It’s amazing how many ‘Rati have new books out this month. Oh, right, I guess that’s what we do.
But yes, me too! – my fourth supernatural thriller from St. Martin’s is out on Tuesday, Book of Shadows, my first novel without “The” in the title, and my favorite book so far.
It’s about a very male, very rational (he thinks) Boston homicide detective who reluctantly must team up with a very female, very irrational, mysterious (and of course, beautiful) witch from Salem, to solve what he thinks is a Satanic killing – which she insists involves a real demon.
As a lot of you know, my favorite thing as a writer is to walk that “Is it or isn’t it?” line between reality and the supernatural, and I think this may be my finest line yet. Because this is actually a police procedural, but the question is, “Whatdunit?” (Thanks, Dusty…)
And I can already tell I’m going to get in trouble with this post, but what the hell. So to speak.
I have been fascinated with witches and the modern practice of witchcraft for as long as I can remember. I mean, please, didn’t we all grow up with The Wizard of Oz, not to mention Halloween? And in a way my book is precisely about that existential question posed by Glinda the Good, in her very first line of the movie: “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”
And I don’t mean that just literally, but metaphorically. Because the whole history of witchcraft seems to me to boil down to the question of whether women are good or bad. For centuries, during the times of the old earth religions, witches were seen as good: healers, midwives, mystics, helpers, the folk equivalent of doctors. In the Middle Ages (and I’m sure throughout history, but particularly starting in the Middle Ages), the organized, patriarchal church (and male doctors) tried to stamp out this manifestation of feminine power with the systematic torture and genocide of women in the form of the Inquisition. Witches were evil, women were evil.
In the 1960’s, when societies were expanding the borders of ordinary consciousness, there was a newfound fascination with the earth religions and an upsurge in the practice of goddess worship, including witchcraft. I’m sure all of us who grew up in California have known a practicing witch or two in our lives – anyone who’s ever been to the Renaissance Faire as many times as I have probably knows whole covens.
But get outside of California and OH, it’s a different story. It’s always been hard for me to comprehend he defensiveness that arises in response to the suggestion that God might actually be female, too. (Um, doesn’t even Genesis (that’s the Bible Genesis, rock stars…) say “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them”… ?)
I mean, I love you guys, you know I do – but you’re only HALF the human equation.
Try referring to God as “She” in, oh, the Bible Belt, for example, though. Which yes, I do frequently, and I feel that collective internal gasp of horror around me (And then women, girls, come up to me in private to say, ‘Thank you”).
Women are just not supposed to have that kind of power.
So in Book of Shadows, I wanted to dive right in and explore some of those things that make some men – and a lot of women – uncomfortable with feminine power, and feminine energy, and feminine sexuality, and feminine deity – the whole yin of things. It’s noir, but it’s supernatural noir. I wanted to take two people who were as different as I could make them on the surface: male vs. female, rational vs. intuitive, doing vs. being, real world vs. the unconscious, psychic world – even their cities are opposites: Boston vs. Salem – and force them to work together and learn that they’re a lot more similar than they seem on the surface.
Actually I think my cop protagonist, while he doesn’t exactly trust this witch, probably with good reason, takes all of the above feminine stuff pretty much in stride, admirably so. What he’s not so comfortable with is the idea that there might really be something supernatural going on in this troubling case.
One theme I come back to over and over again in my writing is the idea that messing around with the occult, or other dark forces (which you could say about drug abuse, or certain kinds of sex, or abuses of power) can open doors that let undesirable elements through that aren’t so easy to get rid of. And that young people are particularly prone to supernatural experimentation – and attack by supernatural predators as well as human ones. That’s definitely something that goes on in the book. And some of my earliest exposure to that idea was my sixth grade study of the Salem Witch Trials. (That’s right, isn’t it – we all got the Salem Witch Trials about sixth grade?)
The ambiguity of that situation has always drawn me. Were the girls who accused the “witches” pawns of land-grabbing villagers? Bored and frustrated pre-teens seizing the only power they’d ever have by acting out? High on ergot? Freaked out – maybe a little possessed – by their experimentation with voodoo under the tutelage of Tituba? Wouldn’t you just kill to know?
I tried to capture some of that ambiguity in my accused killer, a troubled musician in a Goth band who has taken a little too much of an interest in that very bad real-life magician, Aleister Crowley.
The research for this one was a real treat, too. Of course I had a whole backlog of witch stories to draw on, from people I met working at the metaphysical bookstore The Bodhi Tree, in L.A. (and that’s also where I met a lot of grunge teens who were rabid about Crowley), to attending ceremonies with Craft friends, including witnessing what for me was the real magic of “Calling the Corners”. I’ve had a love affair with Boston since I set The Price, there – it’s not just layered with American history and an amazing art history as well, but there’s just something deliciously eerie to me about the whole place. I got to go to Salem on Halloween (think Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras but with more witches, pirates, and Puritans). And I was incredibly lucky to find a criminalist in the Boston Police Department who gave me an extensive tour of Schroeder Plaza, the department and the crime lab, and answered all kinds of technical questions for me. It was one of those projects where even though circumstances around me were very complicated at the time, everything I needed for the book fell into my lap – I love it when that happens.
Almost like… hmm, magic.
You can read the first couple of chapters on my website, (look for the link under “Excerpt”) and I’ll gladly give away a copy to a randomly drawn commenter today. (Will post winner here tomorrow).
And my questions for the day are – What’s your take on witches? Know any? Are you familiar with the way witchcraft is actually practiced, or is that whole world completely mysterious to you? Or do you do the odd spell or two yourself?