The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The True Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of World War II
by Nina Shandler
Published by Da Capo
252 pages, 2006
Buy it online
War and Witchcraft
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
The last person in Britain to be tried as a witch was a Scottish medium. The year, surprisingly, was 1944. Nell ran afoul of authorities when she started to channel spirits who knew way too much about Britain's military secrets during World War II. When Nina Shandler heard this story on the radio in America in 1998, she was intrigued. The following year she found herself in London, accompanying her husband on a temporary assignment, and she began to research Nell's incredible story. Without a work visa or children, she suddenly had lots of that rare commodity -- time. This was the perfect opportunity for the psychologist to turn writer/researcher and uncover details about the bizarre story that had so intrigued her.
"War and witchcraft. True crime and the supernatural. Intrigue laced with humor. A mini-movie, a costumed comedy played against the backdrop of World War II pranced through my mind," Shandler writes in her prologue.
She began her assault on the Public Record Office in Kew Gardens. When her search for information turned up a file marked CLOSED UNTIL 2046, it seemed the sleuth had reached a dead end. The official file was closed for reasons of national security. Tenaciously, she persevered, "innocently" requesting the file again, a few months later, from a different employee. This time the writer found herself with the confidential file in her triumphant hands. On that fateful day, the specific instructions on the cover went unnoticed by the clerk, and Shandler had her prize. The file was full of just the sort of juicy bits she was after, including directives to the Home Secretary from Churchill himself. She must have had difficulty not leaping for joy.
Armed with this file, the author spent years interviewing relevant people, visiting Nell's Scottish village, Callander; reading through diaries; chatting with people who remembered Nell; and pursuing and pouring over photos and documents like those on Holloway prison where Nell was incarcerated. She also dug through documents at the College of Psychic Studies and rifled newspaper archives.
Shandler's instincts were correct in thinking she had a good story here. The challenge with extensive research, however, is in the difficult process of selecting and organizing only the most relevant of details. The fact that the traffic was heavy on a certain day, for example, or the words to a nearby pub song that was heard one day in the courtroom, are just not necessary. We also don't need detailed information about people who have no bearing on the main story.
The timelines, as the story jumps backward from the trial, to Nell's childhood and onward, is also periodically confusing, possibly because there is no consistent method used in the cutaways to signal to the reader that it's happening. One moment Nell is sobbing into her handkerchief at the trial and then in the next line we're told that Dr. Todd was one of the first men in Callander to own a horseless carriage. At this point we really don't care who Dr. Todd may turn out to be. Take us back to Nell. Although flashbacks are extremely common in films and books, they don't serve this book well.
Shandler's subjective treatment of her characters must have been a lively ongoing topic of conversation with her editor. Years of living with real people, through research, can do that. The author clearly detests certain people and doesn't hesitate to let readers know. Nell's husband, for example, is a "weasel." Harry Price doesn't fare much better. Showing is always better than telling, and probably safer as well. I found the author's ambivalent attitude toward Nell far more interesting.
The subject matter here is fascinating and the story worth telling. I wanted to discover what every reader is going to want to know: whether Mrs. Duncan really was able to channel spirits and foretell the future. This is where subjectivity can be just fine, when it's balanced with supporting information and facts. At this point, no one knows more about Hellish Nell than the author, so tell us already! In your informed opinion, was she the genuine article?
There's good material here with lots of excellent research by a seasoned writer of non-fiction who has two other books to her credit: Estrogen: The Natural Way and Ophelia's Mom. But I think she needs to write another draft of this one. | June 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.