Thanks to A.R. Braun for the recommendation.
Stewart Fenshawe thinks he has problems now. Well, he does. As Witch Water, Edward Lee‘s fictional tribute to 19th century horror master M.R. James opens, the reader follows billionaire Fenshawe as he drives out of New York City, away from the financial empire that has made him wealthy beyond dreams, and through the wooded landscapes of New England towards the little getaway town of Haver-Towne. This isn’t an innocent excursion unfortunately but is, following the advice of his therapist, a means of escaping the urban environment in which he has been arrested for voyeurism. He is a chronic peeping tom of the worst kind, and the public exposure has led to humiliation and divorce.
Vacation Getaway for Witches and Warlocks, Too
The town he has selected for his repose is rife, he soon finds out, with tales of witchcraft and deviltry dating well back into the 1600s. In fact, the inn in which he has decided to spend an indeterminate amount of time was once home to one Jacob Wraxall, dubiously known as the most unholy and sacrilegious warlock in town. Fanshawe, it finally so happens, is staying in a suite of rooms in which Wraxall lived hundreds of years ago.
The first quarter of Witch Water is something of a tedious trudge, laying groundwork through the introduction of Haver-Towne’s many denizens and their predilection for storytelling, and for Fanshawe’s ultimate encounter with Wraxall and his sorcery. Fanshawe’s first goal, upon arrival in town, is to leave his personal past behind. He struggles to overcome his proclivity (not always successfully) to peep on women through the windows of their homes and those of the local Travelodge. The possibility of redemption appears in the figure of Abby Baxter, an attractive young woman who is the innkeeper’s daughter and who takes as much a shine to “Stew” as he to her; Fanshawe wonders whether a new, healthy relationship will help him accomplish what his disdainful therapist clearly cannot.
Abby shares details about Wraxall’s obsession with the occult; he fathered numerous children with his own daughter Evanore, a ravenously promiscuous redhead, and sacrificed the newborns through unspeakable acts of devil worship. The extent to which Witch Water draws readers into the details of unspeakable acts and rituals is stunning and uncomfortable in its vileness–Lee’s intended effect. From a broth that includes the blood of those sacrificed, Wraxall develops a concoction of “witch water”, which, as Fanshawe eventually discovers, fills the ancient looking glass he has pilfered from the inn’s displays of witchcraft artifacts for his night-time peeping excursions.
Witch Water: How to Journey Through Time
He learns soon enough that the witch-water looking glass allows him to see, when spying on the town after midnight, Haver-Towne back in the days of Jacob and Evanore Wraxall. He witnesses their sexual and sacrificial rituals, distantly makes the acquaintance of Callister Rood, Wraxall’s malevolent right-hand man in the demonic arts, and considers the opposing figure of the local sheriff and townspeople who actively seek to weed out elements of witchcraft from the town. Public humiliation in the pillory and “barreling” are the town’s primary methods for fighting the dark arts. Lee does a fantastic job of calling up a time when the belief in and suspicion of witchcraft was potent throughout Puritan New England. Think Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible and Miller’s representation of nighttime rituals, the suspicions and the accusations surrounding the Salem Witch Trials.
The writing was sufficiently potent to encourage research on my part regarding the historical accuracy of such acts as barreling. As it occurs in Witch Water, a particularly sinful and devil-worshipping person was stuffed into a barrel with only their head emerging through a hole. A dog that had been starved for several days would then be set loose to grotesquely feast on the hapless victim. Several Google searches returned nothing on the subject, so my guess is that Lee has imaginatively created this act of torture. (For those readers who know otherwise, please comment below.)
Eventually, Fanshawe’s ability to witness centuries-old Haver-Towne through the looking glass leads to an ability to actually enter that world. That is where his history as a peeping tom finds new opportunities for depravity as he meets Jacob Wraxall, is nearly strangled to death by Rood and is raped by Evanore. A well-meaning fortune-teller with the ability to read people’s auras had earlier told Fanshawe she believed his heart was black, and his ultimate descent into the dark arts would, it seems, be the logical conclusion.
Witch Water: An Uneven But Evocative Story
For all that, despite his efforts to escape his voyeuristic past, Fanshawe never strikes me as a harm-seeking man, only a financially fortunate individual struggling to overcome a disease. Throughout Witch Water, he is a likable enough character and his ultimate end struck me as uneven and unlikely. Witch Water does an entertaining job of restoring the dark arts to the consciousness of readers, developing abominable characters and building a small, innocuous-seeming New England town with a terrible past. However, the extent through which the main action of the story is shared with some distance through historical texts and accounts, and not through Fanshawe’s experience, slowed the pace. I would have liked him to have been transported to colonial New England much earlier on in the story, and the reputations of Witch Water‘s nefarious characters evolved through his eyes.
Judging by online commentary, Edward Lee would appear to have a decent fan base. And one can only give credit to authors whose stories acknowledge and give credit to previous writers in a particular genre. Witch Water fits nicely into that sub-genre of horror that interests readers in subjects such as witchcraft and devil worship. For those new to the genre, the pacing of Witch Water may appear slow and the ending sudden and clunky. Nevertheless, there is a decent amount of story to enjoy and that will quite possibly encourage readers to want to find out what else Lee has up his sleeve. Visit Mr. Lee’s website to find out.