Not written in Jackson’s (beloved) prose style, but as a matter-of-fact relation of the history of the Salem witch trials, their origins and consequences. She tells this true story much like someone might tell you the news from their hometown. It is simple, direct and horrifying for being so unadorned or unobfuscated.
Jackson tells the story of a group of teenage girls, teenage girls that grew up in a highly repressive, religiously-charged atmosphere. In a closed, ever-vigilant community of rigid conformity, where even dancing or making a doll to play with might result in severe, even physical, punishment, this group of teenage formed a tight and secretive circle around the slave of the minister, from whom they could learn of non-Christian religious beliefs and superstitions. Jackson clearly supposes that it’s the psychological stress from this transgression, and fear of its discovery and punishment that causes the first girl to have her panicked, hysterical fit.
However, the case is treated with such serious graveness and given the profound diagnoses of “afflicted by witchcraft” that no other cause is looked for or desired, and this incident quickly spirals out of all control. The next thing that happens is that all the girls begin to follow suit, receiving the same grave attention and becoming ‘victims of witches’. The town feels that it must remedy such a malady brought down upon them and starts a trial to find out who is the witch. Three women are brought up on charges, they are a mentally confused indigent, a unkempt, widowed crone, and a member of a racial minority. Unsurprising.
The madness though looks like it might end there, until one woman pressed to confessing her witchcraft declares that there are four, not three witches. The shit blows up.
Jackson relates in a very straightforward way the timeline of events, along with the possible psychological motivations and contexts which spurred things to occur. In a way, you can tell why she chose to write about this, or conversely write her novels about their subjects. It is clear the horror here is not witches but the way neighbours, people you have seen every day of your life, will suddenly turn on you and eat you alive. This is the real danger and horror of the Salem witch trials, of much of Jackson’s novels and stories, and of much of the rest of history.
The witchcraft mania lasts only 16 months. By its end, 20 people have been hanged, a further unknown number have died in prison, and hundreds of people have been wrongfully imprisoned and had their lives ruined. All because a bunch of teenage girls acting through stress, psychological conflict, peer pressure, mass hysteria, power hunger or sheer malice were believed unquestioningly by those in power with genuine or mendacious purports. I have been a teenage girl among teenage girls and it turns my blood cold to think of them being given unquestioned power over others.
It’s an excellent introduction to the actual history of the subject, free from any sensationalism of lurid voyeurism. Jackson does not attempt to otherise this as history, a strange and unenlightened past, but talks about it as the practical, human, and uncomfortably frequent event of people turning on their neighbours in a small town, in any town, perhaps just like yours.