The Devil’s Dance
Jan Alexander | Avon Books | 1972 | 158 pages
“Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Joker (Batman, 1989)
Branded under the Avon Books “Satanic Gothic” series banner, The Devil’s Dance fails to deliver on its supernatural promise, instead substituting superstition-driven rural family drama for occult thrills.
Christine Collins abandons her planned Florida vacation to come to the aid of her half-sister Pam, a recently engaged transplant to the hills of rural Tennessee. Pam plans on marrying Peter Andrews, heir to an aristocratic family’s down-at-the-heel estate, Home Acres, but Christine receives a letter from Pam expressing nervousness surrounding her soon-to-be new family. Peter’s mother, a polite but old-fashioned matriarch, nearly passes out with shock upon meeting Christine—and hearing her surname, “Collins”. The name is one of many shared with the local Melungeons, a group of old families living in the Tennessee valley since prior to European settlement, long feared and derided for their alleged practices of witchcraft and devil-worship.
Christine also receives a cold reception from Mrs. Maywood, the estate’s antagonistic servant, and her mentally challenged household-helper, Annie. The only sympathetic person she meets is Gabe Goins, the handsome blue-eyed son of Mrs. Andrew’s neighbor—and Melungeon rival—Ned Goins. Christine learns that a series of small accidents has been plaguing Home Acres, misfortunes that Mrs. Andrews attributes to the nefarious doings of Melungeons. After a luncheon served with mushrooms freshly picked one morning with Christine, Mrs. Andrews and two neighbors, Mrs. Hollis and her daughter Nellie, fall violently ill. Long-standing local prejudice fuels the suspicion that instead of accidental food poisoning, the women were victims of foul play at the hands of Melungeons.
Later, when Nellie is found murdered under mysterious circumstances, even Christine begins to consider the possibility that the man she now loves, Gabe Goins, is somehow implicated—along with his Melungeon kin—in the crime. But even the appearance of the “Devil’s Dance”, a circular spot of barren earth on the lawn of Home Acres that popular folklore attributes to being the footprint of ceremonial rites, falls short in teasing out the possible existence of a wider occult network operating among the local families. All that remains without that greater sense of paranoia is a Hatfields-and-McCoys type feud, with generations of family animosity resolved far too easily with the inevitable matrimonial conclusion—an animosity that ultimately proves to have some merit.