Modern Lit: The Diviner’s Tale, by Bradford Morrow

The Diviner's Tale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Single mom Cassandra Brooks comes from a long line of “diviners”, or water dowsers, and her father has taught her the secrets of the craft. Some folks say she’s a witch, and she has always felt like an outsider. One day while searching for a source of water on an about-to-be-developed farm, she comes upon the body of a young girl hanging by the neck from a tree. Horrified and saddened, she contacts the police, but when she leads them to the site, the body has disappeared. The Diviner’s Tale is the story of her reaction to that incident, which prompts her to question her sanity and her place in the world. What is reality and what is a figment of the mind?

Cassandra’s is a spooky sort of tale, a slowly simmering eeriness pervading it all. Like the mythological Cassandra, from time to time she sees visions, and some of them come true. She tells of her experiences in her own words, sometimes straightforwardly and other times, poetically and metaphorically. The language in this book is thoughtful, beautiful and affecting. Perhaps Cassandra thinks too much, complicating things beyond their significance. But as a character, she is engaging, intelligent and courageous, and if she’s profoundly unsure of herself, she nevertheless faces problems head on. The Diviner’s Tale also has its suspenseful segments, built around three different crimes that took place in three different decades. While it becomes clear who the middle malefactor is, the nature of his crimes, as well as the the identities of the first and third, require more delving into the details of the story itself. In the process, her most significant relationships must change.

As Cassandra herself concludes, “All we had ever been were stories, and saying ourselves, unveiling our stories, was the best, the only, chance at divining ourselves.”

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Buttolph Williams House and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

One look at the Buttolph-Williams house is enough to transport the imaginative viewer straight back to America’s earliest century. Built in 1711, this first period building is typically medieval-English in style, with its massive posts and beams, its overhangs and finials, and its small leaded paned windows. It represents the most authentic restoration of a 17th century style dwelling in the CT River Valley, and contains a lovely collection of early furniture, kitchenware, and ceramics.

Few people are aware, however, that the Buttolph-Williams House was a source of inspiration, and the partial setting, for the Newbery Medal-winning book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. This fictional classic is based upon the story of Kit Tyler, an orphaned adolescent girl forced by necessity to live with her uncle’s family in Connecticut, who becomes involved in a case of suspected witchcraft when she befriends Hannah Tupper, a local woman who does not conform to Puritan standards of the day. Author Speare witnessed the restoration of the Buttolph Williams house in the 1950’s, and learned at the same time about the witchcraft trials and executions that took place in Wethersfield in the 1660’s, a full three decades before Salem.

Today the house is operated as a museum, and the rooms have been arranged to reflect various scenes in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. To see enlargements of photos, click on each image.

Kitchen hearth with settle and flax wheel. In this location, Mercy did her spinning, Kit spoiled the hasty pudding, and the Dame School was taught. Mercy, who had difficulty walking, slept by the fireside.

The hall, or best room, where the John and William called upon Kit and Judith. The young people knitted, ate popcorn, and

did some reading while “courting.”

 

The second floor chamber shared by Kit and Judith.

 

The Buttolph Williams House is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. To learn more or plan a visit: http://www.ctlandmarks.org/index.php

Links to info about real Connecticut witchcraft trials:

http://yourehistory.wordpress.com/2007/05/15/before-salem-first-to-die/

http://yourehistory.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/before-salem-first-to-confess/

Historical Fiction: The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

The Burning Time

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Author Robin Morgan is a well known international feminist. In The Burning Time, her first work of fiction, she draws upon medieval court records to relate the life of Lady Alyce Kyteler, the unconventional mistress of Kyteler Manor near Kilkenny, Ireland. During the 14th century, Christianity was accepted by the Irish, but many of them blended their new religion with aspects of the old “pagan” earth religious traditions. The pope sent an emissary, Bishop Richard Ledrede, to Ireland with the mission of rooting out and punishing heretics.

Lady Alyce was a woman ahead of her time, one who flouted the pretensions of nobility. Alyce treated her serfs with dignity, developed her skills as a healer, followed the ancient calendar, and led celebrations of holidays such as Lammas and Samhain. When Ledrede visited her offering to restore her to the church and save her soul, she strongly rebuffed him. Although Alyce marshalled assistance from her influential relatives, Ledrede was able to bring charges of witchcraft against her.

This plot should/could have been a compelling one, but Morgan spoils things by turning her novel into a polemic with dialogue. Alyce is portrayed as a sort of Joan of Arc, and her serfs, who play a relatively large role here, are worshipfully enthralled with her. As for Ledrede, he comes across as the ultimate misogynist bigot who takes out his resentment over being sent to this backwater upon his victims.

What I found most annoying was the frequent use of the term Wiccan, the use of which has not been documented to before the early 20th century. I did finish this book because I wanted to know the outcome, but in places, I had to roll my eyes….

 

More Medieval Witch Images

The Devil making love to a witch. Ulrich Molitor’s Von den Unholden und Hexen. 1489.
 
 
 
 
Witch inoculating a man by shooting a twig through his foot. Ulrich Molitor’s De lanijs et phitonicis mulieribus, Cologne, 1489.

Witches concocting an ointment to be used for flying to the Sabbath. Hans Baldung Grien, 1514.

Witch riding to the sabbath. Wizard riding to the sabbath. Wizard riding to the sabbath. From Ulrich Molitor’s Hexen Meysterey, 1545.

Before Salem – First to Confess

Part of a series of posts on the 17th century Connecticut witchcraft trials.

Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor was the first individual executed for the crime of witchcraft in the English New World. link

The first recorded confession for familiarity with the devil was given under duress in 1648 by Mary Johnson, only a year after the hanging of Alse.

Mary Johnson was a servant whose legal troubles began around 1646, when, accused of theft, she was publicly whipped in Hartford. The incident was repeated a month later at Wethersfield.

On December 7, 1648, Mary was indicted by a jury as guilty of “familiarity with the Deuill (sic).” Under pressure from minister Samuel Stone, she fuly described her crimes. Cotton Mather tells us (Magnalia Christ Americana, 1698, VI 71-78): “her confession was attended with such convictive circumstances that it could not be slighted.”
So, what exactly did Mary admit to doing? Her contact with devils came about because of her discontent with her work as a servant. “A Devil was wont to do her many services, she said. For example, when her master once blamed her for not carrying out the ashes, “a Devil did clear the Hearth for her afterwards.” When her master sent her “into the Field to drive the Hogs that used to break into it, a Devil would scowre (sic) them out, and make her laugh to see how he feazed ‘em about.” Mary also admitted that she was guilty “of the Murder of a child” and of “Uncleanness with Men and Devils.”

For some reason, odd in this theocracy, Mary Johnson was not indicted for murder or adultery. But the charge of familiarity with the devil stuck, and on the strength of her confession, was sentenced to death.

For several months prior to the execution of her punishment, Mary was imprisoned in Hartford, under the care of the jailer, William Ruscoe. She gave birth to a baby boy while in jail, giving proof to her admission of “uncleanness with Men.” It is not known if her hanging was deferred specifically due to her pregnancy, but this often happened when criminals were pregnant. The jailer’s son, Nathaniel, offered to bring up the child and educate him, and this arrangement was later sanctioned by the court.

It was reported that, before she died, Mary Johnson repented. The jailer was paid six pounds, ten shillings for twenty four weeks of services, ending June 6, 1650, which is assumed to be the date on which her sentence was carried out. According to Mather, she died in “a frame extremely to the satisfaction of them that were spectators of it.”


Paranormal Fiction: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy, #1)

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A vampire book for adults that isn’t written by Anne Rice? With witches and daemons as well? And it opens in Oxford. “What could be more fun?”, I asked myself. A Discovery of Witches has a very promising start. American Academic Diana Bishop is visiting the university to study the Bodleian’s collection of ancient alchemical manuscripts. One ordinary afternoon, she calls up Ashmole 782, and some very peculiar things occur – shimmering pages, weird illustrations, and, she can’t help but notice, spells and secret messages visible only to those who are in the know. Being a witch herself, descended from the infamous Bridget Bishop of Salem, MA, Diana’s in the know, though she’d rather not be and tries hard not to use her formidable powers. The instant she and 782 meet, the entire local community of others (i.e., nonhuman creatures) swarm around her, and not because they’re so excited for her. Diana is wary, but finds herself attracted to one of the others, a very ancient, very rich, and very handsome vampire, Matthew Clairmont. Long story short, they fall in love against all prohibitions, and go on all sorts of adventures to unearth the meaning of 782.

This vampire book is not suitable for adults, it’s way too inane. Diana has her doctorate and a very independent life, yet behaves like an adolescent with a crush on a rock star. Matthew wants to “feed” on Diana, but because he’s so in love, contains his bestial instincts. Other characters are equally as insipid and stereotypical. Surprisingly, since the author is a serious scholar herself, the history is mushy and given short shrift in favor of the mushy romance. Too lengthy, too wordy, too slow, and ultimately mindless and boring.

Paranormal Fiction: The Night Strangers, by Chris Bojalian

The Night Strangers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Question: Throw together a traumatized pilot, a wife desperately trying to hold their family together, a creepy Victorian mansion, and a remote New Hampshire hamlet, and what have you got? Answer: A classic New England horror story. Emily Linton relocates her family to NH for some peace and quiet, following the crash of a jet her husband Chip was piloting. What Emily and Chip encounter is far worse than anything they encountered back in PA. For their Victorian mansion harbors a lot more than dusty old bric-a-brac, and their new village conceals deadly secrets below its charming facade.

Chris Bojalian, who knows well how to navigate his characters through emotional minefields, has crafted a modern day ghost story with all the psychological nuances and menacing Gothic atmosphere of “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James.

I believe that reading a good book is like watching a movie in your head, and that’s exactly the experience that The Night Strangers provides. These people become real. The emotional punch comes from the torments of Chip’s severe post traumatic stress, and from Emily’s overwhelming fears for her 10 year old twin daughters. The creepiness is provided by a garden club of sorts, a group of eccentric women who are avid herbalists and who befriend the Linton’s. The suspense is created by Bojalian’s masterful timing and prose, and his trust in the power of suggestion, oh so gradually ramping up the tension until the final, shattering, heart stopping chapters.

Not recommended for readers who fear flying, but for anyone else, lock the doors, especially to the cellar, pour a cup of tea (or glass of wine, to steady your nerves), and curl up with a story that’s impossible to put down or forget.

The Paranormal Genre: Dark Sister, by Graham Joyce

Dark Sister

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alex and Maggie, with their two young children, move into a new house, one with lots of history. While cleaning out the fireplace, they discover an ancient journal hidden in the chimney. Maggie’s an intelligent, curious woman who loves her family, but Alex is controlling, and she’s been feeling stifled. As she peruses the journal, she becomes embroiled in the writer’s thoughts. Bella is a healer and wise woman who is studying the ways of magic, particularly clairvoyance and shape-shifting. Before long, Maggie identifies fully with Bella, who has a “dark sister” (mentor) whom she refers to only as “A”. Then she meets Ash, the proprietor of a local herb shop, and becomes interested in making and trying some of Bella’s healing ointments. As Maggie gets deeper and deeper into the mysteries, she herself becomes determined to master them, to the detriment of her marriage. Little by little, she loses more of her true personality, nearly losing herself to the craft.

In 1993, Dark Sister earned a British Fantasy Award for author Graham Joyce, who is much better known in Britain than here in the US. This is a darkly mesmerizing novel, one in which you don’t like a lot of what happens, but are compelled to keep reading. The scenes in which Maggie learns to “fly” and “shift” are vivid, and the culmination of the tale is horrific. As for characterization, both Maggie and Alex are manipulative and petulant, each of them acting more childlike than their own children when out to get what they want. The psychiatrist brought in to help the family is so ditsy as to be unbelievable; he surely would have been stripped of his license in the real world. The most convincing and genuine characters for me were Ash, the herbalist who has his head on straight, and Maggie’s mentor, old Liz, who is reaching the end of her life and wants to pass on her healing and psychic skills to a worthy successor before she dies. For such a dark novel, Sister has a pleasantly upbeat ending, although it seems likely that there might be more trouble on the far horizon.

Not for sensitive readers, but if you enjoy good paranormal writing, give this one a try.

It’s Halloween: What’s a Witch Ball?

Here’s the whole story, from Old Farmer’s Almanac:

A witch ball is a hollow sphere of plain or colored glass with glass inclusions (webs) inside the balls. Originating in 18th century England, witch balls were believed to ward off evil spirits, witch’s spells, or ill fortune. (Some historians disagree, saying the witch’s ball actually originated among cultures where witches were considered a blessing. These good witches would “enchant” the balls to enhance their potency against evil.)

When witch balls found their way across the pond to the American colonies, they were quickly adopted by superstitious folks who reasoned that evil spirits were attracted to the colored glass spheres. The spirits were drawn inside and captured in the glass web within the ball preventing their escape, and protecting the home from harm.

 

Legend has it that fishermen on Cape Cod placed witch balls in their nets to avoid evil spirits on the high seas. It is also claimed that Christmas ornament balls descended from the witch ball. The ball was allegedly placed on the Christmas tree to dispel a visitor’s envy at the presents beneath the tree.

They are beautiful, whether or not you take the folklore seriously.

 

Great Nonfiction: The Enemy Within, by John Demos

The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western WorldScapegoats and victims

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The term “witch hunt” is used today to describe all sorts of attempts by communities to rid themselves of elements deemed “evil”, whether those elements are communists, child abusers, or heretics. People do not like what they do not understand, and crises, be they epidemics, wars, terrorists, or waves of immigrants, they tend to band together to find someone to blame, along with a way to expel that threat. In The Enemy Within, respected historian John Demos shows, in the first part of the book, how and why early western societies persecuted and executed suspected witches, examining the sociological factors that led to the panic. In the second part, he deals with contemporary society, in which we view ourselves as scientifically informed and free of superstition, yet persist in the ancient drive to identify and purge the causes of our deepest anxieties. Hard times seem to revive our collective fears, and the challenge is to avoid lapsing into the old, destructive, reactionary patterns. Written for the general reader, The Enemy Within is a potent reminder to remember how near to the surface the patterns remain, and to strive to find intelligent solutions to the very real problems that we face today.