Bethany’s Sin: Dated but emotionally compelling

Bethany's Sin by Robert McCammon science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBethany's SinBethany’s Sin by Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon originally published Bethany’s Sin in 1980. Subterranean Press is reissuing it just in time for Halloween. This horror novel covered familiar territory even in 1980, with its “perfect little village with a dark secret,” but McCammon’s good characterization managed to make it fresh, and there are a few twists along the way.

The book opens with an archeological dig in Turkey, where an unnamed woman makes an extraordinary discovery. The next section deals with an American soldier, a prisoner of war, being tortured by the Viet Cong. Specifically, Evan Reid is being tortured by a woman.

Years later in the present (1980), Evan, his wife Kay and their daughter Laurie move to Bethany’s Sin, a charming little village in Pennsylvania. Kay has a job as a math teacher at the local community college and Evan is going to try his hand at writing. Immediately, Evan has a strange sense about the neighborhood. He’s disturbed, and so is Kay… but she is disturbed about him. The issue of Evan’s nightmares, which he calls visions, is raised. Evan is sure that these premonitions are accurate, but Kay is not convinced, and attributes them to the horror he experienced in the war. In any event, the women – and they are all women – they meet from the village are friendly, welcoming, helpful, and delighted with the Reids’ beautiful little girl Laurie.

Through the eyes of the town sheriff and Neely Ames, a drifter who is hired as the town handyman, we begin to see some other aspects of Bethany’s Sin. In particular, we see a hobo hunted down and cut to pieces by mysterious riders on horseback. These horses, we discover later, can keep pace with a car. Mysterious deaths of men happen all around Bethany’s Sin, with the village in the exact center of the ring of murders, the sheriff thinks, “like a spider in a web.”

Reid meets a couple of the village husbands. The man across the street is in a wheelchair, another is missing an arm. Another neighbor has gone missing but there is a huge stain on his basement floor and the house is filled with flies. When Kay meets Dr. Drago, a powerful, charismatic woman who is a history professor at the college, she begins to have strange dreams herself, and the horror ratchets up a notch.

McCammon tackles two common tropes in fantasy in the 1970s and 80s. One is the Deranged Viet Nam Vet; one is the Monster Feminist. Bethany’s Sin debunks one and feeds the other. Evan is not crazy; he truly is precognitive, and the lengths he will go to save his wife and daughter make him a genuine hero. McCammon’s driven human villain, Dr. Drago, is a twisted nightmare image from the time period; the dark face of a woman who dares to demand equality and wield power.  In 1980, Bethany’s Sin must have been a good crossover; a scary read for women (who comprise most of the horror reader demographic) and a terrifying fable for men.

The book is genuinely scary since there seems to be no escape from the village. More convincing and more disturbing is the implosion of Kay and Evan’s marriage under the pressures of the evil that fills Bethany’s Sin. McCammon’s descriptions are concrete and he is good at cranking up the tension, even in a scene as simple as one in which one of the village women repeatedly offers Evan a nice glass of lemonade. Thirty years after its debut, the book still stirred my emotions, even if it was mostly sadness at the marriage that is the casualty of this ordeal.

Bethany’s Sin is a tiny, picturesque village in rural Pennsylvania. Its tree-lined streets, beautiful houses, and manicured exteriors offer–or appear to offer–both peace and a place of refuge. Evan Reid, a man haunted by his memories of the Vietnam War and by a history of viscerally disturbing dreams, comes to the village with his wife and daughter, hoping to make a fresh start after a series of discouraging setbacks. At first, all goes as planned. Evan resumes his career as a freelance writer while his wife, Kay, begins teaching math at a local college. But there are things going on in Bethany’s Sin that no one wants to talk about: unexplained disappearances, houses that stand strangely vacant, half glimpsed figures that appear to be female, the impossible sound of hoof beats in the night. At the center of it all stands a single imposing woman: Dr. Kathryn Drago, a scholar and community leader who holds the key to the mysteries that enshroud the town. First published as a paperback original in 1980, Bethany’s Sin was Robert R. McCammon’s second novel. Like its predecessor, Baal, it offers a frightening, thoroughly imagined portrait of ancient forces set loose in the modern world. Like Baal, it is both a notable accomplishment in its own right and an invaluable glimpse into the formative years of a major writer, a man whose raw narrative talent was apparent from the start. This deluxe new edition offers McCammon’s many fans the definitive version of a significant early work, a book that foreshadows the later–and larger — accomplishments to come.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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