Be afraid! Halloween is here. ’Tis the season to be sinister, a dank, dark time of poisoned candy, apples laced with razor blades, Jamie Lee Curtis reruns, Richard Nixon masks, feral children asking for “treats,” and, in a quiet corner of my local Barnes & Noble, a table piled with books that go bump in the night. Histories of hauntings lurk near volumes on vampires and a stray copy of Living History that seems, well, strangely at home. O.K., O.K., I admit it. I put it there.
There are tales of devils and stories of ghosts, depictions of demons, and everywhere, orange, black, and nasty, the pumpkin’s evil grin. And don’t forget the witchcraft, except it’s “Wicca” now, and slicker. The wicked witches of old, warty, cackling, and vile, slinking out of deep, dark woods to cast spells over crops, tiny tots, and the unlucky peasants’ luckless livestock have vanished, only to be replaced by even creepier creatures. Heaped like kindling (unfortunate simile, I know), are books by and about those legions of women (and it is mainly women) who have taken to “magick,” chanting, drumming, howling at the moon, and delving into the supposed wisdom of a largely invented past.
And, make no mistake; broomstick surfers take themselves very, very seriously these days. The age of lovely Samantha Stephens, sparkling and funny, more martini glass than cauldron, has faded away, replaced in our duller, more earnest era by the likes of Buffy’s dour Willow, self-involved, self-important and, although this might be expected in sorceresses who like to chant, drum, and howl at the moon, utterly lacking any sense of the ridiculous.
Even the promisingly named How to Turn Your Ex-Boyfriend into a Toad kit turns out to be for real (well, not the toad bit). Its publishers explain “that everything you need is right here in this fun kit: Use the mirror for a special spell to make yourself irresistible to everyone who sees you; the candles will help you to hot up your sex life and you can use the incense in its special toad holder to find your soul mate.”
Judging by the response of one Amazon.com reviewer (spelling has been changed in the interests of literacy) to the book on which the kit is based, toad holders may be just what the witchdoctor ordered:
This …is a must-have for all women interested in witchcraft. Although some may see it as selfish, the revenge spells are great too, and they really work! (…Remember, when casting a revenge spell, you cannot inflict on your victim any pain that they have not given to you, so IT’S ONLY FAIR!). The “toad spell” is fantastic! I cast the “bring back my love” spell on my Internet love (who has been distant lately) and the next day he called for the first time!! The “lucky lottery” spell really works too…I can’t wait to try every spell!
If mirrors, spells, candles, and toad holders don’t catch their attention, younger readers can always pick up “the BIG book for Pagan teens,” Silver Ravenwolf’s Solitary Witch: The Ultimate Book of Shadows for the New Generation. Ravenwolf, “a Wiccan High Priestess and Clan Head of The Black Forest Family,” has written everything, her publisher boasts, “that a teen Witch could want and need between two covers.” That could be handy for some, but probably not for those who have already bought Ravenwolf’s Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, or her To Ride a Silver Broom: New Generation Witchcraft, or, even, sigh, Silver Ravenwolf’s Teen Witch Kit: Everything You Need to Make Magick!. The kit comes complete with “six magickal talismans (including a silver pentacle pendant), salt, and a spell bag,” and, “best of all,” its box “converts into your own personal altar.”
But, for all the Celtic cornpone, Samhain kitsch and olde-tyme gibberish, there are still some reminders that this is a 21st-century magnet for the modern, the mercenary, and the motivated. Deborah Gray, “Australia’s good witch,” is keen to help these strivers out. Her Spells to Get Ahead Pack: All the Magic You Could Possibly Need in One Witchy Pack is out on display, witchy pack after witchy pack after witchy pack (each complete with “pouches and phials to add power to your charms, plus a special magic crystal”) to help “the ambitious girl” in her quest to “be gorgeous, be rich, be avenged, be a winner!” Be avenged? Good witches, clearly, are not what they were.
And as that ambitious girl hops from meeting to meeting, magic crystal in her hand and vengeance in her heart, she won’t want to mar her gorgeousness with a musty volume of spells, curses, and spooky old recipes. She’ll be more comfortable toting another work from the Barnes & Noble selection, The Pocket Spell Creator: Magickal Reference at Your Fingertips. “There is simply no other book that helps you create, finalize and perfect spells easier or better. And, of course, faster!” It’s magick–24/7 and portable.
And even those who are already familiar with familiars, rites, redes, and scrying will be sure to learn something from A Witch’s Book of Answers, FAQ for the broomstick set, a fashionably diverse crowd nowadays with a membership that includes psi-witches, kitchen witches, traditional witches, Gardnerians, Alexandrians, fam-trad witches, fluff-bunny witches, hereditary witches, natural witches and hedgewitches. The advice from its authors, Eileen Holland (“Wiccan priestess [and] solitary eclectic Witch”) and the intriguingly monomial “Cerelia,” is loopy, but largely benign–if unlikely to win many prizes from General Boykin.
Adding to the merriment, their inclusion of an extract from Cerelia’s poem Cycles & Rain is good both for a laugh and as a reminder that the broomstick has landed on one of feminism’s wilder shores.
come out to the forest clearings
mistletoe and rowan trees
if you have the heart
who will you find there?
women with their menstrual blood
flowing down their legs
women stamping, women steaming
women singing in the rain
women winding widdershins
and banging tambourines
But don’t worry, chaps. Cerelia is quick to reassure us that not every man is “corrupt and evil” (thanks!).
Some of the answers that the book provides are, in a sense, fairly conservative, “it is not possible for a Witch to fly or change into an animal on Earth (except in a psychic sense)”, but there’s a broadminded nod to Fox Mulder: “It may be possible for Witches to do so in other solar systems.” Other revelations include a potential explanation for the recent blackout (if light bulbs burn out and street lights go off when you’re nearby, “that’s just part of being a Witch”), a hint of schism, “Witches can really get into a snit about…how to dress candles,” and more than a little mystery: “chaos magic is big but sloppy.”
Mumbo jumbo? Nope, Witchcraft, we read, is “based on science,” leading Ms. Holland to the entirely reasonable conclusion that the “universe would fly apart without desire.”
There’s a lot less certainty when the discussion turns to Gerald Gardner. Gardner, writes Cerelia, “holds the distinction of bringing contemporary Witchcraft to the modern world.” Indeed he does. Somewhat awkwardly for those who maintain that Wicca is descended from an ancient cult of the Goddess, this retired British civil servant made most of it up sometime in the 1940s and 1950s. The eccentric Mr. Gardner’s pastimes were not confined to witchcraft. He was also a keen naturist and a fan of flagellation. Cerelia grumbles that many of Gardner’s “personal likes and fantasies” may have crept into the rites that he developed. Indeed they did. As she notes, the insistence that witches had to be “skyclad” (naked) while practicing their craft was “probably” (probably?) his idea, and her description of the initiation ceremonies in Gardnerian Witchcraft does seem to include a remarkable amount of binding, blindfolding and “whipping with cords.”
Interestingly (although you won’t learn this from A Witch’s Book of Answers), Gardner was also a former disciple of Aleister Crowley, once infamous as “the wickedest man in the world.” His mother just preferred to dub him “the Beast.” Not unreasonably (well, young Aleister did kill his first cat at the age of eleven) she thought he was the spawn of Satan.
Now, that’s what I call a story for Halloween.