That’s Witch With a “W”.

 by Alexandra Sokoloff

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?

– Alex

 

 

53 thoughts on “That’s Witch With a “W”.

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think witchcraft and Wicca are two separate things that often get confused for one another. Witchcraft I think is an invention to lump together "bad" things — from the threat the Church felt hundreds of years to anything evil. Wicca, as you mentioned, is a healing, earth philosophical belief and practice.
    I have watched shows such as Paranormal State with interest but I also believe "evil" is not real but a mental construct that one attracts to oneself. But while in some people there is an attraction, in others there is an aversion to the point of also giving the thoughts more credence than they should. I would love to have discussion with you Alexandra on all this. πŸ™‚

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PK, you and I are really coming from the same place. I may be a little more prone to believe that evil is not entirely psychological, but even as I type it I know that I DO believe evil is entirely psychological – in that it’s entirely human-generated, but can assume a life of its own from there.

    Witchcraft – well, that’s semantic. I know a lot of witches who don’t consider themselves Wiccan, which from what I’ve been able to gather more of a religion. But the non-Wiccan witches I know have nothing to do with the darker aspects of witchcraft projected on the concept of "witch" (same thing you said).

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  3. CJ Lyons

    Alex, so excited to see this book hit the stands! I love the idea of playing around with the idea that over the centuries somehow women have become seen as "evil"–guess that’s thanks to Eve, maybe someone should retell her story someday?–and our gifts of intuition, etc, have become seen as inferior to "male" gifts like reason (or arguing, lol!)

    Love the way your books constantly rock our established world vision!!!
    CJ

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  4. JD Rhoades

    I know a few (hang around SF/fantasy fans enough, and it’s inevitable). Nice folks.

    But I just deleted three paragraphs in this comment because I’ve decided that I am totally not getting into a discussion of religion in here.

    Can’t wait to read the book, though!

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  5. Laura DiSilverio

    Fascinating post, as always. I look forward to your Saturdays because you do so much THINKING and make me do it, too, with your posts.

    On a different note, my just-finished-5th-grade daughter did a paper on the Salem witch trials this month and found the "high on ergot" possibility fascinating. She’s a rational little critter and likes scientific explanations.

    Best of luck with the launch and sales!

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  6. Shizuka

    Love the ergot high theory. One of Morag Joss’s books had an ergot plotline that I found fascinating,
    despite the fact that science usually confounds me.

    "Witch," I suspect, was often just a convenient catch-all for women who were too powerful or too untraditional. Whereas, if a man had some of the same qualities, he would be considered a god.
    A word that got me in trouble in Catholic high school; I refused to capitalize it even when grammatically called for.

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  7. Susan

    I don’t really know any witches, male or female. But then, my next door neighbor could be one and I wouldn’t know. I am not sure what witches do. I like the idea of herbal medicine but I don’t think I believe in the ‘supernatural’. I am not even sure there is a god. This is because I have never SEEN any signs of ‘super’ beings or doings. I have a hard time with ‘faith’. I have to see or smell or touch something to believe it is real. Having said that………..I DO believe in fiction! If it’s well written, I will believe anything you guys write…..for a moment. Then when I finish the book I go right back to my usual agnostic muddle.

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  8. Robin McCormack

    I love getting a look into your research and thinking process. Makes reading the book all the more special. My old roommate was wiccan, turned christian and years later went back to being wiccan. She is now comfortable in her skin and happy.

    Yep, for homeschool, we read a little bit of history of Salem and witchcraft for 4th grade and going to go a bit more in depth for 5th grade. I think 5th was when I learned about it – way back when. πŸ™‚

    Looking forward to reading Book of Shadows.

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  9. Fran

    What a great premise! I cannot wait to read it!

    I know practicing witches, WIccans, and my wife and I call ourselves pagan, believing in the feminie aspect of God as well as the male but not actively spell-casting as witches and Wiccans do. It’s a fine line and everyone interprets things in their own ways, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as it’s not repressive to others, and that’s all I’m saying about THAT.

    Anyway, congratulations on the new book, and let me repeat, can’t wait to read it!

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  10. Darlene

    I took a tai chi class with a young woman who called herself a witch. She was very skilled at herbal medicine and healed an injury on my leg (using a poultice) that two doctors had been treating unsuccessfully for a month. The doctors acted like I’d been scammed by a snake-oil salesman.

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  11. KDJames / BCB

    I stared at that book cover way too long before I realized it was a crenellated wall and not a large blue elephant with too many legs and a horse’s tail . . .

    When we were kids, my older sister had a chemistry set and I remember we mixed a bunch of stuff together — specifically the ones that said "don’t mix this stuff together" — just to see what would happen. I think we melted the formica top of the little table in our bedroom. Obviously, this was before toy safety standards; pretty sure everything in that set was a choking hazard. This was also before we learned about the Salem Witch Trials or I suspect we would have cast horrible spells on our two younger witches sisters. Maybe even melted them.

    This story sounds intriguing. Can’t wait to read it!

    [From last post: Happy Birthday, Stephen!]

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks so much, Laura. I’m with your daughter, the ergot theory is fascinating. As always, I suspect it was a combination of so, so many things., but everyone tripping their brains out… can’t beat that piece of the puzzle.

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  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I know, Allison, we’re witches – I mean sisters – under the skin.

    Shizuka, thanks, I’ll have to check out the Joss book. And I have to admit I did the uncapitalized "god" for the longest time, too.

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  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Susan, I didn’t have much faith in anything until I started practicing yoga. Then it all started to make sense to me. But synchronicity is a powerful reminder to me that there’s more going on out there, and it’s goood.

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  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Your book sounds absolutely fantastic, Alex! I do know a Wiccan or two, and I’ve spent some time at the Renaissance Faire myself.
    The characters you’ve teamed up for your novel are perfect opposites, and, if you ask me, a great hook for a TV series. Are you pursuing that? Do tell.
    And I would love to do that research–hanging out with the criminalist in Boston, checking out the crime lab. I can’t get enough of that.

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  16. JT Ellison

    Alex, I can’t wait to read this one. Funny, we must have been on the same metaphysical wavelength, because in THE IMMORTALS, Taylor works with a Wiccan high priestess to stop a Goth killer. I LOVED the research on that book. So much that I’m wondering about trying my hand at something more supernatural.

    I wrote a dark spell for the book, and took it to my critique group. I was reading it aloud and everyone got hot, and uncomfortable. I stopped reading and decided to just move on without it. I told one of my Wiccan friends and she scolded me – never, ever read the spells aloud unless i"m in my protective circle. Learned my lesson.

    Girl power!

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  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Robin, I wonder why that is, that fifth or sixth grade is when the Witch Trials come up? Because the hormones are starting to kick in and teachers are desperate to give kids something that will hold their attention?

    Fran, this is so up your alley! I’m not much of a spellcaster myself, but I sure did do some cleansing rituals when I kicked my tenants out of the house recently.

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  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ooh, great story, Darlene! My brother is quite the one for the herbal medicine, and he recommended a poultice to me that disappeared a huge and nasty bruise literally overnight. Potato peels, who would’ve thought? But it worked like a – well, charm.

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  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Stephen, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d run into each other backstage at the Faire. We’ll have to compare notes some time.

    Yes, I’m thinking TV, for sure, and have been approached; you know, we’ll see…

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  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    First of all, no one’s ever invited me "backstage" at the Faire. I hear stories, and I want in.
    Second…I can’t wait to read about your deal in the Hollywood Reporter.

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  21. KDJames / BCB

    Alex, I apologize if my comment about the cover was offensive. It was meant more as an observation about my brain’s inability to see it for what it was. When the post loaded all I could see was the top part of it and.. well..

    I actually think it’s a great cover — yours always are — spooky and evocative.

    Maybe one day I’ll learn to think before I speak. I’m sorry.

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  22. Cathy

    Fabulous premise – can’t wait to read it.
    I don’t know any witches, but I’m fascinated by the concept of feminine power, a feminine deity and the systematic way organized religion has suppressed it over the years.

    Reply
  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Not at all KD, I missed your comment the first time (trying to answer comments while doing copyedits, my brain is fried…).

    Have to convess the only other time I’ve ever heard "crenellated" in a sentence is in that fantastic Cole Porter song – "Down in the Depths On the Ninetieth Floor."

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  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Cathy, yeah – I also think it’s interesting how the goddess endured in Catholicism as Mary, the Mother.

    I could say a lot about Catholicism, but at least girls have someone feminine to pray to.

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  25. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Alex

    The new books sounds fascinating, as usual. Can’t wait to read it!

    I only know one Wiccan, and view it the same as any other form of religion or belief system – don’t mind what people believe and practise, just as long as they don’t try and convert me… ;-]

    Interesting, though, that one of the most memorable opening lines I’ve ever read was a Laurie Lee short story that goes: "I smelled crows, midnight, and burning, and knew that I had met a witch."

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  26. Susan

    KD….I laughed myself sick when you wrote that about the elephant. I had to go back and stare at the cover and then I saw it. Hilarious optical illusion that you you saw straight away. Loved it!! Hah!

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  27. Venus de Hilo

    Look forward to reading your new book! I love novels that tread a subtle path between normal and paranormal. Don’t know any real life witches, but have met some, uh, I’ll call them "metaphysicians," (teacher/healer types) who seem able to bend reality in interesting ways. I do think what we call "reality" is a very limited subset of what’s really going on, an idea that both intrigues and creeps me out, in equal measures.

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  28. KDJames / BCB

    Um, Susan, not sure whether that makes me feel better or worse. πŸ˜‰ I suspect that if I ever took a Rorschach test, I’d flunk it. Or at least get myself locked up for a good long while.

    Alex is very gracious but she definitely has permission to slap me around a bit next time she sees me.

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  29. Susan

    BCB No no no no no I was seriously amused. That was ONE of the funniest riffs I have heard on Murderati. Grab the cred, Little Girl.

    Alex loves this shit, right? She’s not offended. She will think this is funny. It will become "The ghost behind the cover art"……a many legged elephant with a horse’s tail.

    Hey. You gave me reason to laugh today and that is very important to my therapy. : – }

    Alex. Yoga hasn’t worked on my ‘faith’ but it has certainly worked on my body and mind. I’ll work on the faith thing and get back to ya.

    I am a druid. Does that explain anything?

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  30. Mara Grey

    One interesting sidelight you might not know is that witch persecution in Wales was almost non-existent. I think there were two witches hanged at one time. No witches? Not at all! Lots and lots of witches, according to the stories and folklore. However, the "good ones" seemed to be quite skilled in keeping in line the ones that caused trouble if they weren’t given whatever they asked. Someone’s causing the milk to sour and the butter to disappear? Just call in a white witch and there’s no problem. There were also cursing wells as well as blessing wells, something I’ve never heard of anywhere else.

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  31. Alexandra Sokoloff

    It is the summer read lineup, LU, that’s what I was thinking. But to be a witch about it, It’s not actually SUMMER until Solstice, later than we all think.

    Z, that’s a terrific first line, wow.

    I feel the same way about religion of any kind.

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  32. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I still don’t see an elephant – but it wouldn’t be the first time I couldn’t see the elephant in the room.

    Katherine, for heaven’s sake, I’m not offended. If you only knew how much it took to offend me…

    Reply
  33. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Venus, "metaphysicians" is a great word for it. And this:

    "I do think what we call "reality" is a very limited subset of what’s really going on,"

    – Well, that completely sums up my feelings about it all. Thanks!

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  34. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Hey, my fellow Pisces,
    Witches? All in a day’s work.
    I’ve instinctively stayed away from Crowley because his vibe is so dark. But I know witches — lovers of mother earth and nature — and respect them.

    And I’ve always believed in the incredible power of words and intention. To me, that’s what spells are all about.

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  35. Rae

    Late to the party, as usual πŸ˜‰ but can’t wait to read the book. I know several Wiccans, and in my funeral director days provided services for a coven or two (also for some Satanists, but that’s a whole different story). Don’t know much about witchcraft, but Wicca is a lovely religion, I think.

    And I’m absolutely certain there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, etc. etc.

    πŸ˜‰

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  36. witches

    I still don’t see an elephant – but it wouldn’t be the first time I couldn’t see the elephant in the room.

    Katherine, for heaven’s sake, I’m not offended. If you only knew how much it took to offend me…

    Reply

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