirdly meta problem—it’s sometimes hard to tell if she’s describing something that actually happened or if she’s describing one of the various delusions of the Salem villagers. Perhaps that was the point, but it gets confusing after a while. Starkey’s chapters never leave me feeling confused. 

 

Stranger In A Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

Dune is everywhere right now. Everyone is talking about Dune, everyone is reading Dune. I have pretty much zero interest in Dune so, almost as an act of defiance, I’ve turned to a different grandiose 1960’s science-fiction novel with outsized influence: Stranger In A Strange Land

Thanks to my mother, I’ve been reading Heinlein (and annually re-reading, in the case of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) since I was in middle school, but I’ve never tackled Stranger In A Strange Land, even though it seems to be perhaps Heinlein’s most influential novel. As of right now, I am only a few chapters in and I’m pleasantly surprised by how accessible it is so far, though perhaps I shouldn’t expect that to last. I also just always appreciate how in each of Heinlein’s books he displays such a consistent voice and such wildly inconsistent themes, ideologies, messages and conclusions. It sometimes feels like he never wanted to make A Point so much as he wanted to make characters who had A Point. 

 

Sir Gawain And The Green Knight – Anonymous 

Arthurian legend is a pretty huge gap in my knowledge of English literature. For me, Arthur and his knights are characters who have always just sort of existed without my being able to point out where exactly they sprang from. So when my friend offered to loan me her copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by Brian Stone) I came at it without much context or preparation (I did not even know until I started reading that it’s a poem).

But it was pretty great. It’s got everything; quests, monsters, some VERY sudden sensuality, and Christmas. I’m not gonna do a full English lit analysis here. It was a fun hang. 

 

Notes

  • I started a new Instagram (@jbetheaauthor) because I know I need to shamelessly promote my work and I didn’t want to keep doing it on my personal Instagram 
  • I’m very much looking forward to the Chilling Crime short stories anthology coming out soon from Flame Tree, featuring my story “The Peculiar Affliction of Allison White”. Release has unfortunately been delayed a couple of times by supply chain issues, but it’s expected to come out in the US January 25, 2022. 
  • I really wanted a third thing just for aesthetics, but I got nothing.