The After Word: Isobel

Friends and readers it has been a while! Super Hubs here with my first book review in months! Game of Thrones and a very busy movie/Netflix season kept me from reading as much as I’d like but now it’s time to get back into the swing of things. It’s Halloween season ya’ll, the only season where I’m truly alive. And to kick the season off I have a very…interesting book to review. So sit back all you oiled up witches dancing a fierce bacchanal, today I’m reviewing Isobel! I have to warn you, this is going to be a long one. I mean, pretty much everything I write is long so you should be used to that by now.

To begin, no mention of this book can be made without first talking about Rowena Morrill. You may not recognize her name, but if you have even a passing interest in…well any kind of genre fiction then you definitely know who she is. Rowena Morrill more or less defined the look of sci-fi and fantasy covers in the 70s and 80s. She’s an incredibly prolific artist and she has done paperback covers for some of the biggest names in fiction. These include H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, Madeleine L’Engle, and Arthur C. Clarke. It’s only because of her that I ever even heard of Isobel. 

Isobel holds the distinction of being the very first book that Rowena Morrill ever did the cover art for and what a way to start! Check this shit out!

Tell me you don’t want to read this

Look at that! Is that not one of the best horror covers you’ve ever seen? The haunting, grey hills set against a foggy plain. The ring of stones, the woman kneeling at the center offering up a cup to a grinning demon! And then when you open it up you get this:

I’ve literally had nightmares that look like that. The full moon, the bats, the hooded figure, one of which is an alligator with human breasts! And the woman’s hair is now unbound, the lurid magic of the scene is now clear. With nothing else to go on, seeing only these two pictures you know two things about this book: it’s going to be sexy, and it’s going to involve witches. I don’t know if there’s ever been a book that has had a cover this effective for me before. One look at this and I knew I had to read it.

And just as a quick shout out, I first saw this art on the awesome Too Much Horror Fiction blog which is dedicated specifically to chronicling old paperback horror covers. There’s never been a blog more suited to my personality. Go check them out! And buy their book!

Isobel was released in 1977, written by a woman named Nancy Smith working under the name Jane Parkhurst. As far as I know she only released one other book, a bodice ripper called The Southern Moon. But even that if unclear as the only website I’ve ever found that mentions The Southern Moon is GoodReads and the only review on GoodReads is a picture of the back of the book with no accompanying text. I have no idea if The Southern Moon is real and I want to keep it that way because I need mystery in my life! Isobel could also be classified as a bodice ripper, just with horror themes, but I don’t know if that’s exactly what’s going on here.

See guys…Isobel, to me, is a very fascinating book. I love it. Genuinely and whole-heartedly. I think it’s going to be my next IT. I’m going to read it at least once a year, probably around the same time every year. It’s going to be a ritual for me. I’ll offer up a short prayer to the dark forces of the universe for guidance, strip down, and read it all the way through in a single sitting. This book drove me temporarily insane. The kind of temporary insanity that will never fully go away, it will just fade and wait for some innocuous stimulus to wake it up again. This book baffles me!

See, Isobel is either a brilliant feminist subversion, or it is a terrible and disturbing (albeit entertaining) bodice ripper. I genuinely can’t tell which. I need to know. I want to find Nancy Smith aka Jane Parkhurst and ask her, or find out more about who she was and how she lived to try and get an idea of what she was going for. I’ve already spent hours researching only to come up with nothing. So far as the internet is concerned, Jane Parkhurst and/or Nancy Smith does not exist.

Isobel is loosely based on the real life Isobel Gowdie, a woman who confessed to witchcraft in Scotland in 1662. Her detailed and lurid confessions were used in a trial to arrest and execute many in her village who she said were part of her coven, as well as members of other covens that were active around her village. Not much is known about her – the history records don’t even make it clear whether or not she was executed – but she has been the inspiration for a few books and movies over the years. Isobel Gowdie never gave a reason for deciding to confess and face execution. Jane Parkhurst’s book told what she said was the “most logical reason and what would provide the most sustained story.”

The book begins with Isobel and her friend, both students of a convent, deciding to leave the convent and return home for their own reasons. Isobel has to return home to help take care of her sick mother but her mind is also with a farmer’s son named Will who she has been in love with since she was a young. The girls speak about marriage and what they will do with their lives and we learn that Isobel was well liked at the convent. Many at the convent believed that she had a “true vocation” and were sad to see her go. Before she leaves, her Mother Superior tells her that she is welcome back at any time if ever she needs help and has a brief prophetic vision of Isobel needing sanctuary.

The first 80 or so pages are pretty typical romance. Isobel and Will are reunited, they’re still in love, they convince their parents to let them become engaged despite Isobel being a Catholic which Will’s family disapproves of. Meanwhile, Isobel’s dad is a horrible drunk and an asshole and owes one of his friends – Jock Gilbert – a lot of money. Jock Gilbert sucks. He’s a drunk and a lech and he develops a bit of an obsession with Isobel. One night while he’s at the Gowdie home he grabs Isobel and forces him to kiss her despite her being engaged. Surprise, surprise, Gilbert convinces Mr. Gowdie to let him marry Isobel to forgive his debts.

What follows is possibly one of the most disturbing rape scenes I’ve ever read. It’s not just the violent actions that take place – as throughout the book the language is actually pretty tame and sex is never described with great detail – but just the thoughts going through Isobel’s head and her feelings of utter despair and violation. It’s very effective and very very horrifying. This will be important later and is a major part of why I suspect this book is secretly genius.

From there, Isobel falls into despair. Her life is meaningless, though she is able to make a decent income through her skilled weaving and needlework. Eventually John gets her pregnant and, at the advice of Jock’s brother’s wife, she goes to see a medicine woman in a nearby village named Janet Breadheid. Janet gives her something to induce a miscarriage as well as some birth control and a powder that’ll make Jock unable to get it up. And here’s where the story starts getting weird.

Janet is a member of a local coven. During one of their meetings as everyone is getting oiled up and dancing after they’ve literally summoned Satan, Janet approaches Satan and tells him about Isobel. Isobel had shared with Janet that she was able to send dreams to Jock and this greatly interests ol Clovenhoof so he tells the coven to bring her in and sends one of the girls out to her with a message that she’ll meet a dark stranger soon.

And see like this is weird. Before this, Janet has been shown as a kind woman who helps other women with their shitty husbands and illnesses. She’s a healer with great pharmacological knowledge. But then immediately after this she’s shown to be literally talking to Satan. This is something that the book does all the time. It presents any kind of female agency as inherently evil BUT it also presents religion and male power structures as flawed.

And then Isobel meets her new lover.

So this is the scene that really gets me. I have no idea how to take it. She meets a Frenchman named Etienne who, in their very first interaction, grabs Isobel’s wrist and forces her into a kiss, exactly mirroring the first scene where she interacts with Jock. After this, she and Etienne have a picnic, which mirrors her first scene with Will. During the picnic, Etienne refers to Isobel as a “flower on the grass” which is something Will thought about Isobel verbatim during their picnic together but couldn’t think of how to express to her. Parkhurst is drawing very close parallels between both Isobel’s lover (Will) and her tormentor (Jock). And then there’s this weird scene where Isobel and Etienne have this silent battle of wills and Isobel feels herself slipping away as Etienne fills her mind. He had told her that he would call her Bella but she keeps thinking “no, no I am Isobel, not Bella. I must be Isobel, I can’t let him win” basically. This whole sequence is very disturbing because it’s not like a normal bodice-ripper where the woman is overwhelmed by her lust for a powerful man and gives herself up to him; Isobel is literally having her identity forcibly changed and losing who she is. There are VERY clear parallels in this battle of wills to the rape scene. The language is similar, her thoughts are similar; Isobel is being raped by Etienne. And it all culminates in her giving herself up to him and enjoying the sex.

And she is madly in love with him for the rest of the book.

The sexual politics at play here are…disturbing to say the least. Particularly when we find out later that the “Satan” that Janet’s coven has been summoning is just Etienne in a weird leather bondage outfit. They burn incense during their meetings and drink wine and we find out that Etienne drugs both of these to help them see him as Satan/make it easier for everyone to fuck. And he claims to be Satan’s child. So he’s a rapist who says he’s the son of a divine being and uses drugs and sex to control the minds of his worshipers, who all had generally unsatisfying lives before joining the coven. And there’s only one other male in the coven who, when Etienne isn’t around, claims to speak for him and gets to have sex with the “Maiden” of the coven who is basically Satan’s top lover. So this shit is a cult. It uses modern cult tactics, targets the exact kind of people that cults target, and is there basically as an excuse for Etienne to fuck a bunch of women.

And I can’t tell if this is intentional! Because Etienne and Isobel actually have magic powers. Isobel’s powers continue to grow, Etienne has magic “elf arrows” that kill people with the slightest touch, the coven murders some children by burning clay effigies. The magic is real. I thought for a bit that maybe it was just the drugs that were making the coven think they had powers and Isobel’s “dream sending” was just a coincidence. But later she actively weaponizes the dreams and Etienne shows all sorts of powers throughout. Had the magic been a series of tricks, it would be obvious what Jane Parkhurst was going for with the book. As it stands, I’m still confused.

Here’s another piece of Rowena Morrill art to break up the tension…

So as the book goes on Isobel becomes disenfranchised with the coven. She finds the meetings boring, the rituals repetitive, and the “mischief” indulgent and unsatisfying. Another woman – jealous of Isobel’s beauty and desperate to make her daughter the next Maiden – hatches a scheme to turn Etienne against Isobel. She tells him about Will and how Isobel still has feelings for her. Etienne tries to get Isobel to murder Will but she resists so he casts her down from Maiden and makes the other witch’s daughter – who Isobel already kind of hated – Maiden in her place. He does this to teach her a lesson with the intention of eventually raising her back up. Instead, Isobel bails from the coven. Everyone is distraught about this and begs her to come back because the other girl is a really shitty Maiden but Isobel’s like “nah guys that shit’s kinda stupid now that I think about it.” Eventually Etienne calls her to the tower where they used to meet when they were lovers – oh yeah, they have some kind of telepathy thing that only they can do – and she sees him there fucking the new Maiden cus Etienne is a MAJOR asshole. Also a rapist. Just in case you forgot.

So that decides it for Isobel. She has a nervous breakdown and flees back to the convent from the beginning of the book. There, Etienne and the Father of the convent have a psychic battle of wills over Isobel’s soul, Isobel helps drive Etienne away and she confesses to Father Stephen. A few weeks later at Jock’s church, she gives a public confession naming all the members of the coven. But even here she thinks to herself, “I kept my promise to you, I never gave Father Stephen your name!” showing that she’s still in love with Etienne. And the book ends implying that all the members of the coven are gonna get executed. And I spend the next several weeks trying to figure out how exactly I should feel about what I just read.

I think the book is brilliant. Isobel’s time as an unsatisfied Christian mirrors her time as an unsatisfied witch. Both Christianity and the coven are shown as institutions that serve only to bend women to their wills and keep them in a place without power. Etienne manipulates Isobel into giving up her identity and her beliefs and become the woman that he wants her to be, just as Isobel’s dad forces her to give up her desires and become a tool for his own use. Isobel is desperate to find happiness but no matter where she seeks it it’s denied to her. The only time she’s ever really happy is when she’s with Will who doesn’t care much about religion and says she can do whatever she wants as long as it makes her happy. Unlike the heroines of most romance books, Isobel never finds happiness because even the dark sexy stranger who teaches her how awesome sex can be is a manipulative force of evil. Which is why I think Isobel is a subversion of romance novels. I think it’s a satire.

The back of the book describes Isobel as “A hypnotic novel of possession.” But there’s never actually any possession in the book. Unless…that scene where she and Etienne are having a battle of will and Isobel feels herself slipping away, is literally her being possessed. I believe Jane Parkhurst is using Satanic possession as a way to show the real horror of rape.

Or it’s just a crappy romance novel with a disturbing view of sexuality.

I know I rambled in this one guys. I wasn’t quite able to get my point across the way I wanted to because my thoughts are so jumbled up. I really will be reading this book again. A lot. Even if Jane Parkhurst’s intentions weren’t anything other than, “sexy French dude dominates sexy Scottish lady and it’s hawt!” she accidentally made something so much better. I truly recommend you find this book and read it. There’s a real chance that it’s criminally underrated.

Until next time my friends!

P.S. If someone can find out more about Nancy Smith aka Jane Parkhurst and let me know I would owe you a debt of gratitude unequaled in all of history!

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