If you are an avid reader and also are an aficionado of the paranormal and occult like I am, you know the pleasure of finding a novel or work of non-fiction that weaves a supernatural thread through the quilt of well-crafted, well-researched, and compelling writing. I have chosen my three favorite occult-themed novels I have read in this last year; only one was actually published in 2006, so the list is simply derived from my personal reading list, not a “year’s best.”
Of the three novels, it is difficult for me to choose the tip-top best; but with The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow has proven himself genius, and presented his absolute masterpiece. The experience of reading this book is involved and active; it somehow has an internal physicality to it, an ineffableness of true ‘listening’ I have not experienced in another book. A device of narration Morrow employs, that of Isaac Newton’s Principa Mathematica speaking, of personifying itself, fully realized– is the wise grandfather in the postmodern array of Things Coming to Life; the grandfather, that is, to the embryonic False Maria of Metropolis, to the baby of Star Trek’s V-Ger, the brat child of Poltergeist, and the grown-up Man in Black of The Matrix. Principia Mathematica’s voice and sentience perfectly and logically tempers that archetypal Fear of our Own Creation theme seen so often now in literature and film. The narration approaches satire, perhaps even sits on a whoopee cushion for a moment, but in flitting thought only, as it is somewhat of a perfectly centered gem in the whole of the story.
Howard Norman’s The Haunting of L. is of the other world; if it were filmed, I believe it would best be executed by Guy Maddin, the extraordinarily original and outrageously brilliant film director. Norman’s novel begs for a dollop of Vaseline smeared on the image of beautiful, depressed and obsessed spirit photography scholar, Kala Murie downing Goldwasser out of shot glasses; it deserves its endearingly archaic chapter titles, such as, “Esquimaux Souls Risen from Aeroplane Wreck”, or “View of Kala Murie Advising Endless Prayer” captured for all time in austere old fashioned movie fonts. The book has a unique, quiet atmosphere which is a specific type of desperation and dread that I believe can only be exhibited by the precise type of characters here: early-centuried people living in frigid climates and dilapidated hotels, with unused academic credentials, dirty socks and expensive perfume, and most importantly, obsessions that lack much meaning but are full of need. That, mixed with the backdrop of spirits, a theme of deceits and betrayals, extend a type of eerie suspense that is highly provocative and rewarding.
James Reese’s Book of Shadows may not be as tightly crafted as Morrow’s or Norman’s books, but like them, he has included an impressive supporting character, the seductive and profoundly wounded Madeleine de la Mettrie, who is arguably the most compellingly tragic gothic-genre character in recent memory. Madeleine breathes life and strength of will into the clichéd business of being undead, and her storyline is reason enough to grab Reese’s book. It is also satisfyingly epic and memorable; it will certainly appeal to Anne Rice fans on the lookout for good, pulpy modern gothic.
Here is the list of books and a very short plot synopsis with their respective ISBNs. You can find them at amazon.com at amazing used prices, (at the time of this writing, starting at 1 cent plus a negligible 3.49 shipping fee):
1. The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow, ISBN 0060821795
Set in the Late 17th Century, young English teen Jennet is caught up in the insanity of witch trials, immigrates to colonial New England, spends years as an Algonquin “captive”, and devotes her life to proving witchcraft is false. You may remember the author, James Morrow, from his previous books, Towing Jehovah , Only Begotten Daughter, and City of Truth.
2. The Haunting of L.: A Novel, by Howard Norman, ISBN 0374168253
Peter Duvett accepts a job as a photographer’s assistant, and finds himself involved in a bizarre triangle of desire and betrayal with the new employer and his irresistible, spirit-obsessed bride.
3. The Book of Shadows, by James Reese, ISBN 0061031844
The orphaned, hermaphroditic Herculine discovers her true nature and destiny as a witch, via unforgettable, supernatural companions.
Happy reading in the New Year!