Columns > Published on March 21st, 2013

LURID: Season Of The Witch

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

The Witch is a powerful archetype, resonating across eons and cultures.  She represents feminine power, and encapsulates the last remnants of the ancient goddesses who once held sway over this green and fertile earth.  She’s the survivor of centuries of bloody conflict, as the followers of those goddesses became marginalized, persecuted, and almost burnt out of existence.  She exists as the polar opposite of the traditional and maternal: her role isn’t to sustain and comfort a family, she lives alone, ungoverned. She has no interest in being anyone's romantic interest. She wields her powers for good or evil as her judgment takes her, rather than according to an absolute moral code.  Where women are valued solely for their youth, beauty, and passivity, she isn’t afraid to be old, ugly, and mistress of her own destiny.  She is the keeper of secrets, practitioner of rituals and traditions from antiquity, and soothsayer of sex, sin and the spirit world.  She’s dangerous, disruptive and delicious, the dark lady who can make wishes and curses come true in equal measure.

It’s a shame, then, that so many representations of the Witch in popular culture are superficial, even cartoonish.  Hollywood can’t seem to get beyond the pointy hat, sharp fingernails, and signature cackle that's been around since at least Shakespeare’s day (“secret, black, and midnight hags”).  The Witch is a simple figure of fun in many children’s books, an eccentric grandma waving a sparkly wand.  Elsewhere, she dances naked in the woods with her fellow middle-aged hippies, either a well-meaning eco-warrior with flowers in her hair, or a Central Casting harpy proclaiming allegiance to a man in a cape and horned hat.  She’s a teenage initiate clutching bell, book and candle, mixing love potions to ensnare the boy of her dreams.  She’s the sex-crazed succubus causing trouble for the romantic heroines of urban fantasies.  She’s a go-to make-belief, trotting alongside vampires, shapeshifters and the fey as they parade through parishes of pure imagination.  Unsurprisingly, there are strutting witch-hunters aplenty who can shoot these not-so-wise women down with ease.

The Witch is a powerful archetype, resonating across eons and cultures... It’s a shame, then, that so many representations of the Witch in popular culture are superficial, even cartoonish.

These familiar stereotypes can be amusing and entertaining, but they reflect deeply entrenched misogyny and reductive thinking. They demonstrate a Vatican City level of discomfort with the concept of purely feminine power by rendering it in a diminished, self-limiting form.  Witch magic is often shown to be object, rather than knowledge, dependent, vested in a wand, a pair of ruby slippers, a gemstone or a ring, without which, the owner is a helpless old crone.  There’s an offensive caricature element to some witch depictions that’s oddly acceptable to those who would be outraged by similarly negative stereotypes of other belief systems – compare the portrayal of Jews and witches over the centuries, for instance, and consider why it’s still OK to depict one group as hook-nosed baby-eaters but not the other. These fictive witches are permitted to be ‘the good’, but never ‘the great and powerful’ — Disney, among others, thinks they need a man for that

Nevertheless, there is lurid fiction out there that delves beneath the surface and embraces the signs and wonders of witchcraft as truly terrifying, even awe-inspiring.  These stories speak to us of long-dormant goddess cults, the mystic feminine, and supernatural powers that exist far above and beyond the limited good/evil moral framework of monotheistic religions.  They acknowledge that witchcraft – whether you believe in its efficacy or not – is a genuine set of practices and beliefs, practiced by people all over the world for millennia.  They remind us that a witch is much more than an off-the-peg Halloween costume or a cheap broomstick gag.  She is historical reality.

The mother of all Witchfic is Anne Rice’s trilogy about the Mayfair witches, a wealthy and powerful New Orleans family who can trace their matrilineage back to a Scottish cunning woman, Suzanne Mayfair, burnt at the stake in 1665.  The Witching Hour, Lasher and Taltos outline the tumultuous history of the Mayfairs from Suzanne’s death up until the 1990s, when various dark prophecies about the family’s destiny, and its link with the demonic entity, Lasher, finally come true.  It’s a fantastic, darkly elaborate tale, snaking back and forth across centuries and nations.  Rice weaves the paranormal with the historical to create layer upon layer of horror, both occult and real.  Her account of Suzanne’s daughter Deborah’s execution as a witch in seventeenth century France rings with horribly believable details of “the grim pyre, and the stake high above with its iron manacles”, and the Inquisitor’s dismissal of the agony of death by fire (“She will suffer what? A quarter of an hour at most?”). 

Alerted to the supernatural powers of Suzanne and her daughter, and the whispers about their ongoing pact with a potent spirit referred to as “the man”, the Talamasca, the secret occult society introduced by Rice in The Vampire Chronicles, watch and record the Mayfairs’ activities as the centuries roll on.  The Witching Hour is built on their account, which is as much a history of the spread of people and ideas from the Old World to the New as it is a single family tree.  Successive generations of Mayfair women flee from country to country to escape persecution, across Europe, to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), and finally to the Louisiana port notorious for its acceptance of all kinds of outlandish behavior and beliefs.  In New Orleans they finally accumulate the obscene amounts of wealth and influence that will protect them from any further accusations.  Here, they multiply and prosper, male and female, all of them witches to some degree. 

Outwardly, the Mayfairs are one of the Crescent City’s most socially prominent families, the core unit living in a mansion on First Street with a thriving diaspora of cousins scattered across the United States.  In private, they are rotten with in-fighting and incest.  There’s a ‘Chosen One’ within every generation, heir to Suzanne’s diabolic legacy, promised in a decidedly Faustian pact to the entity known as Lasher.  Lasher channels great riches, smites enemies, and delivers unearthly sexual satisfaction for his darling.  All he wants in return is his or her love, loyalty, and full co-operation in his grand plan – which involves a lot of dynastic inbreeding, coupling grandfather with grand-daughter, until Lasher gets the outcome he wants.

The story of the Mayfair Witches is grand and melodramatic in scope, and frequently frightening.  There are some extremely nasty flowers lurking in the First Street attic, accumulated over decades.  Rice builds her narrative world with her usual attention to chronicling the past as well as the present, drawing on the rich history of witchcraft to create context for her characters.  Their magickal endeavors are all the more chilling for being so real, for their outward resemblance to a long and convoluted chain of circumstance.  The Mayfair Witches have no need of wands or cauldrons; they conjure from the core of their decadent flesh and blood.

Not all witches are part of such a cohesive dynasty, but there is a strong tradition of passing arcane knowledge down through generations, mother to daughter, mistress to apprentice.  A properly trained wise woman had much to offer her community, in the form of herbal cures, midwifery, deathbed rituals and basic veterinary medicine, and if it wasn’t an entirely respectable calling, it was one of the few ways in which an unmarried woman could keep the wolf from the door.  Denied any other career opportunity “in the arts”, it’s understandable why a woman would turn to the dark side.

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Philippa Gregory’s The Wise Woman explores such a character, along with gender politics in Reformation England, and parses the kind of social conditions that might have led to Suzanne Mayfair’s trial and execution in the kingdom to the north. 

Her protagonist, Alys, spends her early years in unremitting poverty in a hovel on the County Durham moors, dreaming of a full belly and a soft bed.  A foundling, she’s raised by the local Wise Woman, Moroch, an archetypal crone who’s called upon for midwifery and herbalist duties by nearby villagers when they need her, and treated with aggression and suspicion when they don’t.  Alys escapes for a few brief years to the local convent, where she revels in comparative domestic comfort, an education, and the benevolent guidance of Mother Hildebrand.  Her bliss is shattered when one night, Lord Hugo, a local nobleman loyal to Henry VIII with his eye on the convent’s treasures, burns the place to the ground.  Alys has no choice but to return to Moroch, and be schooled in poultices, draughts, tinctures and infusions, and other stocks-in-trade of a cunning doctor.  She clings to her religious vows, and refuses to marry a fond villager.  For Alys, freedom is all, and she will take the sole opportunity available to her of living by her own wits:

They won’t make me a servant or a whore.  They won’t make me the wife of some clod to live in his hovel and bear his children year after year until I die of overwork and exhaustion.

Her refusal to accept her lowly station seals her doom.  When Hugo’s father, Hugh, requires a herbalist, unsurprisingly he picks the adolescent, attractive apprentice over the weatherworn hag.  Alys goes willingly, thinking the nobleman’s favor might be her way back inside a nunnery’s welcoming walls.  But, once plunged into the unfamiliar world of castle intrigue, she is forced to live a lie from the outset, hiding the twin heresies of her Catholic faith and her folk esoterica in her heart.  When she cannot get what she wants by fair means – what woman of her time could? – she resorts to foul.  As the object of her desire is the married Lord Hugo, she has to reach into the hidden depths of Moroch’s cauldron for powers that will help her supplant her barren rival, Lady Catherine.  She seeks nothing less than total control:

I would make him my love, my lover.  I would make him so drunk with me, so drugged with me that he would never look at another woman. I would make him my servant and my slave.  I would make him mad for me.

Moroch warns her that magic makes a poor servant and a demanding master, but Alys insists.  How else is she to rise in this world without digging her talons into Hugo’s back and clawing her way into permanent favor? Alys will do anything to achieve her goals, from dosing Hugo with hallucinogens while they have sex, to fabricating enchanted wax dolls.  Naturally, it ends in tears.

The Wise Woman is many degrees darker than Gregory’s other work.  It contains kinky sex that fans of her other historical romances may find off-putting (hence all the one-star reviews), and scenes of eye-popping horror, including one of the most grotesque births ever committed to paper:

Alys… gripped the skull and the little shoulder, and, steadily, carefully, pulled.  With a sickening jolt her fingers broke through the soft crust of his skull, and punctured his body, as soft as lye soap.  An arm came away in her hand, a gout of liquid cascaded into her palm. Alys screamed in horror.”
She’s often treated as a pure fantasy figure... Yet she has an actual, bloody history, during which tens of thousands of men and women were tortured and put to death

The novel is driven by themes of corruption and perversity that often surround stories of witches, who are framed as Women Gone Wrong.  Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.  Alys is rarely a sympathetic character, betraying those who love and care for her, and not caring who she sacrifices in pursuit of her deadly ambition.  She’s a toxic force, a marriage-wrecker, corruptor of fetal flesh. Nonetheless, The Wise Woman mines the historical truths that drove women to witchery.  Alys embodies a monstrous feminine; denied agency or independence through legitimate channels she becomes destructive.  Her creative potential manifests as entropy.  Her inner goddess is the Cailleach, as opposed to the meek, maternal Virgin Mary. She represents a female power that refuses to be quelled, even by the rigid patriarchy of Tudor England, even if, ultimately, it self-destructs.

The most insidious witches are those who don’t tick any of the usual boxes.  Neither hag nor seductress, these cunning women hide in plain sight.  Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife offers an intriguing portrait of twentieth century practical magick.  Written in 1943, the gendertyping of this supernatural tale of campus politics is a little dated, but the paranoia experienced by protagonist Norman Saylor when he thinks he is the victim of malicious witchery is nonetheless effectively realized on the page. 

A professor of sociology, he likes to think he’s a rational being, so when he discovers his wife Tansy’s secret stash of graveyard dirt, iron nails, hair and nail clippings, dried leaves, feathers and old silver coins – her hoodoo store cupboard – he’s a little freaked out.  Tansy tells him it was all “To protect you and your career” but he’s not impressed. He asks her, as a fellow rational being, to throw out all her charms, decorations and supplies, and to refrain from any further superstitious nonsense.  They sweep through the house, recovering the dozens of charms Tansy has hidden deep inside upholstery, underneath table tops, on top of door jambs and inside closets, and toss them all on a fire.  After a few deep breaths Tansy feels cleansed and relieved.  What a silly, irrational woman she’s been!

But, almost immediately, cracks begin to appear in Norman’s placid professorial existence.  They begin with an aggressive phone call from a deranged former student that very evening, and escalate into a plethora of professional and personal woes over the next few days.  Norman, who was so confident that Tansy’s conjure work was impotent and irrelevant, begins to recalibrate his worldview.  As the coincidences pile up, he’s forced to acknowledge that witchcraft isn’t just a quaint set of customs practiced by primitive peoples, but is the driving force behind campus politics.  The witches he’s dealing with aren’t marginalized outsider women, shivering alone in a cottage on the moors, but the middle-aged, wholly respectable wives of his colleagues, determined to boost their husband’s careers in any way they can.  And now, in the absence of Tansy’s protection charms, there’s nothing to stop their curses from wreaking their full effects.

Once he starts to look, Norman sees conjure work everywhere, from his sudden lack of dexterity during his morning shave to the stone dragon that clambers into his back yard on storm-riven night.  Although Leiber keeps a light touch, there’s plenty of horror in Norman’s account of how he and Tansy battle the witchy threats – which come close to claiming their sanity and their lives.  Norman comes to believe that all women are witches, recipients of matrilinear secrets about how to fix problems in mysterious ways.  Conjure Wife suggests that there’s magick everywhere, and there are those who harness it, not for conjuring demons, but for oiling the machinery of the most mundane household affairs.  Far from being a black-clad, ragged recluse, with warts on a chin that’s as pointed as her hat, she’s your Mom, your sister, your wife – and your boss’s wife.

Witches have survived the decay of the ancient goddesses, the Inquisition, the Reformation and the Age of Reason, and emerged into the daylight once again.  Last century saw the rebirth of paganism as a structured set of beliefs, and the various branches of Neopaganism are fast-growing religions in an era distinguished by loss of traditional faith.  No longer forced to practice their rites deep in the forest under cover of darkness, devotees can openly declare their beliefs and attend classes in the craft – unless they live in Africa or parts of Asia, where witches are still routinely put to death by mobs.  And that’s the dilemma the witch presents.  She’s often treated as a pure fantasy figure, a convenient peg to hang our horror stories from when we’re done with ghosts and aliens (looking at you, Ryan Murphy, and American Horror Story: Coven), or as a modern Romantic intellectual (Diana in Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches).  Yet she has an actual, bloody history, during which tens of thousands of men and women were tortured and put to death.  She’s an integral part of our past and our psyche (Jung names her as an archetype of our shadow self).  She deserves our reverence and respect – along with our dread.

How do you like your witches? Are you a fan of Discworld’s Granny Weatherwax or Kit, The Witch Of Blackbird Pond?  Do you agree with Arthur Miller’s verdict in The Crucible (“there were no witches then”) or have you buried charms beneath your doorstep to keep them out of your house?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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