Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A Brief History of Enchantment: Witchy October Reads

This article of mine was originally published in the February 2010 Issue of Historical Novels Review.

A Brief History of Enchantment: Magic Goes Mainstream

Paranormal fiction is hot. Think of the huge popularity of the Harry Potter and Twilight series; of adult fantasy/historical fiction crossovers such as Susanne Clarke’s eccentric doorstopper, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; not to mention Seth Grahame-Smith’s quirky genre-bender, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

“The publishing world has seen an explosion in fiction featuring a wide array of paranormal elements,” says literary agent Wendy Sherman. “Vampires, zombies, werewolves, and witches. Readers seem to have an unquenchable thirst that publishers, television, and film makers have been quick to respond to. Supernatural themes may once, not that long ago, have been seen as a side line, but today’s urban fantasy is a hugely popular genre all its own. When the rich detail of historical fiction is paired with fantastical elements we can reach an even broader audience of serious readers.”

Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, speculates that the paranormal is so popular because it “both taps into ancient tropes offered in folklore and is a way of escaping the terrifying and uncertain world we live in.”

Witches, Wisefolk, and Kabbalists

Witches and wizards have long been a fixture in fantasy fiction. Until recently any adult fiction that embraced these themes was regarded as fantasy or horror by default. But a new wave of literary novels, revealing magic and witchcraft through the lens of well-researched history, is blurring the lines of genre and shedding fresh light on how our ancestors’ belief in the otherworldly permeated every aspect of their lives. These novelists take their readers into that lost enchanted world.

Our forbears believed that magic was real. Dr. John Dee, conjurer to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician, cartographer, and also an alchemist and a necromancer. In Dee’s England, more people relied on traditional cunning folk for healing than on physicians, who were so expensive that only the elite could afford them. Across world cultures, folk healers and other magical practitioners played a key role in their communities. Sometimes they were honored as wise folk, other times condemned as witches.

During the European witch persecutions from 1480 to 1700, an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed. These witch hunts were not a phenomenon of the Middle Ages, as popularly believed, but of the Renaissance and Reformation, stretching up to the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. Some of those hanged or burned were actual cunning folk while others, likely the vast majority, were simply maligned victims of the witch-hunting frenzy. Recent titles illuminating the European witch hunts include Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity, set in 16th century Germany, and my own novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which tells the true story of cunning woman Elizabeth Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, and her family’s struggle to survive the Pendle witch hunt of 1612.

By 1692, European witch mania had crossed the Atlantic and manifested itself in the infamous Salem Witch Trials which sentenced thirteen women and six men to death. The Salem tragedy provides the backdrop for two recent bestsellers. Kathleen Kent’s critically acclaimed novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, draws on the story of her ancestor, condemned witch Martha Carrier. Katherine Howe, the descendent of two accused witches, offers a more overtly supernatural slant in her novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which explores the possibility that at least some of the Salem witches may have been cunning folk with real powers. Suzy Witten’s small press debut, The Afflicted Girls, focuses not on the presumed witches but on their perceived victims and tries to solve the mystery underlying their hysteria.

“In writing The Heretic’s Daughter,” author Kathleen Kent states, “I worked to combine fact and fiction to illustrate the courage and fortitude of Martha Carrier, perhaps the only person who not only denied being a confederate of the Devil, but who very vocally confronted her judges, calling them to task for listening to a group of malicious, accusing girls.”

Reader Anne Gilbert describes her fascination with The Heretic’s Daughter. “Oddly, people of that time and place were both ‘superstitious’ in the modern sense, and, at the same time, and often in the same communities, there were others who were a bit more skeptical and ‘dared’ to disagree. As long as there wasn’t a whole lot of tension in these communities, you could just shrug your shoulders at them. But if there were tensions for any reason, such ‘skeptics’ often came under suspicion. The Heretic’s Daughter shows the process beautifully.”

Accused witches were not the only ones to face persecution. Richard Zimler’s stunning novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, set in 16th century Portugal, evokes the rich world of Jewish mysticism under fire in an age of inquisition and forced conversion.

Magic, Superstition, and Popular Culture

Beyond the witch trials, the very real belief in the supernatural shared by rich and poor, educated and illiterate in the Early Modern Period shaped a worldview vastly different from our own.

“Throughout the centuries, magic and the supernatural were considered by the majority of people to be the norm,” says Kim Murphy, author of Whispers from the Grave. “In my upcoming, as of yet untitled timeslip, not only have I shown that Salem wasn’t the only place on the North American continent that had witch trials, but that the 17th-century English were very similar to the Powhatan Indians in their supernatural beliefs. Today, these subjects are often regarded as New Age. In reality, they’re very, very old. I interweave them in my work because it helps me explore what the traditional cultures have been trying to tell us all along.”

Author Sandra Gulland, whose most recent novel, Mistress of the Sun, delves into the world of bone magic and horse whispering, agrees that it would be “historically inaccurate to write about the 17th century (or earlier, for that matter) and not include the mystical or paranormal — at the very least in the minds of your characters. Even the great mathematical genius Descartes believed that bad dreams were put into his head by demons.” Gulland cites Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, as an excellent example of how subtly layered beliefs in the supernatural can be woven into a narrative that is not explicitly about magic or witchcraft.

“When writing about people from the past, magic, superstition and the supernatural are important elements that we cannot ignore,” says C.W. Gortner, whose upcoming novel, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, explores Catherine’s relationship with the seer, Nostradamus. “Whether it is the occult menace implicit in Karen Maitland’s superb medieval novels or the struggles of my own Catherine de Medici against the savage fanaticism of her age, belief in the supernatural enriches and informs our work, and the consciousness of the characters we inhabit. It is crucial to the very world we attempt to conjure to life for our reader.”

Moving forward in time, some writers have used the occult as a vehicle for addressing the cynicism and horrors of the modern age. In Jake Arnott’s novel, The Devil’s Paintbrush, set in Paris at the dawning of the 20th century, the notorious Aleister Crowley takes the reader on a tour through a stygian underworld of black masses, hallucinogens, and apocalyptic visions. The devil’s paintbrush of the title refers to the newly invented automatic machine gun, which heralds a violent and godless new epoch.

Priestesses and Seers

Some novels draw on a magical history inspired by the polytheistic religions that flourished before the Christian conversions. Judith Lindbergh’s lyrical debut, The Thrall’s Tale, takes us to Viking-age Greenland and presents an arresting portrait of the seidkona, or seeress, Thorbjorg from the Saga of Eirik the Red. Lindbergh says she never really perceived Thorbjorg’s practice as “magic” anymore than she believes Thorbjorg herself did. “To my understanding, magic’s derogatory connotations are mostly the persistent and powerful effects of Christianity’s condemnation of the practices and practitioners of pre-Christian faiths,” the author observes. “I decided to portray the seidkona Thorbjorg in my novel as a priestess deeply committed to her faith.”

Similarly Kathleen Cunningham Guler’s novel, A Land Beyond Ravens, explores the indigenous Celtic religion that still held strong in 5th century Britain when Christianity was struggling to gain a foothold. Guler says her book gives a sense of how spirituality may have been interpreted as magic. “Two of the characters have what I’ve named ‘fire in the head,’ which is a kind of catch-all term for anything from visions and prophecy to the muse a bard or poet draws on for inspiration. One of those characters is Myrddin, aka Merlin. Of course he’s fictional, but it’s my conjecture that his ‘magic’ was his intelligent use of the knowledge gained from ‘fire in the head.’”

Beyond the shores of Europe, Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, shows how the trickster Nanapush “converts” missionary priest Damien Modeste, who is actually a woman in disguise, by introducing her to the Ojibwe spirit world.

Vampires and zombies

Other writers have taken a completely different route, wedding “straight” historical fiction to the fantastic and bizarre. In 1819 Lord Byron’s physician, John Polidori published his story “The Vampyre,” initiating the canon of English vampire fiction. The story was a hit, probably because the public assumed that the undead protagonist was modeled after bad boy Byron himself. Soon enough the vampire became a fixture in gothic literature. The late 20th century brought forth a literary vampire renaissance, beginning with Anne Rice’s series of novels, The Vampire Chronicles, first published in the 1970s, which attained cult status. The trend continues. Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel, The Historian, reveals the 15th century prince Vlad Tepes, aka the Impaler of Wallachia, aka the Real Dracula.

Folktales of the zombie, a corpse reanimated by a powerful sorcerer, arise from the Vodou belief system of the West African diaspora. WB Seabrook’s 1929 novel, The Magic Island, and Victor Halperin’s 1932 film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, lifted the zombie from its original cultural context and made it a stock figure of the horror genre.

Vampires and zombies now rival each other for popularity in the current spate of Jane Austen-themed paranormals. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies weds the Regency classic with zombie mayhem and armies of ninja zombie-slayers, while the title of Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre says it all.

Light years away from the Jane Austen industry, fantasy author Emma Bull has crafted the most unique of twists – a paranormal Western. Set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, Bull’s novel, Territory, recasts the famous story of the shoot out at OK Corral as a supernatural battle ground: Wyatt Earp appears as a dark magician fighting over land rights in the mining boomtown.

Has genre-bending gone too far? Barbara Peters, no fan of the vampire-oeuvre, seems to think so. “I expect that like all hot genres it will play out and cycle down and something new will replace it.”

HNR editor Bethany Latham offers a different viewpoint. “Historical fiction provides a way to escape from reality, first and foremost into the past, and what’s more escapist than the supernatural, than fantasy? There will always be purists when it comes to any genre – those who don’t wish to see adventure taint their literary novels or the paranormal intrude on a prescribed historical setting. But many readers are finding that seamlessly combining the two into a single, well-written novel can make for some fascinating, transportive reading. I’m a perfect example; I'm not a fan of ‘fantasy’ per se, and my first reaction if asked would be to say I don’t read it. But then I’d remember how I greatly enjoyed both Kostova’s The Historian and Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, both of which fall into this category, and have to admit myself to be a liar. Works like this have encouraged me to broaden not only the horizons of what I put on my never-ending ‘to read’ list, but also what I consider to be good ‘historical fiction.’”

How to Make it Work

As Latham points out, any author hoping to weave supernatural elements into their historical fiction must find a way to make it appear seamless. The magic must arise organically from the historical setting and worldview. It must feel authentic rather than forced or anachronistic. A solid background in research is essential. Familiarize yourself with the literature of your era, be it folk tales, ballads, written sermons, or skaldic poetry. If you write a paranormal send up on a classic novel, know the original text inside out. Paranormal mash-ups such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s actually pay great homage to the integrity of Jane Austen’s writing, allowing Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy’s wit to shine through as they battle the zombie hordes.

“The best historical fiction,” Kathleen Kent believes, “is anchored firmly in fact, and so I researched The Heretic’s Daughter for several years, studying maps, court records and contemporary accounts, to give the story and the characters greater authenticity.”

Primary sources such as witch trial transcripts are a great source for discovering stories and characters. My own inspiration to write a novel about Elizabeth Southerns was inspired by the following quote from Thomas Potts’s A Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.

Reading against the grain, I was amazed at how Mother Demdike’s strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her.

My research into the Pendle Witches also benefited from new scholarly research on historical cunning folk. Excellent secondary sources include Owen Davies’s Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History and Emma Wilby’s Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, both of which correct many misconceptions about historical magic practitioners. Keith Thomas’s classic, Religion and the Decline of Magic, is perhaps the best introduction to superstition and popular belief in Early Modern Britain.

Don’t chain yourself to your books and computer either. Being on location in places like Salem or the site of Greenland’s Viking settlements or Lisbon’s old Jewish quarter can add a whole other level of depth and authenticity to your writing.

Let the magic begin.


  1. Thanks for the spooky article Mary. I shared it with the members of the General Fiction Club on B&N.