Under Witchwood

Adam Thorpe

  • Power of the Witch: A Witch’s Guide to her Craft by Laurie Cabot, with Tom Cowan
    Arkana/Penguin, 294 pp, June 1992, ISBN 0 14 019368 5
  • Malefice by Leslie Wilson
    Picador, 168 pp, £15.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 330 32427 6

A modern witch is a Witch. The upper case denotes a self-consciousness born of safer times: Witchcraft is now a minority faith to be taken seriously (at least in the States), and there is even a Witches’ League for Public Awareness. They need it. For the broomsticks, black cats, green-hued hags with pointy hats – all the paraphernalia people remember from childhood – have been joined by rumours about something deeply sinister and very adult going on in the suburbs. Blurred, amateur videos; husky-voiced silhouettes under bright webs of cigarette smoke; thumb-smudging headlines… new props, old show. There are certainly unbalanced people in our midst who do horrible things to each other and possibly to children in the name of the Occult, but to suggest a massive web of organised evil is to prey upon the same paranoid territory as the patriarchs of what might be termed the first Holocaust: between the 12th and 17th centuries between six and nine million people were tortured and executed for ‘practising Witchcraft’. Witchcraft and Satanism have nothing in common. This is straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were: Power of the Witch is written by a cloaked and pentangled inhabitant of Salem, keen to add her faith to the long list of politically correct minority causes.

Leslie Wilson’s second novel, Malefice, uses historical imagination in plenty and keeps a skilful balance between propaganda and reality. The word ‘witch’ quivers throughout with its instabilities: a spit or an admiring sigh, a fatal taunt or a proud declaration (‘our cunning woman, and later our witch’). Wilson’s method is to weave a polyphony of voices around the victim – one Alice Slade, undergoing interrogation by the village priest in 1655 – until both the reader and the accused feel the suffocating bind of needs and fears which holds every small community in thrall to itself. Stuffing witch-bottles under the hearth while scuttling off in droves to the ‘old Hag’ and her remedies and hoping that she’s not of the Devil after all.

Wilson’s cleverest sleight of hand, perhaps, is to keep us ill-informed until the closing pages. We snatch at the voices (priggish, dutiful, drunk, venomous), take their wild visions on trust, fear old Alice’s maleficence, catch gossip and tales on the wing: but the image of Alice remains eerily twofold – the tortured, defiant old wreck in the cell and the woman continually (and appropriately) shape-changing as the voices shift. Wilson underscores this metamorphic property early on, in the words of Alice’s sometime lover, Sarah:

  And she said: ‘darkness’. Her voice was soft and deep, and her eyes went to slits in her face. Something wriggled sweetly, deep in my belly. The cobwebs in her father’s house shook as if a door had been opened, but the door was tight shut. She said ‘foxglove, velvet darkness. I want it, Sarah.’

  I thought: She’s beautiful, after all. The thought scared me. Then I thought: It’s the rushlight. There’s so much you can’t see by rushlight. I thought: She’s not lovelier than 1 am. I’m the one’s who’s beautiful. I always will be.

‘There’s so much you can’t see by rushlight’: mystery relies on myopia, and in our dark-banished days we rely on the artificial lens to chill us with its glimpsed, uncertain realities. Denied the single, illuminating voice, we see Alice as the young lover and the crone, the battered daughter and the difficult mother, the abused and the temptress, the weasel and the hare, the very ‘changeling’ of her birth. This slippery character gives the author some trouble: it is never quite clear where the magic is – in the eyes of the beholder or in the hands of the witch. This is probably because at no point does the novel begin to define what magic means, or what we mean by it. We get only the vague sense that witch and bewitched are interdependent: in what is probably the most fruitful narrative seam, the priest’s predecessor requests Alice’s help in finding the stolen Communion cup (much as the Police now use psychics to track missing children) with quietly reverberating results. By the closing pages, Alice – denuded of most of her mystery – has more than a whiff of Holland Barrett about her. There is even a touching if Bettelheimish childhood trauma to illuminate her nature. Yet some of the best moments in the book are the nightmarish visions of Satan, of bloodthirsty weasels, of Alice standing on her path in the sun without a shadow. There’s nothing myopic about these: plain as day, they fence nicely with the deeper and more troubling darknesses of malice, envy, fear and desire.

What does a living witch say about magic? When we turn to Cabot’s book, all is brought to daylight – or at least to the crisp light of a full moon. Anyone familiar with astrals and auras and ‘going into instant alpha’ will find much of the terrain old hat: but the potions and spells strike a new note. Here are the ingredients for a ‘Protection Potion’, a must for any self-respecting Wicca:

2-4 cups spring water
1 tablespoon powdered iron or iron shavings
1 teaspoon vervain
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons frankincense
1 pinch of wolf’s hair from a live, shedding wolf
(ask the keeper at the local zoo)
OPTIONAL: a pinch of graveyard dust. (Take the dirt from the top of a grave of someone you revere for courage or bravery; do not use a shovel or you could be arrested for disturbing a grave; always replace any sod that you pull up.)

Eccentric as it is, this glimpse from the ‘Book of Shadows’ is better than most of the guff one gets in New Age guides. Asocially speaking, sympathetic magic is sympathetic because of its sensual and metaphoric qualities. It is, like ritual, both illusory and potent. Rituals are powerful self-persuaders, and going to that amount of pre-determined trouble exerts its own hypnosis – particularly in the context of the faith according to Cabot. Her whip-through introduction makes the history of the witch an epic gender struggle, full of ‘matrifocal’ utopias and sisterly appreciations (I’m not sure, for example, that the more devoutly Christian victims of the Salem witchhunt would be happy at her assertion that ‘we must claim them as Witches’ for ‘they died for our freedom’). Witchcraft has been (and still is, apparently) the alternative voice in the desert, keeping the old goddess cultures alive during this millennially brief patriarchal tyranny. She vaguely evokes the recent theories that language evolved through women instructing their daughters in herb-gathering, and that men and women were physically similar before men got their iron spears and their thuggish gods towards the end of the Neolithic Age. How I would like to believe in her Golden (Ice) Age. How this kind of stuff always leaves me with a strange thirst for real fiction.

The novel, as a genre, thrives upon life’s contrarities: Alice Slade is neither nice nor nasty, but a difficult mixture of malice and munificence. She has power in her fingertips: divination is more comforting than the priest’s morose divinities; charms empower the wearer where prayer falters. What Wilson illuminates is the profound hold which that power (what Cabot calls ‘the Old Religion’) had over the minds of credulous, insecure folk. The ghastly domestic and sexually potent swirl evoked by Wilson becomes part and parcel of Alice’s undoing She appears to shun (fatally) the ethical heights, and to have engaged in the kind of psychic terrorising which I have come across in Africa. Her crime is to have absorbed too much of others’ darknesses.

The persecution of perceived deviants is all to do with voices: voices lowered and raised, the cry, the hiss, the casual barb, the dreadful rumble accumulating. In Malefice, each voice is headed by the name of the speaker, like a play. Yet they are eerily wadded from each other, isolated, buried by their own tongues. This is purposeful and effective, but when the kind of strong narrative events of, say, a formally similar novel like Faulkner’s As I lay dying are absent, the polyphonic technique can seem arbitrary, its instabilities countering a vacuum. Furthermore, in her additional use of third-person narrative and dialogue, Wilson throws away the integrity of the monologue, as if she doesn’t quite trust it. When she enters into a talking graves sequence half-way through, the book becomes badly unstitched. There is no detectable skein of imagery either – of the kind that somewhat portentously keeps Woolf’s The Waves from falling apart. There are things (cobwebs, a skull, the devil’s sprites) and narrative motifs (that stolen Communion cup), but nothing that resounds. Given witchcraft’s stress on the potency of objects, and indeed their numinous natures, this is something of a lack.

By pitting priest against witch in the cell. Wilson shows the irrational basis of both faith and power; by pitting mother against daughter, sister against sister, neighbour against neighbour, she builds a depressing picture of the wracked village as an organism preying on itself. While it doesn’t always avoid, in its grinding grimness, a kind of Pythonesque toothless leer, the novel is at least resolutely honest about the irrational in relationships. The Ranter James Sykes is paradoxically the voice of reason and common sense: to him, Alice is basically good, the world topsy-turvy. His simple ‘light’ comes as a relief in the general murk, and his words, as well as those of Alice’s loathed daughter Big Margaret, begin to shape Alice into something simpler and less awesome towards the end of the book. Against the official midwife’s hooks, we have Alice’s gentle hands; her charm was made on a pig’s skin, not a baby’s, after all; she soothed the wounds of the returning heretic, and so on. The last image we have of her is the ‘poor lonely child’ who loses her brother and mother on the same day: this last monologue by Margaret about her mother’s disturbed childhood is affecting, but it demands a wrench of Margaret’s character which is worryingly painless: the voices, though snappily written, are not what you might call vocally thumbprinted. Alice resembles, by the end, the wholesome figure of Cabot’s faith, and both visions are rooted in a feminism that seems intrinsic to the long, sad history of the Witch.