Little Sister Death is the name of William Gay’s Southern Gothic/Horror novel that spins new life into the curse of the Bell Witch story. This title also serves as the name of a copperhead snake in the book who hides in the floorboards of the backyard toolshed – the shed where Owen Shaw murdered his wife in 1933- like a lethal draught of poison.
Now it’s 1982, and the shed has come into possession by David Binder, a writer who has recently moved into the haunted Beale property to conduct research on his new book. He moves his wife, Corrie, and his daughter, Stephie, with him, and all bear witness to the eldritch occurrences that repeatedly plague the Beale house, a Southern mansion steeped in atrocity.
The hauntings are born with the tragedy that occurs in 1785. A “grotesquely pregnant” girl, presumably Virginia Beale, who is the Bell Witch of this tale, gives birth to a baby boy. And that boy is taken by his grandfather and thrown into the flames of the fireplace – alive.
But perhaps it is Baby Beale’s grandfather AND father that throws him into the fire. This would certainly be consistent with the incestual horrors that repeat era after era at the Beale house.
Virginia Beale’s malevolent ghost is born out of the horrible tragedy that befalls her. In her un-rest, she torments each man who takes up residence in her family’s godforsaken land. Each generation of men covet her but cannot have her, for she is not of flesh and blood. She drives them to seek out their own children to try and satisfy their supernatural sexual desire, and it is in this stage of sexualized rage and torment that they end up killing their young families before finally killing themselves.
Like Virginia Beale before her, Corrie, Binder’s wife, is also pregnant. So is the poisonous copperhead snake that dwells in the toolshed; it gives birth to hordes of translucent little copperheads when Binder kills it.
Pregnant women, along with newborn babies, are liminal creatures, occupying a vulnerable place that is highly suseptible to being influenced by, and inviting in, occult forces. Even today, many cultures have customs for pregnant women to follow – such as not touching other newborn babies, as these babies are still too new to be completely of this world, and can harm the unborn baby.
In Little Sister Death, pregnant women have the power to invite death into the home and family unit; thus, it is with confidence that we know what will happen in the case of the Binder family. David Binder will become susceptible to Virginia Beale’s sinister enchantment just as all of the other men who lived in the Beale house have before him. After being in the mansion for a few months, Binder already covets her ghostly touch, yearning to feel again “the cool hand on his calf” and “the aching purity of the voice,” though his physical wife rests right beside him.
The house’s evil, and Virginia’s curse, works on him, and Binder is not blind to his transformation:
“Winter ran in his veins and his insides were now chunks of bloody ice, and he knew he had crossed over into some foreign province of the heart, had left [Corrie] more surely than he had ever feared her leaving him.”
At the root of this story is male fear, power, and sex. Some part of Binder is terrified that Corrie would desert him, for her coolness transcends into what Binder views as her frigidity when it comes to sex. He views her as the “ice maiden” whose veneer is only broken when he slips his fingers or his penis inside of her – it is only through sex that Binder has complete control over his wife, a control that he cannot wield when it comes to who he truly desires, Virginia Beale.
What begins as Binder’s annoyance and dismisal of his wife slowly starts to brew into a warm, viable hatred of her the longer that they remain in the Beale house:
He turned to look at her face. It was vague and dreamlike, sleeping, the lashes dark and enigmatic on her cheeks. he though of her eyes. The windows of the soul, the poet had said, but Binder knew there were always cluttered attics. Dark, damp basements seething with vermin. Windowless little rooms the sunlight never hit.
It’s “those eyes” of Corrie’s that Binder says he sees when he knocks his brother-in-law Vern in the stomach, after Vern proposes he and Ruthie, Corrie’s sister, “swap” with Binder and Corrie for sex. Vern’s proposal threatens Binder’s sexual dominance of Corrie, the only sexual dominance he’s capable of because he cannot have Virginia Beale. His sexual drive is so volatile at the end of the story that he begins to lose control of himself. And though he realizes that he’s “crossed over into some foreign province,” he is too far possessed by Virginia Beale to do anything about it.
The book ends, however, before Binder can do any harm to Corrie and her unborn child.