8 more witchy reads for autumn

Image by Melk Hagelslag – RoonzNL – Pixabay

‘Tis the season for snuggly sweaters, crunchy leaves underfoot, decorative gourds, apple cider doughnuts, and pumpkin spice everything. I just bought a pumpkin spice bath bomb from A Touch of Magic at the Harvest Days Festival in Dwight, Illinois, and I can’t wait to drop it in a tub of hot water and soak until my toes turn to prunes.

Hot baths are another rite of autumn in my life. Nothing beats sinking into warm water with a scented bath bomb or bath tea and unwinding with a good book. Bonus points when the book fits the fall vibe.

Last September, I recommended three witchy titles to kick off the spooky season. With the calendar soon turning to October, I’ve been turning the pages of more witch-centric novels lately. If you’re on the hunt for some seasonal fiction, here are eight more to add to your TBR pile.

Wild and Wicked Things

by Francesca May, 2022, Redhook, 432 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, 1920s Aesthetic, Sapphic Romance

Summary: “On Crow Island, people whisper that real magic lurks just below the surface. Magic doesn’t interest Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s on the island only to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the most mesmerizing may be her enigmatic new neighbor. Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of Crow Island’s extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world.”

Looking for a dark tale rife with magic? Here it is.

Wild and Wicked Things is what happens when The Great Gatsby mashes with Practical Magic. Set in post-World War I England, this is a story of lavish parties, gorgeous landscapes, dark magic, mistakes, consequences, and love. The witches in this book don’t wear pointy hats or cloaks, but they are definitely witchy and wild.

Small Town, Big Magic

by Hazel Beck, 2022, Graydon House, 416 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Magical Realism, Found Family

Summary: “Emerson Wilde has built the life of her dreams. Youngest Chamber of Commerce president in St. Cyprian history, successful indie bookstore owner, and lucky enough to have her best friends as found family? Done. But when Emerson is attacked by creatures that shouldn’t be real, and kills them with what can only be called magic, Emerson finds that the past decade of her life has been…a lie. St. Cyprian isn’t your average Midwestern river town—it’s a haven for witches. When Emerson failed a power test years ago, she was stripped of her magical memories. Turns out, Emerson’s friends are all witches. And so is she.”

I’m 35 years old at the time of reading this book. Emerson Wilde is in her late 20s in the book and newly discovering she’s a witch. That storyline tends to be reserved for YA fiction, so it’s refreshing to have an adult making the journey into the magical underworld. This is a woman who has a career and thought she was established in her life, and now she has to come to terms with an entirely new aspect of her identity and life.

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One

by Amanda Lovelace, 2018, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 208 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Poetry, Feminism

Summary: “The witch: supernaturally powerful, inscrutably independent, and now—indestructible. These moving, relatable poems encourage resilience and embolden women to take control of their own stories. Enemies try to judge, oppress, and marginalize her, but the witch doesn’t burn in this one.”

I love this collection of poetry.

I picked it up for the title. I return to it periodically for the power and passion of its words.

The poems are divided into four chapters: The Trial, The Burning, The Firestorm, and The Ashes. Despite the doom those headers seem to imply, the title is correct. The witch (in this case, women) doesn’t burn or succumb. She overcomes.

Amanda Lovelace has a powerful, call-to-action voice in this collection. She helps women proudly reclaim the title of witch from those who would use it as a condemnation and wear it as a badge of honor.

Cackle

by Rachel Harrison, 2021, Berkley, 304 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Women Supporting Women, Female Empowerment

Summary: “All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation. Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?”

When Annie’s life is turned inside out by a difficult breakup (been there, done that!), she has to rediscover herself and find a new normal. Her new normal turns out to be a tad abnormal when she develops a friendship with Sophie, the neighborhood witch.

I read a review that once described this book as “chick lit paranormal,” and that’s an apt description. While there are dark overtones, the novel never dives into thriller or horror. At its core, this is a story about overcoming heartbreak, women supporting women, and learning to define oneself as an individual and not as part of a couple. There are some morally gray moments (and Sophie generated a few “hell no’s” from me with some of her actions), but overall it’s an entertaining read.

Uprooted

by Naomi Novik, 2016, Del Rey, 464 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Fantasy, Academic Magic, Rivals to Lovers, Romance

Summary: “Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.”

For readers who want a witch tale in a fantasy setting, Uprooted is a must-read. When Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected by the Dragon – a curmudgeon if there ever was one – to serve him in his tower, she embarks on a magical education and an adventure to save her world from the corrupted Wood. Magic is at the heart of this story and woven into every page, from the evil Wood to the grumpy wizard to Agnieszka discovering she’s a witch and learning to wield her power.

My favorite part of the story, however, is the Beauty and the Beast-style relationship between Agnieszka and Sarkan (the Dragon’s actual name). I’m a sucker for a story with a curmudgeon slowly coming out of his shell and begrudgingly letting himself be loved.

Hour of the Witch

by Chris Bohjalian, 2021, Vintage Books, 496 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Historical Fiction, Witch Hunt Accounts

Summary: “Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four years old. In England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary—a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony—soon becomes herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows.”

This pick is for readers who are looking for historical realism revolving around witch hunts. Set in Puritan New England, Hour of the Witch follows the drama of a young woman targeted in an American witch hunt. The hysteria that developed in this period of history has always fascinated me, and I will always devour a title that humanizes the women who were targeted and gives them a voice.

The novel also explores a woman liberating herself from an abusive marriage. Mary’s father is a merchant who imported a set of three-tined forks and gifted them to her, but her husband and fellow villagers consider them to be demonic “devil’s tines.” Suspicion continues to build about Mary as the community sees what it wants to see and convinces itself that Mary’s actions indicate witchcraft. After all, no moral, God-fearing woman would seek to divorce her husband and spread supposedly blatant lies about him. Mary fights a two-front war against her husband and village, refusing to be misused or accused.

The Near Witch

by Victoria Schwab, 2011, Hyperion Books, 284 pages

Good pick for readers who like: YA Fiction, Fairy Tales, Haunting Bedtime Stories

Summary: “The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children. If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company. There are no strangers in the town of Near. These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life. But when an actual stranger, a boy who seems to fade like smoke, appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true. The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion. As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi’s need to know about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.”

This book strikes the perfect tone for October. There’s the mystery of the fading boy, the chilling bedtime tale of the Near Witch snatching children from their beds, and the pervading evil that lurks on the moon-drenched moors. This is a dark fairy tale that has a palpable atmosphere – I was drawn into the story’s lyrical prose and still shiver at the sensation of wandering after dark in the moors’ biting wind.

We Ride Upon Sticks

by Quan Barry, 2020, Pantheon Books, 367 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Sports, Girl Gangs, The 1980s

Summary: “In the town of Danvers, Massachusetts, home of the original 1692 witch trials, the 1989 Danvers Falcons will do anything to make it to the state finals—even if it means tapping into some devilishly dark powers. Helmed by good-girl captain Abby Putnam (a descendant of the infamous Salem accuser Ann Putnam) and her co-captain Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached blond “Claw” sees and knows all), the Falcons prove to be wily, original, and bold, flaunting society’s stale notions of femininity. Through the crucible of team sport and, more importantly, friendship, this comic tour de female force chronicles Barry’s glorious cast of characters as they charge past every obstacle on the path to finding their glorious true selves.”

This isn’t the usual kind of witch story I pick up – I gravitate toward fairy tale, gothic, magical realism, and historical fiction set during American and European witch hunts. However, this title came with the enthusiastic endorsement of my cousin, who described the reading experience like watching a John Hughes movie.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed We Ride Upon Sticks – anyone who lived through the 1980s will appreciate the many pop culture references. The members of the Falcons field hockey team are willing to try anything to turn around their losing record and make it to the state finals, so they sign their names in an Emilio Estevez notebook as a commitment to the Dark. They pledge to make mischief in exchange for wins on the field. As the stakes escalate in the book, so do the humor and the reader’s bond with this gang of high school girls.

The magic is low-key in this novel, but the story is a fun dive into the universal teenage girl attraction to witchcraft.

The vital importance of stories in the human experience

Every so often, I stand in a room full of people where my work ranks least important.

Every artist, writer, and performer encounters it at some point. The conversation turns to careers, and everyone lists their respective professions. Among engineers, health care professionals, educators, construction and maintenance tradesmen, business owners, and others, I take a deep breath and say, “I design magazines and write fantasy novels.”

The reaction varies. Sometimes it’s sincere interest. Sometimes it’s an embrace as a fellow professional. But sometimes it’s that too-familiar smirk and a comment about how nice it must be to have a hobby as a job.

On the one hand … yes, it’s nice to have a creative job that I enjoy.

On the other hand … no. My work is more than a hobby, and it is just as vital to society as buildings, infrastructure, health care, education, and the myriad businesses that comprise a community.

When I say as much to skeptics, there’s a moment of incredulity. But I don’t really believe the books I write (fiction books, no less!) carry the same societal impact as other careers, do I?

Ahem … yes, actually. I very much believe stories are vital to the human experience.

I don’t have to reach far for an example. Just ask Helen Fagin if stories are important.

Fagin died in March of this year at the age of 104, but she left behind a powerful testimony about the power of story. The Holocaust survivor shared how reading Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone With the Wind became a life-or-death endeavor after Nazis forced her and her family into the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a letter published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Fagin shares her experience living in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

“There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.”

An underground exchange of smuggled books circulated the Warsaw Ghetto, and Fagin grasped a copy of Gone With the Wind. Under the cover of night, she would read the novel, and then she would orally retell the story to others.

“As I ‘told’ them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.”

If Fagin got caught with the text, she risked severe punishment or death. A story was worth dying for.

A story also was worth living for among those imprisoned by Nazis. It gave people relief and escape from unimaginably inhumane conditions.

That’s a lot of worth.

Hear Helen Fagin read the full text of the letter, in her own voice, below:

A Velocity of Being: 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin reads her letter about how books save lives from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

The role stories play in our lives isn’t limited to anecdotal importance. Researchers have linked stories to improving both physical and psychological wellbeing. One study found that hospitalized children who listened to storytellers showed increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol and pain.

“One storytelling session with hospitalized children [led] to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task,” researchers reported. “These multi-modal findings support evolutionary theories of storytelling and demonstrate its physiological and psychological effects under naturalistic stress conditions.”

Fictional stories also help cement a sense of empathy among members of society. When readers/viewers/listeners are introduced to fictional characters, they can build interest and investment in those characters and their circumstances. Fictional people and situations allow the onlooker to vicariously experience the character’s life through their perspective.

When those characters and perspectives are from different cultures, social classes, or backgrounds, those fictional experiences can build empathy and understanding.

“Engaging with fictional stories and the characters within them might help us better understand our real-world peers,” writes Raymond Mar in the abstract to his 2018 research paper Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition. “Because stories are about characters and their interactions, understanding stories might help us to exercise our social cognitive abilities.”

People build emotional bonds with fictional characters. That, in turn, helps us build bonds with people around us.

Art may imitate life, but it also influences life. Look at the social phenomenon caused by season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things. An emotionally charged scene with Max featured Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” During its original release almost 40 years ago, it broke into the U.S. Top 30; after being featured in Stranger Things, it hit the U.S. Top 5. In June, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200.

Stranger Things also influenced dedicated viewers to seek guitars similar to the Warlock that Eddie uses to play Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the season four finale.

It’s not an unusual phenomenon. People tend to mirror interests when they want to bond with others. If a friend is a fan of a book or a band or a TV show, it’s normal for a person to read or listen or watch. At our core, humans are pack animals. We emulate others to form bonds – even with fictional characters.

Stories help us feel connected. They can make us feel understood and not alone. Stories help us make sense of our place in societies, cultures, and the world at large. They help us relate to one other. They build bonds and break barriers. They entertain.

Through stories, we are able to explore and expand and define our sense of self and our humanity.

Perhaps Helen Fagin said it best in her letter: “There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Pandemic and fiction: Handling a plot in a post-2020 world

The calendar is one of those pesky little details that matters in fiction.

If a writer says Christmas Day is on a Friday, then New Year’s Eve better fall on a Thursday. Or if a full moon occurs in one scene, it better not be a clear moonless night the next week. Otherwise, a reader will inevitably catch the discrepancy.

When outlining The Witch’s Witness, I started plotting around the 2020. The calendar featured an uncommon Halloween convergence: a full moon and the end of daylight saving time. The “fall back” of the clock (marking the end of daylight saving time) at 2 a.m. on November 1 essentially added a thirteenth hour to Halloween night.

That thirteenth hour paired with a full moon was too significant to pass up in a novel about modern Vermont witches. As the outline evolved, those two details became pivotal to the story’s climax.

And then 2020 … well, it happened.

All evidence points to the story taking place in 2020, but there’s an enormous 50-ton purple elephant lurking in the margins, waiting for someone to notice it.

There’s zero mention of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, I tried to pin down a different calendar year that could still fit the major plot points. The most important element was preserving the details about Halloween, so I started by hunting down years when daylight saving time falls on November 1. From 2010 to 2050, that only happens six times (2015, 2020, 2026, 2037, 2043, and 2048).

None of those Halloweens align with full moons – in fact, a Halloween full moon only happens once every nineteen years. The Farmers’ Almanac reports only six occurrences in this century (2001, 2020, 2039, 2058, 2077, and 2096).

With my plot firmly stuck in 2020, I started to worry about that 50-ton purple elephant trampling over the authenticity of my story. What happens if an astute reader points out the calendar that aligns with my plot?

Members of my writers’ group were quick to point out that there are witches and a system of magic in my novel’s fictional Vermont community, so the lack of COVID-19 doesn’t require much more suspension of disbelief. (Or so I hope.)

But the pandemic creates a unique challenge for modern fiction. Not all major historical events have to have an impact on a story’s plot – I could arguably write a book set in 2001 and not include details about 9/11 (unless the book is set in New York City, Washington D.C., or Somerset County in Pennsylvania). Even though 9/11 created an emotional response on an emotional level, it didn’t change most people’s day-to-day lives in the weeks to follow.

The pandemic, on the other hand, continues to have a daily impact on people’s lives. For novels that don’t have the wiggle room of fantasy and magic, it’s difficult to ignore how COVID-19 has altered daily routines. Masks in the grocery store, canceled high school sports seasons, mortality rates, the changed workplace landscape, the impact of isolation …

The more removed we get from the early days of the pandemic, the easier it will be to weave those details into the background while the main story takes the foreground. But for realistic fiction set in 2020, the pandemic is an immutable truth. Even if it’s not the main focus of the story, it’s a fixed part of the setting.

In the alternate Vermont where The Witch’s Witness takes place, I can only hope the magic system is strong enough to make readers believe in a world where the pandemic never happened.