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Season of the Witch

I’ve been thinking a lot about witchcraft lately. That’s what happens when you spend your days wandering around Havoc Wood with the Witch Ways. You read up and read around and your head is full of spells and incantations and mugwort. Turns out I’m not alone in this passion. The recent tv viewing in our house has included Salem and A Discovery of Witches and now, we’ve got Sabrina. It seems it is indeed the Season of the Witch.

I’ve always loved witchcraft and the supernatural. I say that in a measured tone. I’m from Lancashire and therefore have seen the historical sharp end of what witchcraft has meant to people. I don’t look at it with rose tinted glasses, at all. I use a scrying dish and try to look at all the layers, the darkness and the light. Forewarned as they say.

Initially my source material was bedtime stories.  I was always interested more in the fairy godmother than in Cinderella, because she was practical and had skill.  Aside from the rich illustrations of the Ladybird story books, pumpkins did not feature too heavily in my childhood. They were not on the menu in 70s Britain. When, in my mid twenties, I travelled to the east coast of America and it happened to be October, the place was rolling in pumpkins. Big. Small. Some roughly the size of a stagecoach. It was as if someone had cast a spell. I never got over the goosebumps. It was, in the literal, old sense of the word, wonderful.

I visited Salem too. The east coast is my favourite, erm, haunt.

So I’m a sucker for anything that is supernatural and witchcraft based. I will draw my chalk lines here, so that you know which side of the pentagram I’m standing on;  I don’t like horror per se and I don’t like zombies at all. Vampires and werewolves; lovely thank you, full moon and garlic. Witches; Yes please. But, there’s a coda. I am very particular about my witchcraft. I like things to be dark. I’ll use the word ‘Gothic’ I think.  Penny Dreadful is my Star Wars shall we say.

Bewitched was good fun back in the day and I can actually wiggle my nose, but by far my favourite Bewitched character was Samantha’s deliciously wicked mother, Endora. Elegant, classy, clever, skilled. And dark.

Then of course I stumbled into Discworld and Nanny and Granny set the bench mark higher. It’s a measure of Terry Pratchett that he, a MAN, wrote two of the finest women characters in the history of literature. That’s not my humble opinion, it is a factual fact. What I love about Nanny and Granny is that they get on with it. They take no prisoners. They appreciate the idea of power and they have access to magic but the real skill is understanding how dangerous it is and how best not to use it until absolutely necessary.

In the dim and distant past, when my children were school age and I was supposed to be cooking the tea or encouraging them to learn their times tables, I watched Sabrina; the Teenage Witch with them.  I liked Salem the talking cat, the feline equivalent of Endora with his wit and sass. So, it is with some interest that I started watching Sabrina, the netflix reboot. Sabrina, for all her blonde, All American styling, seems to embrace the Granny and Nanny ethos of ‘this is dangerous, be careful’ and in refusing her Dark Baptism simultaneously strikes a blow for feminism and free speech. I am only a few episodes in but already I love the American Gothic style of the show, the deep jewel colours and the darkness. Greendale, haunted by its own past, has that edge of danger that is missing from more brightly lit dramas. I like the fact that the witches themselves hid the tragic past in order to continue with their future. There are no patchouli scented witch shops for the citizens of Greendale.  This is what I crave from my witches. I don’t really like sparkle, I want shadows.  I like my witchy dramas to be old and battered and Bohemian. I like the idea of the magic butting up against the edge of the everyday, that notion of danger or the ‘Other’ being just behind you. When I’m writing The Witch Ways series I like the idea of life going on in Woodcastle as if nothing is happening in Havoc Wood. You are on the edge Woodcastle and you don’t know it. Look behind you!

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much care for wand type magic. I prefer the sort of supernatural shenanigans that are reflected in a crow’s eye. I love the fact that Sabrina is tied into the wood, that the place she takes Harvey to show him her special talents (?!*) is the wood. There are woods in all of my books, not just the supernatural ones. From my home you could wander to the wilds of Healey Dell, a sylvan spot in a post industrial area. It hinted at the past, at another space and time existing alongside everyday life. There are hints of the wild and the Other in these places, that reach out for you, its easy to get lost amongst the trees with no landmarks and the sky broken up above you. Of course, there was the long shadow of Pendle Hill.

Aunts featured in my other fave bit of witchery, Practical Magic. What I love about these characters is the sense of knowledge and wisdom and don’t give a damn what people think. These women are really powerful and on their own terms. They are, who they are. In the netflix Sabrina, the Aunts pull me in again. I love the banter ‘She was annoying me, so I killed her and buried her in the yard.’ Yep. That’s sisters for you. For me there’s a freedom in witchcraft stories.

I’m currently typing up my first draft of the third Witch Ways book. The sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz have been brought up by their grandmother to think of their Strength as similar to breathing. It’s a part of them. Over the years, growing up, they’ve been out in the ordinary world and life has shifted away from this part of themselves. Only since inheriting the wood have they begun to rediscover this aspect of their lives. The world outside Havoc Wood, the town of Woodcastle and modern life, doesn’t make much room for something as ancient as witchcraft.

When the Witch Ways walked into my head, they walked in through a path in the wood. Mentally, I was looking at Pike Lake and wondering, where is this? I could see the castle just above the trees. You have to have a wood for  a witch story, not the built up, bricked in places that we construct but the wild spaces, some of which might not have changed for hundreds of years. I read recently that there is such a thing as a screaming wood, one where the timber was clear felled in WWII and then the site was replanted. There are many across Britain, including the one nearest to me. These woods are considered to have a different sense to them, the old wood has become a ghost, lingering. They are unsettled places, wrenched from their past. If you’re willing to walk through a wood with your senses turned to 11, you might feel this edge. Who hasn’t walked through a regimented conifer plantation and felt the dark, quiet energy of it? A wood is the edge of somewhere, a movement from open to sheltered, from exposed to hidden. Tree lore tells of the different powers inherent in different trees. Did you know that blackthorns are bad tempered? Next time you walk in a wood, take a step off the path. It will be a different wood, I promise.

I think the current thirst for all things witchy; Sabrina, Salem, a Discovery of Witches, shows us all that we’re all looking for something other, something more, something, connected. We need magic. We need, more importantly, the Divine Feminine, an acknowledgement of the place of women in the world, the balance has been skewed. Witch hunts, through history, were as much about destroying feminine power as religious fervour. But that, probably, is for another blog.

So. I’m here, typing, in my Gothic green workroom at the back of the house. It looks out onto the rambling wilderness of my garden. My reading light casts a golden circle of light but as I look up, I notice that beyond the pool of the lamp, the room has gone very dark. I’m hoping that it’s because the clocks went back, but you never can tell. I mean, should that shadow be just there? Aunt Zelda? Is that you?

 
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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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