Letters of Thanks from Hell, a play by David Vardeman
10€ 186 page pocket book
Letters of thanks concerns a case of supposed witchcraft and demon possession in Boston, 1688. The incident serves as a prelude to the more famous witch trials of Salem and Andover 4 years later. The Puritan Minster Cotton Mather, takes into his home a 13 year old girl, Martha Goodwin, recently cursed by condemned witch Goody Ann Glover. The intransigent “witch” is condemned to death on specter evidence. Mather strives to save her soul. Meanwhile he and members of his congregation work to release Glover’s victim, Martha, from her supposed state of demon possession. His efforts work to the detriment of his reputation and the corruption of his home life, as will his influence over the Salem trials several years later.
David Vardeman is the author of An Angel of Sodom, a novel and 13 short stories, and ‘the Vardeman flip book’, two novels. Both are published by corona\samizdat.
Review by Christopher Robinson
“I feel the Lord most strongly in indignation. I live most vividly under threat.”
— Cotton Mather, speaking to Goody Andrews
I’m not a great reader of plays, but I am a huge fan of David Vardeman (his two other books—the story collection An Angel of Sodom and the flip-book double-novella Suddenly, This Summer/April is the Cruelest Month—are both among my very favorite reads of 2021) so I figured I should just go for it and squeeze in Letters of Thanks from Hell before year’s end.
I’m so glad I did. I found it absolutely brilliant, and all the more fascinating for showcasing an entirely different side of Vardeman’s skill as a writer. Gone is much of the humor I so loved in those earlier other works of his, replaced here by an intense atmosphere of dread and foreboding, thick with menace. As for the trademark Vardeman absurdity, well… it’s still very much present, but here it takes on an extra-extra-dark tint for being so thoroughly grounded in the real world (despite his departing from strict historical fact in numerous instances, all of which are fully disclosed upfront).
This is serious work by a serious writer that seriously deserves your attention. I implore you to give his work a try.
Review by Michael Kuehn
I'll admit I began reading LETTERS OF THANKS FROM HELL with a bias – I've had a lifelong fascination with the Salem Witch Trials and the topic of mass hysteria. I'm also a fan of David Vardeman's recent fiction, 'An Angel of Sodom' and 'Suddenly, This Summer/April Is the Cruelest Month'. Of course I was going to move his play to the top of my reading queue!
The author tells us up front that he's manipulated history a bit here – shifted a few events in time, created a composite character or two, generally crafted the vagaries of history to his purpose, fabricated to his desire to tell a particular story. A writer's prerogative. What we have is a piece of historical fiction which perhaps better than reality reveals the vagaries, the vicissitudes of the witch hysteria of 1688-1702.
Vardeman's play reads like a novella, slowly creeping along innocently under your skin – no fireworks, no false starts, twisty paths, or spun heads. No green projectile hurling. No momentous reveals. This is an exercise in restraint, a chess match between Good and Evil. Or is it? Mostly it's difficult to tell the difference, Good/Evil, who's the villain, who's the victim. The lines are blurred. And that's the beauty of Letters of Thanks From Hell.
From the outset we are dropped into the cauldron of tension that is the home of Cotton Mather. Weeks earlier Mather was instrumental in the hanging of Goody Glover, accused witch and bewitcher of young Martha Goodwin, cared for now by Mather and his wife Abigail in their home. Despite Cotton's professed charity toward the afflicted Martha, his brother, Nathaniel, is not so convinced of Cotton's motives, or his judgement in inviting this girl who “brings the torments of hell.” Nathaniel questions his brother's own mental state: “Brother, you yourself are raving. Have you not noticed?”
Extreme disquiet settles on the family, a tangle of suspicions and recriminations threaten to tear them apart as the bewitched young woman taunts, accuses, and confounds Cotton's logic. Cleverly Vardeman brings us back for a few scenes – in cinematic flashback fashion – to the few days before Goody Glover's execution, and her interaction with Cotton and Nathaniel in her cell, the seeds of their later discontent.
It is one thing to talk clinically of a 'witch hysteria', a mass hysteria, as root of Salem's disorder. It is quite another, disturbingly so, to see it enacted and unfold before your eyes in 'Letters of Thanks From Hell.' It's all very subtle, and I may have to read it several more times to fully appreciate the craft that's gone into this.