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.