Children--as most adults who’ve more-or-less-successfully traversed those difficult years and emerged triumphant on the other end will attest--can be quite horrid. It’s not that they’re irredeemable little monsters, or anything... just that all children have the capacity to be incredibly cruel in their words and actions. Whether it be their peers and siblings, parents, other adults, pets (or other unwitting animals), or even inanimate objects, no one (and nothing) is safe from a child who feels compelled for whatever reasons to be nasty.
There’s a difference, though, between outright meanness to others and simple mischief--although the latter can also have the appearance of cruelty. The difference, of course, is in the intent, which is why most of us find mischievous acts more understandable and easier to forgive and forget.
As with anything else, however, not everyone agrees, as is the case in Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black, the compelling tale of a well-meaning and popular young boy who errs one fateful time on the side of a bit of innocent mischief... and ends up paying for his ill-considered deed the rest of his life.
✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦
Boys will be boys, and William Bellman and his mates are just that--boys being boys--when they take it into their heads one lazy summer afternoon to try hitting various targets by slingshotting pebbles at them. Only clever Will has the insight to design his slingshot in such a way to actually succeed, though... and succeed he does, nailing a rook (crow) sitting on a tree branch some distance away, just as he’d boasted he would.
His three friends are elated as only a group of young lads can be, at first; Will’s prowess at hitting something so far away--and a bird, at that!--is nothing short of remarkable to them. But, once reality sets in a bit--and the dead creature has gotten stiff and less-appealing--their excitement fades. By the time a few weeks have passed, the incident has been all but forgotten.
The act leaves a more-lasting impression on Will. He hadn’t worked out beforehand what would happen when he hit the bird (although he knew he would); actually killing it never entered his mind. Eventually, though, as he grows up and takes on new responsibilities, he puts the memories, visions, and bad dreams behind him (as most of us tend to do with childhood things). He works hard at home and school, secures himself an apprenticeship at his uncle’s woolen mill, and learns the business from the ground up. By the time he marries and then has a family, he’s ascended to a top position at the mill, and is responsible for both modernizing production and substantially increasing business. Life is good.
Until suddenly... it isn’t. An epidemic decimates the countryside, scattering death all around and leaving Will a broken man who cares little if he lives or dies, let alone gives a toss about business.
It’s precisely when he’s at his lowest point that a mysterious stranger--someone he’s seen occasionally, over the years, but has never actually met--happens upon him... and strikes a most unusual bargain. The pair of them will grow a brand-new business--one that deals in death as its stock and trade--with William standing as the public face of it. In return, his last remaining child’s life will be spared. (Exactly how the stranger will effect that circumstance is unclear, but Will clearly believes it possible.)
But nothing comes without a price--particularly not matters of life-and-death. Fleeting memories from the past... a strange new existence... even a way out, if he can manage to grasp it... for William, a whole new nightmare is just beginning.
✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦
Bellman & Black isn’t an easy book to pigeonhole. Moody and atmospheric, and Gothic in tone, it’s not quite a supernatural thriller, nor a romance, nor even, precisely, a tragedy (though it has elements of all three).
William Bellman is--if not an entirely-likable character--at least a fascinating one. (He isn’t really unlikable, either; rather, he often comes across as cold, and sort of empty.) His obsession with--and affection for--the mill is well-documented, yet is also surprisingly interesting (particularly how he goes about learning, then improving upon, conditions and practices at every level). It is with his family--and perhaps more poignantly, his friends--wherein his problems lie; even when he would consider his life “good”, he is doggedly single-minded in his pursuit of all things business... to the detriment of the rest of his relationships. Only a tragedy as devastating as the disease that scours his community can pull him out of himself.
Once entered into the second phase of his life, however--that of being half of Bellman & Black--we quickly realize his previous preoccupation with work was merely a trial run for the utterly all-encompassing obsession he has with B&B. It isn’t merely the driving force in his life, that thing from which he derives validation... it is his sole reason for existence--a fact which becomes more and more sinister as time passes.
My one complaint with Bellman & Black is that the latter portion of the book goes on rather too long; once we see Will at the depths of the pit he’s fallen into, he just sort of stays there, with nothing much going on (aside from considerable repetition). That portion could’ve easily been cut down a good bit and still maintained its creepy foreboding.
If you have some patience (for letting a story take its time in the telling)--and a hankering for a dark Victorian ghost story, unlike any other you’ve ever come across--then you’ll want to give Bellman & Black a go. :)
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Unusual story, worth the effort