Over the last few months I have been reading novels about witch craft and witches and thought I’d write about them to celebrate All Hallows Eve. So brew a cup of hot chocolate with mugwort and rose (I’m working on a recipe I will share soon), grab and blanket and nestle down for some reading inspiration for this All Hallows Eve...
Jeanette Winterson by The Daylight Gate
I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing and this book is short but crammed full of atmosphere, great characters, plot twists and historical references. It features real characters from the Pendle witch trials and even John Dee. It’s a heady mix of fact and fiction which is gripping from beginning to end. Published by Hammer, as in Hammer Horror, this made perfect sense to me after I had read it. Highly recommended.
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This is a charming book said to have been a fore-runner of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and a feminist classic. Lolly Willowes is middle-aged and has lived with her brother and his family for years. She has finally had enough of their dependance and craves her independence and the countryside (in town she enjoys her herbs, tinctures and distillations as well as she can). By giving attention to her own desires and need she realises her destiny and calling in life is to be a witch. I particularly enjoyed this passage:
“This new year was changing her whole conception of spring. She had thought of it as a denial of winter, a green spear that thrust through a tyrant’s rusty armour. Now she saw it as something filial, gently unlacing the helm of the old warrior and comforting his rough cheek.”
Wry observations at sabbaths and cosy chats with Satan, this novel is a delight.
Thonyhold by Mary Stewart
This is a charming story about a young woman who inherits a cottage in the countryside from her mysterious aunt. She soon discovers that she may have been inherited her aunt's skills with herbs and her local community are patiently waiting for her to take her rightful place as the neighbourhood herbalist and witch. There are some lovely descriptions of her aunt’s house and garden:
‘It’s defended against witchcraft and black magic. You’ve got yew and juniper at the south-west corner of the house, and there’s ash and rowan, and a bay tree, and then the quickthorn hedge with some of the holy thorn of Glastonbury planted amongst it.”
It all ties up neatly and becomes a bit of a slightly schmaltzy romance novel at the end but I really enjoyed the references to herbs, foraging, jam making and herbal magic. An easy and comforting read.
Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell
Set in Salem in 1691, this novella follows, Lois, who has just arrived from England to be with her only living relatives after both her parents die. Beautifully written as you would expect from Elizabeth Gaskell, full of atmospheric details, it is a deeply unsettling read that builds up the tension and unease steadily and disturbingly. Lois is such a well written character and you begin to feel the claustrophobic atmosphere around her as paranoia, fear and suppression build. I felt a bit of un-ease at first about the references to "Indian servants" but their suffering, unfair treatment and the injustices of losing their lands is made clear.
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
Someone recommended this to me a while ago and I wish I could remember who. Over the summer a director picked it for some lockdown workshops that I was doing some design work for and was glad of the push to read it. Tiffany Aching is a trainee witch slowly realising her granny’s legendary witch status and the role she must now take over. What I loved about this mainly bonkers children’s book is the setting and tone. She lives on a farm in the Chalk. There is lots about what is beneath our feet, the history of our lands and it's legacy. Plus standing stones and ancient ways. Great stuff.
The Witchfinder’s Sister Beth Underdown
Alice Hopkins is widowed from a man her family didn’t approve of and has to turn to her brother for help. Her brother, unfortunately, is Matthew Hopkins, AKA the “Witchfinder General”. I really enjoyed this book. Fascinating perspective through Alice's eyes of how someone so close can turn into such a monster. Full of atmosphere, great descriptions, really evocative and a genuinely tense and gripping read.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
This is another book using the Pendle Witches as inspiration and it is a beautiful book. Compelling, believable, with well-written female characters and using real events and locations. I went to Gawthorpe Hall a couple of years ago and I wanted to re-visit after reading this book, it really captures the atmosphere of the period and the setting in the house. Great story that pulls you along, full of detail. Perfect to read by the fire this Autumn.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
If you love the film, Rosemary’s Baby, as much as I do then I think you’ll love the book as well. The film was an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel and much of the dialogue from the film is lifted directly. As someone who has watched the film many times I loved having every bit of it fleshed out with even more detail. It never ceases to amaze what a total and utter arsehole her husband, Guy, is. Great atmosphere, fabulous characters, well written.
Circe by Madeline Miller
If I had to just chose one book from this book to recommend it would be Circe. It is breathtakingly good. Just the descriptions of the herbs and plants that Circe grows, harvests and uses for her magic make it worth reading. The prose is exquisite and the counjuring of Circe’s world on Aeaea is vividly drawn. These are tales of ancients gods and legends that feel modern and relevant. It’s a masterpiece.
Please shop responsibly and consider buying second hand, from your local bookshop or from Hive.