America’s 17th century Salem witch trials, perhaps one of the most notorious examples of the pernicious effects of mass religious hysteria, have long been a source of literary fascination.
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, written as an allegorical attack on McCarthyism and the vilification of US communists, is probably the best known dramatisation of what has become a shameful period of history for many Americans.
US film-maker and screenwriter Suzy Witten’s debut novel, The Afflicted Girls, takes up the story of the trials, in which 19 people were hanged for witchcraft, but applies a very modern and astute psychoanalytical lens to the mysterious goings-on in colonial Massachusetts.
Using 21st century theories on post-natal depression, child abuse, drug addiction and class warfare – to name but a few – and looking beyond historical records, Witten turns detective to shed new light and probabilities on the motivations and actions of those early Puritans.
The result is a re-writing – and a very sexually charged re-writing – of the ‘afflictions’ that beset the girls in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris at his church in Salem Village in the early months of 1692.
Two orphan girls, Mercy Lewis and Abigail Williams, are travelling to Salem when their carriage is involved in accident and two local men, Ben Nurse and Joseph Putnam, come to their rescue.
Mercy, a shy and retiring 19-year-old, has special powers that she tries to keep hidden but soon the vulnerable and impressionable girl becomes infatuated with the vain and weak Joseph.
She is indentured into a branch of Joseph’s bitter and warring Putnam family where she quickly wins the hearts of the three daughters, the only children of the family who have survived infancy, much to the chagrin of their father who has been tempted to trade with Satan for a son.
Meanwhile, Abigail, a newly discovered niece of the Reverend Parris and a forward and forthright teenager, settles into his household. Parris, a calculating and mercenary figure, believes he has divine responsibility but is regarded by many of his parishioners as ‘a trumpeting, bare-threaded strut who...calls other kettles black’.
Entangled in her hopeless love, Mercy asks Bridget Bishop, the attractive innkeeper of a local tavern, for a secret charm to make Joseph fall in love with her.
Unfortunately the hot-headed Abigail also learns of the charm and also of the extraordinary plant-based cakes made by Caribbean slave Tituba which make strange things happen to those who eat them.
Underestimating the plant’s powers, Abigail distributes the cakes as charms and people start becoming ill and having inexplicable ‘fits’.
In the hysteria that follows, the terrifying wheels of witchcraft investigation begin to roll and when the motivation is revenge, malice and greed, the outcome proves to be deadly.
Graphic scenes of rape and molestation make this an adults-only read but Witten’s aim was always to inform as much as to entertain and armed with the knowledge that thousands of 17th century New Englanders were, in fact, charged with offences ranging from incest to infanticide, her pursuit of the truth may have left her little choice.
Witten writes with style, charm and fluency, and her moving novel is a bold attempt to give an old story a new and more authentic rationale.
The facts might have been rearranged and the characters re-imagined, but there is an appealing honesty in the new order that makes The Afflicted Girls well worth the journey.
(Dreamwand, paperback, £12)