It’s October, that time of the year where we celebrate all things scary. However, I have never found witches to be scary, often looking at them as the embodiment of a feminine tradition and legacy. I grew up obsessed with stories about witches and the supernatural, often devouring books like Charmed and The Secret Circle series by L.J Smith (who also wrote The Vampire Diaries). As I got older, my taste evolved as well, turning to other more compelling witchy stories and narratives to satiate my witchy appetite.
1. Conjure Wife: Terror, Evil, Witchcraft and Violence (1943) – Fritz Leiber
This won’t be an easy read. If we consider the time period in which Conjure Wife was written, and the fact that it is about a man named Norman who discovers that his wife is a conjure witch, there are dated views about women present in the novel. Considering the witch trials that plagued Europe from the 15th to the 18th century, that targeted certain women because they were different or didn’t toe the line, history has shown us that men have always feared women they weren’t able to put in a box.
Norman’s discovery that his wife is a conjure witch leads to the demand that she cease all magical activity at once, which proves to be detrimental for him as his comfortable life starts to unravel around him. All this is also set against the backdrop of college politics (Norman is a college professor).
Leiber has no doubt inspired quite a few horror authors with his style, and the story does have an interesting premise attached. The caveats involved are the gender stereotypes, and the fact that the narrative is in Norman’s point of view, who isn’t the most likeable character. But it is quite a satisfying read, and is a decent enough book to make our witchy list.
2. Harvest Home (1973) – Thomas Tryon
Harvest Home follows the lives of an average family – Ned, Beth and Kate – moving into the quaint little New England town of Cornwall Coombe. In Cornwall Coombe, the villagers adhere to the old way of things, resisting modern methods when it comes to agriculture, with everyone having limited contact with the outside world. Ned befriends Robert Dodd, who like him was once an outsider before moving to the town, and now the man is blind and housebound.
As Ned discovers more about the village, it is a rabbit hole that gets darker and darker, as he learns the methods they undertake to ensure a good harvest
Harvest Home is perhaps one of the more chilling books on the list, and while there is never a witch label thrown in, it is clear that the women of the town who partake in the rituals are obviously witches. Tryon’s novel is folk horror at its finest, so maybe read this one while it’s still daylight.
3. The Witches (1983) – Roald Dahl
You had to know this book was coming, there simply can’t be a witchy book list without Dahl’s The Witches. It may not be as popular as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it is my favourite Dahl book, mainly because he truly captures the pathos that comes with loss, and the original film adaptation of the book doesn’t always do justice to its themes. You will understand what I mean if you’ve watched the movie and read the book; one involves a happy ending, and the other does not – one is more true to life.
The witches in the book are really the most detestable type of creatures, and it is graphic stuff for a children’s book (I will always remember the description of their feet). It is definitely a book that you can return to every few years, and lament your nostalgia for such a melancholic tale. There’s a new adaptation coming to UK streaming services at the end of October too, just in time for Halloween.
4. Wyrd Sisters (1988) – Terry Pratchett
It would be remiss of me to not have Pratchett on the list, especially when he gave us a character like Granny Weatherwax. This is the second book she appears in, the first being Equal Rites, and this time her sister witches Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick are along for the ride.
If you enjoyed Macbeth, or just love Shakespeare in general, there are many references here, with even the likes of Hamlet and King Lear thrown in for good measure. Just like any Pratchett book you pick up, you will be regaled with his humour and wit, and find yourself committing to the purchase of the entire Discworld series (if you don’t already have it all) because you had such fun.
5. The Witching Hour (1990) – Anne Rice
When we think of Anne Rice, we think more of vampires, and of course the famous Lestat, whose series I read zealously till all the death and blood got to me. Rice also penned a series about the lives of the Mayfair witches, and The Witching Hour is the first book in the series. I think the first book is the best, and honestly, Rice should have kept it to a single novel instead of tacking it onto a trilogy, but that is sometimes the fate of best-selling authors and their books.
The book follows Rowan Mayfair and Michael Curry. She is unaware that she comes from a long line of witches, and when she finds the drowned body of Curry, she unwittingly brings him back to life. Coming back from the dead has endowed Curry with a sensory power. Together, they begin a journey to find out her roots, and the reason behind his gift.
Be warned though, it is a long book to get through, but fans of historical fiction and the dark depths of Rice’s prose should find plenty to enjoy.
6. Practical Magic (1995) – Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic is a beautiful book, the kind of book you read once and will remember for life. It might seem familiar to you, since there was a movie made that was adapted from the book, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. While the movie is enjoyable and lighter in its tone, it is no match for the book, and its charting of the witchy legacy of the Owens sisters.
The book is centred around Sally and Gillian, sisters taken in by their aunts after the death of their parents. They grow remarkably close to each other, since they find themselves ostracised because of their aunts’ reputations as witches. While magic is a part of the book, the main focus is on bonds of sisterhood, love and romance, with the aunts more in the peripheries.
Hoffman distinguishes Sally and Gillian, the former more settled, with a home and children, while Gillian is the wild rebel sister always getting into trouble. This becomes a point of conflict in the book, with Gillian landing herself in hot water and needing Sally to help her get out of it.
7. Dark Sister (2000) – Graham Joyce
There is a recommendation attached to Joyce’s novel – that it must be read on a dark, dreary night, preferably when the wind is howling, you know, so you can scare yourself a little more while reading it.
The book follows Maggie and Alex, who one day while cleaning their house discover a dead blackbird (argh) and a handwritten diary. Maggie takes an interest in the diary, and with a little help, she finds herself traversing the world of power and magic. As you guessed from the foreshadowing offered by the dead blackbird, fun and whimsy do not follow, as Maggie finds herself having to deal with malevolent forces which threaten to tear her family apart.
8. Chocolat (2000) – Joanne Harris
I wrote about Chocolat this year during Easter, since its themes are perfect for the occasion, and no, it’s not because the book involves chocolate. Much like Practical Magic, Harris’ Chocolat focuses more on magical realism, where protagonist Vianne is able to intuitively sense things, and we know this stems from her being a witch.
Vianne and her daughter Anouk meander into a new town, coming in on the air of Mardi Gras, settling into their new lives. Vianne opens a chocolate confectionery and begins her business just as the season of Lent begins, and we truly see the tension between the sensual pleasures of chocolate and the restraint required of the season.
Harris’ prose tantalises, littering her novel with such mouth-watering descriptions of food, that will lure you into the sensual world that she’s built around the decadence of chocolate. So yeah, maybe have a full meal first before you dive in.
9. The Croning (2012) – Laird Barron
This is Laird Barron’s debut novel, having mostly dwelled in the art of the short story before this – the fact that this man can excel in both forms so effortlessly just proves how unfair the world is, or maybe it shows just how talented he is.
The novel follows Donald Miller, who finds himself with missing memories. The man is about to celebrate his sixtieth anniversary, so lost memories isn’t exactly a surprising thing at his age. However, these gaps have existed before old age grasped him. Why doesn’t this bother his wife Michelle we don’t exactly know (just yet), but the woman shows no signs of stopping, she still travels for her job and is as agile as ever.
Donald is about to discover dark secrets, unearthing certain truths about his wife Michelle and their adult twins. And that’s it, that’s all I am going to tell you. I don’t want to spoil anything for you with excessive details. It involves witches somehow, and that’s all I am going to say.
10. Hex (2016) – Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Hex is set in Black Spring, a town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut (which explains the book cover). She walks the streets and enters the homes of the townspeople whenever she wants, going as far as to stand next to people’s beds for nights on end. The whole town is on lockdown to keep the curse from spreading, until a group of teenagers break protocol and go viral with the haunting.
You may think, how scary can this book be, I mean, people just throw dish towels over her face and just pretend she’s not there. Ask yourself, if a creepy witch entered your house like this, could you ignore her? There’s also commentary here on how society perceives and treats women, and you will need to contend with who the real evil is by the time you reach the end.
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