HEX LIFE ed by Christopher Golding and Rachel Autumn Deering
Titan, 384 page HC, £17.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Over the last few decades, vampires and werewolves have been given a makeover. No longer can they be regarded entirely as evil and scary, something to be feared – although there are still times when this is the case. Now it is the turn of witches. Traditionally, the witch has been portrayed as an old woman who lives alone in the wood with her familiar (often a cat) and is in league with the devil. At least, that is how the authorities taught the righteous. These women were scapegoats though the women in a community often knew better. In fiction, one of the best rehabilitations was by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels. Most supernatural urban fantasy tends to give witches only minor roles.
This anthology goes some way to correct this but within the range of approaches, don’t expect all these witches to be on the side of humanity. ‘The Night Nurse’ by Sarah Langan is an example of a wicked witch in a contemporary setting. Esme is struggling after her third child is born, so when Wendy offers her services as a night nurse allowing both Esme and her husband to sleep, it seems like a godsend. Unfortunately, Esme doesn’t ask what the payment is for the service. In ‘Bless Your Heart’ by Hillary Monahan, it is not the mother, Audrey, who is struggling but her son. It is easier to sympathise with the witch who only wants to stop the bullying when all legal avenues are closed to her.
Some of the authors here have looked at fairy tale and folklore for their inspiration. ‘The Debt’ by Ania Ahlborn uses the Slavic entity Baba Yaga in her story in which Karolin is taken by her father, supposedly to visit her grandparents in Poland but in reality, to pay a debt, he had incurred as a boy. Another witch living is a cottage in the woods can be found in ‘The Deer Wife’ by Jennifer Mc Mahon is a gentle story. Julie, the narrator, has been developing a relationship with the witch, who can transform herself into a deer, from before her husband died. Now, with her son grown, she is thinking it time to leave the family home. Everyone knows the story of Snow White and her wicked witch of a stepmother. ‘How To Become A Witch Queen’ by Theodora Goss picks up Snow White’s story twenty years later on the death of her husband, showing that ‘happy ever after’ is a finite length of time.
Witches are often kindly members of the community, looking out for those less fortunate; it is their contemporaries that give them a bad reputation. The four widows that live together in Angela Slater’s ‘Widows’ Walk’ watch out for the disadvantaged in the community. In this case, it is Chelsea Bloom, who has an appalling home life. The four women decide that something needs to be done. Another situation where an unfortunate girl is befriended by a witch is ‘Gold Among The Black’ by Alma Katsu. Greta is an orphan who has a tentative job at the local castle. She always leaves to sleep in the woods as her dog wouldn’t be allowed to stay with her if she slept in the castle, and is one of the few male witches in this volume. The other is Paul Baker in ‘The Dancer’ by Kristin Dearborn who is called in to help Ani, the dancer of the title. She is being haunted, and her parents want it to stop. In contrast, Shea, in ‘Haint Me Too’ by Chesya Burke, wants to be possessed by the ghost. This is a delightful story, referencing a ghost story from the American South and set in that time where slaves had been freed but were exploited by the plantation owners.
Many of the writers here are drawing on their heritage and producing stories with a ring of authority and confidence about them. Another that does this is Tananarive Due in ‘Last Stop On Route Nine’. Charlotte and her cousin Kai have been to her grandmother’s funeral and are trying to find their way to the place where the wake is being held. Getting lost, they find themselves in a past where attitudes were different and flattening the memorial of the husband of a ‘white’ witch by parking badly, was not a good idea.
While some cultures have a belief in witchcraft, in others there is a denial, so when the narrator in Amber Benson’s ‘This Skin’ confesses her crimes to the police and isn’t believed.
When an author is already known for novels set in the world of supernatural beings, that might include witches there is a temptation to produce a story involving characters that will be familiar to followers of their work. Three of the stories in this volume are of this kind; by Kelley Armstrong, Rachel Caine and Sherrilyn & Madaug Kenyon. For those following their respective series, they will appreciate how the stories fit with well-loved characters. Others will miss the nuances of the dynamics between them.
Have these stories rehabilitated the witch? To some extent, though there is still a feeling that the witch tends to waver towards the dark side. Interestingly, with the exception of Madaug Kenyon (who is in collaboration with his mother), all the authors in this anthology are female. This may have been deliberate on the part of the editors, though this reinforces the idea that witchcraft is a female pursuit and can be best understood by female writers. Thus it is curious that one of the co-editors is male.
That said, there are interesting concepts within these stories, and there will be something that everyone can appreciate.