All Things Bright And Strange By James Markert: Book Review
Peeking Out From The Floorboards
In the wake of World War I, a small boy and his mother are in hiding beneath the floorboards of the town meeting house, in the first few pages of All Things Bright And Strange by James Markert.
The young boy climbs on top of a series of crates, a green eye peering through a loose floorboard at the townsfolk above. The woman that had brought he and his mother to safety had sworn that Bellhaven was different- that whites and blacks lives in harmony in this Southern town and that tolerance of other religion was the norm.
It was that night that the boy lost his mother when the Klan that had been chasing the boy and his mother had set fire to the town hall and burned his mother and the lady that had been trying to hide them alive.
Several years have passed and the little boy was older now, taken care of by a kind woman that was a friend of the woman that was hiding him trying to raise Raphael as her own despite his skin color.
The woman, Anna Belle was also the caretaker of the man that lost his wife that night in the fire, a man that knew her husband and many of the other men in the town that had marched off to war. Ellsworth had come back missing part of his leg, another friend of theirs blinded, a third his brain addled by what had transpired, but Anna Belle's husband was shot dead and never made it home.
The night of the fire- everything in Bellhaven began to change. Ellsworth lost his wife, Raphael his mother. While Ellsworth retreats into himself, the neighbors and friends try to pull him out of his depression and suicide attempt by visiting and bringing food daily. Annna Belle suggests a walk in the woods, that sets in motion the reveal of a secret about Ellsworth wife that he had never known.
No Reason For Living
Ellsworth is grieving. Not just for the loss of his wife Eliza, and the friends that have been injured and killed in the war, Ellsworth has a secret himself that he can not reveal to anyone- especially Anna Belle that he accidentally killed her husband in the war in friendly fire. He feels guilty as she brings him food and tries to get him to accompany her and Raphael in the woods.
The woods near the Bellhaven plantation have a reputation for being strange and haunted as many report strange apparitions, murders of Indians and slaves. The Bellhaven family themselves were supposedly demons gnawing at the wallpaper of their mansion walls after they began to torture and kill inside of the deteriorating chapel in the woods on their land.
One night when Raphael goes missing and most of the town except for Ellsworth who was sat inside in stubborn pride refusing to take part in the search. The boy returns but he tells Anna Belle and Ellsworth of the chapel he found in the woods and the magic of the place where he could hear voices of the dead talking back to him.
Cardinals were in a tornado forming the shapes of men, their wings beating as limbs as the shapes moved. Raphael knows better to tell anyone about the things he sees. He brings Anna Belle and Ellsworth to the chapel and they are overcome by its beauty as what is left of the place shines, surrounded by the cardinals perching on every surface.
Ellsworth can hear the voice of his beloved Eliza and becomes obsessed with the place going from being a hermit to spending most of the day there.
Soon the entire town becomes obsessed with going to the chapel as well, remarking on the strange and beautiful things that happen in their experiences. As they devote more and more time to the chapel though, people began to experience a change in them- becoming more violent in their time away from the chapel as if they are having a withdrawal.
The more time that the towns people spend inside the chapel, the stranger their behavior begins to be become making many violent and they are beginning to feel their faith tested.
Chapel In The Woods
A strange man, Lucien, buys the Bellhaven plantation property and introduces himself thorough an offering of a chess set carved in the images of the towns folk as pawns, as if to suggest the future intentions and debauchery that begins to take place in his home hosting opium parties that last for days.
While those in the town still feel the answer is being close to the chapel, they keep returning and spending their spare time listening to the voices of those that have departed.
Raphael begins to feel strangely about the amount of time people are spending in the place and a wave of crime begins to take over the city as neighbors that have spent too much time in the chapel, and those that have been taken away from it by being jailed for petty offenses begin to hear voices that are using the towns people as pawns in its game.
Then the vultures began to appear as if they were standing opponents to the cardinals like pieces on a chess board.
Between the burning of homes and churches, the slaying of pigs left to the dismay of Jewish and Muslim residents, Ellsworth is stabbed in the heart by Tanner, and almost shot by Anna Belle. The sheriff is found hung from a tree outside the police station. It is as if Lucien was the devil, and that he was moving the chess pieces with its towns folks as effigies, set on destroying each other.
Hell On Earth
Through the destruction of the town, Ellsworth and his friends devise a plan to destroy the chapel and stop the evil, even though it will pain them all from stopping the voices of those that they loved even though they know it wasn't real and something that came from the evil of the place where slave and Indian blood had stained the otherwise prestige floor that had been nicknamed "the healing floor."
It is discovered that of those united to save the town, although they may go by middle names or other family nicknames, are named Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael- symbolic of the angelic powers needed to take on the the terrible evil.
Raphael mentions that he can see the color of others auras, something that Ellsworth finds out from his wife's diary that she could as well- one of the reasons that she saved Raphael and his mother when the family was on the run after a misunderstanding when Raphael was using his healing power on a white girl, appearing to her father that he was touching her in a sexual way.
A priest explains that the colors that belong to each, also align with that of their angelic duties.
Before the town can implode with earthquakes and fires and citizens attacking each other out of hatred, explaining they were being tested by Lucien, Ellsworth and his Holy Army plan to take out the chapel.
The woods have changed now, the birds still taking demonic forms, the trees have died, and the beauty has melted.
Those that stay in the woods too long have prematurely aged and their hair has begun to turn white.
Ellsworth, knowing that it is his duty from the passages he read in his wife's diary, insists on being the one to run into the chapel as it implodes, knowing that there is a way to get out through a trap door in the floor that Anna Belle also knew as well, from being friends with Eliza, that lead to tunnels the slaves had used to move about the plantation.
While Ellsworth is never heard from again and a funeral is held for him after his sacrifice for the town, those that have survived and gone back to normal after the demonic forces have left Bellhaven, perhaps are better off not knowing if Ellsworth is still alive somewhere seeking his peace after all he has done to save them.
A beautifully written novel with heavy religious and magical themes, All Things Bright And Strange is a chilling and intriguing read that is hard to keep out of your head.