anthology

Review: The Penguin Book of Witches

The Penguin Book of Witches

Katherine Howe, editor

It’s fitting that Penguin is releasing its annotated Book of Witches in time for Halloween—and not just because of the seasonal correlation of Wicca and the feast of Samhain. The history of the witch is long and complicated. The difficulty of distilling thousands of years of witchery into a single volume is perhaps best illustrated by considering the variety of Halloween Penguin Book of Witchescostumes celebrating the witch.

A cursory search of costume shops gives you such options as sexy witch, crone witch, neon witch or glitter/sparkle/glamor witch. Would you like a traditional black dress with a broom, or something made of lace? You could be a witch from Oz or Salem, Sabrina or American Horror Story.

And would you like a cat with that? Or perhaps a toad or flying monkey?

Oh, you can even dress up your dog as a witch, if you feel like it. Whatever. You go do you.

Point is, the witch is not a singular entity: it’s a character that has assumed many forms in film, folklore and the imagination, be it funny or frightening, sexy or silly, from the East Coast (good) or the West (wicked). In her introduction, author and academic Katherine Howe gives as good a definition as I’ve ever read:

“Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group” [xii].

Indeed, the bookshelf of my youth was loaded with books on the topic: fiction anthologies devoted to the witch; sensational Satanic Panic potboilers; historical and sociological treatises; feminist takes; and cumbersome source material such as the Malleus Malificarum and The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.

I wish this book would have been around back then. Howe does a great job of sampling the primary sources to create a palatable, yet thorough history. She begins with references to witchcraft in the Bible and guides us, inevitably, to Massachusetts Bay.

The meat of The Penguin Book of Witches are the trial transcripts and testimonies from that dark period of 1692-93. While the prose doesn’t exactly leap off the page here, the importance of these documents, and the clarity of Howe’s introductions, is worth enduring a bit of the old English.

That the Salem Witch Trials remain a relevant cultural reference more than 300 years later speaks to their importance. It remains one of our country’s greatest shames, and its memory serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and a warning about how low we may sink.

Sadly, no matter how much humanity progresses, the same dark drive that fueled the colonial witch craze still smolders within us. The 20th century alone gave America two Red Scares, internment camps, the West Memphis Three, the Satanic Panic, the War on Drugs and all manner of smaller scale oppression, discrimination and fear-mongering.

The post-9/11 world has given us Guantanamo Bay, George Zimmerman and a Red State/Blue State schism.

Fittingly, Howe offers a word of caution as she segues into the closing section, “After Salem”: “While no witch trial in North America—or Europe, for that matter—would ever again approach the magnitude and fatality of the Salem episode, witch belief did not disappear. It merely changed form” [193].

This line, for me, is the ultimate takeaway from this book. Witches, as portrayed by Halloween costumes, are creatures of the imagination, folklore and literature. But by any name, the women who were burned, stoned and hanged were victims—not of demonic possession or supernatural forces, but of the all-too-human folly of superstition, prejudice and mob mentality.

The same goes for all victims of a witch craze. The importance of studying the witchhunts of the past is that they are difficult to recognize while they are happening. They occur under the insidious guise of patriotism, decency and traditional values. The label “witchhunt” is only applied in the aftermath.

By reading the transcripts of the trials and examinations, and the post-Salem mea culpas, we can hopefully prevent or at least minimize oppression in our time and in the ages to come.

Howe’s collection is a great place to start.

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A Darker Shade of Summer (Fiction)

A round-up of ghost stories, thrillers and dystopian anthologies to darken you summer. (Come back tomorrow for our nonfiction edition.)

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

(Released June 28)

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

In “The Last Train,” a modest theater-goer arrives late to the station, but by good fortune, his train is waiting for him. Once aboard, he realizes his destination is somewhere other than home. Likewise, a young factory apprentice stumbles upon a shop-floor oddity in “The Cleaner”—and realizes that what he first thought to be a hoax or a hazing is in fact a haunting.

Perhaps the stand-out tale of this collection is “The Heinkel,” a WWII yarn about a young boy fascinated with a downed German plane.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills (such as my dad’s coworker losing an arm in the blast furnace) and the spooky kind (my grandfather’s otherworldly encounters at the Westinghouse plant).

When it was my turn to work the factories, I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories. (His first book, Tales from the Toolbox, recounts his industrial experiences.)

My one critique is that there’s not a lot of mystery to these stories. Characters who believe they are having ghostly encounters truly are, and the nature and cause of the hauntings are typically self-evident. But that’s OK. These stories work not through terror or misdirection, but by tapping into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Ominous Realities is the finest indie collection I’ve read in a while. These dystopian tales chill and unsettle, balancing skill, imagination and smarts.

Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Last year, I read Meikle’s novel The Hole, and thought it was enjoyable but flawed. Here, Meikle is in control from the creepy opener in the lab to the grim finale. HPL would love this tale of science gone wrong.

Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

An excellent collection from a hot new publisher. Also be sure to check out their Dark Visions II anthology.

Coming Soon

Mean Streak

Sandra BrownMean Streak

(Release date: Aug. 19)

Mean Streak has all the makings of a classic Sandra Brown thriller: abduction, deception, moral complexity and a revelatory rabbit-hole twist. In her new novel, Dr. Emory Charbonneau disappears, and her husband is the primary suspect. Part crime novel, Mean Streak is also a survival narrative, as Emory awakes in the hands of a violent captor who may be hiding his true identity. I haven’t read this yet, but it sounds reminiscent of Standoff, which was one of her best works.

 

The Black RoadThe Black Road

Tania Carver

(Release date: Aug. 15)

While the plot may be a little, well, plausibility challenged, advance press offers Mo Hayder levels of gore and depravity (aka horrific awesomeness). Following a mysterious explosion, criminologist Marina Esposito’s husband is in a coma and her young daughter is missing. The abductor forces  Marina to complete a series of depraved tasks in the course of three days or her daughter dies. So, yeah, it may be plot-challenged, but if you’re looking to spice up your summer with some gore, The Black Road just may be a detour worth taking.