I love witches.* Witches are powerful, stylish, a symbol of women who are sticking it to the patriarchy. Witches can be frightening or sexy (or both). Good or evil (or both).
Zombies and vampires are looming large in popular culture, but witches will always be my first spooky love.
They’re a fabulous literary archetype– and with Halloween just around the corner, you’ll want to grab some witchy books to enjoy. Here are my favorites:
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
This is the one to read if you really feel like scaring the shit out of yourself.
Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy have found the perfect apartment on the Upper West Side, but their neighbors make the newly-pregnant Rosemary uneasy. She can’t quite decide if the seemingly sweet elderly couple next door are as harmless as they appear. Are they witches? Is Rosemary “crazy”? No one believes her.
The storytelling is masterful; Levin’s descriptions are so powerful that their new home becomes just as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. The book is deeply scary; there’s a sense of inevitability to these events, that nothing would change them and there is the visceral discomfort of a hostile presence inside your own body. And as much as I despise Roman Polanski, the film adaptation of this book is absolutely amazing.
Note: “All of them witches,” the title of this post, comes from the book of dark, witchy history that Rosemary reads.
Book of Shadows by James Reese
I know I had my own copy of this, but I can’t seem to find it, so please bear in mind that this review is based on my memories from reading this book a few years ago. In France during the early 1800s, Herculine is abanoned at a convent orphanage when her mother dies. The nuns take her in but are not exactly nurturing, as I remember– there’s definitely a Magdalene laundry vibe here. Herculine lives with the nuns until she is seventeen or eighteen, but is then discovered in flagrante with another student and accused of witchcraft.
The prose is occasionally a bit purple, but I like that in a book. I was absolutely hooked on the story and I still think about it even after not having read it for years. If you like 19th century French history, this is right up your boulevard. Also, there’s enough gore and graphic sex to keep you awake at night for any number of reasons. In writing this post, I discovered that BOS is actually the first book in a three part series, so I’m planning to read all of them and report back.
Murder at Witches Bluff by Silver Ravenwolf
As a young teen, I used to check this book out of the library multiple times a year– I absolutely adored it. It’s extremely dark and “inappropriate” for a teen reader, but hey I’m nothing if not dark and inappropriate. The story is a mystery-thriller magickal realism tale– prepare to have your boxes checked if you’re into the following: serial killers, hypnotism, witches, fucked up family legacies, ancient curses, black sheep protagonists, and steamy sex.
The book’s protagonist, Siren McKay, has just moved back to her hometown, Cold Springs Pennsylvania, after being acquitted for murdering her boyfriend. Trying to piece her life back together, she returns home to find that Cold Springs has been plagued by a series of mysterious fires and she can’t shake the feeling that someone is watching her…
As a character, Siren McKay is a stone-cold badass, a petite hypnotherapist with ass-length hair, a growing supernatural power, and a smart comeback for all the hometown jerks. When I was a kid, I wanted to be her.
Reading it as an adult, I will concede that the language sometimes feels unfinished, but it’s clearly written by someone who loves words. The author’s joy is contagious. The book is long, but Ravenwolf knows how to move the story along so you never want to put it down. Even knowing the ending, this book was a page-turner and I still love it. Silver Ravenwolf is also the author of a number of non-fiction books on the Wiccan spiritual tradition. Ravenwolf has authored one other fiction book, Beneath a Mountain Moon, which I have just started reading.
It’s likely that you’re already familiar with the movie Practical Magic, starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing, Diane Wiest, and Aidan Quinn. If you love this movie, you’ll potentially be put off by the huge differences between the book and the film, but I love them both. It’s like King’s The Shining and Kubrik’s The Shining— totally different and both wonderful.
Practical Magic is about two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens. They grow up in an old house, raised by their two aunts. Going back countless generations, the women in the family have been witches — and have only borne girl children. One of the recurring themes in Hoffman’s work is sisterhood, particularly sisters who are alternatingly conflicting and complementary opposites, as Gillian and Sally are. The Owens women, isolated from the local town because of their “otherness” are cursed by an ancient matriarch: the men who love them are doomed to die. As curses go, this is both devastating and devastatingly ordinary— everyone dies, and the odds of your partner dying before you do are exactly fifty-fifty. I would say that the curse in Practical Magic is inherently practical.
But the curses and the romance aren’t the heart of the book. Like Sense and Sensibility and Frozen, the great love story here is between sisters. It’s also about how running away from yourself really doesn’t work– but that isn’t an excuse to avoid growth. This book is beautifully written, with heady, lush descriptions that remind me of Perfume. Alice Hoffman is an enormously underrated writer. I also recommend another witchy book of hers, The Probable Future.
*Just to be clear, this post is about witches in a literature and entertainment. It does not attempt to represent Wiccans, practicing witches, or paganism. These are spiritual traditions that are entirely separate from witchcraft in fiction and popular culture.
TW for Rosemary’s Baby book and film: Abuse, gaslighting, rape, unwanted pregnancy
TW for Book of Shadows: Intersex phobia, parental death, transphobia
TW for Murder at Witches Bluff: Abuse, incest, rape, mental illness
TW for Practical Magic book and film: Abuse, childhood trauma, bullying, suicide, murder, parental death