Hyperion, 2009, 384 pp., $25.99 (hardcover)
Witches, hysteria, spectral evidence, and trials; cunning women, midwives, and misogyny; spells, magic, mediums, séances, psychics, and ghosts: These are the terms of Katherine Howe’s fictional world. Howe has so far published four novels on these and related themes, all of them historically rich and meticulously detailed. The first of the four became a New York Times bestseller: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (2009). Howe is also the editor of The Penguin Book of Witches (2014). And so what? These days, with the over-the-top success of J.K. Rowling now sprawled out over decades, and the making of knockoff British television series like The Worst Witch, what could possibly be notable about more fictional witchery?
Several things. Rowling et al. set out to write fantasy mainly for the younger set; Howe writes for young adults and adults in order to, as she has put it, explore “the contingent nature of reality and belief.” She also graduated from Columbia, has a graduate degree in New England studies, and recently finished a year as a visiting scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. This is a decidedly non-Rowling profile.
Howe will tell you herself that the witches of Salem and their 1692–93 trials are a “well-travelled territory,” but, magically it seems, she is a direct descendent of Elizabeth Procter and Elizabeth Howe, two women who were tried and convicted in the Salem trials. (Proctor was spared because she was pregnant at the time and her conviction was later overturned; Howe, her namesake, was executed.) There remains a family resemblance, too; when you hear Howe’s voice jump off the page, you sense that she is, like her famous witch-accused ancestors and non-ancestors, intuitive and unique—in her words, “out of step with culture in a profound way.”
While Howe was intrigued from an early age by her familial connection to executed witches, she was also inspired to illustrate how social hysteria and witch hunts can be sparked by a communal desire to exert authority over those who stand out for their differences. Witch hunt victims were usually women, and women who usually lived outside the common rhythms of the town, making them easy targets on the fringe of tight-knit religious- and fear-motivated Puritan societies then roiled by insecurities of many kinds: Indian attacks, reverberations of civil war in England, and consequent governmental instabilities all rolled together.
Conjuring historical parallels is a dangerous brew of its own, but it is also irresistible. Donald Trump got elected by leveraging ambient anxiety, hitching it to xenophobic energies pointed varyingly at those who also live on the outskirts of the general populace: immigrants; non-heterosexuals; transgenders; and people of color. In times gone by, infectious illnesses, mental disabilities with Physickal symptoms like epilepsy and Tourette’s, failed crops, and bad weather often led authorities to popular acts like casting blame on others to protect themselves from displeasure and censure brought about by their powerlessness to understand or deal with the problems. Today the terms are different but, arguably, the political dynamics are not as different as we might like or suppose. Hence the sense in Katherine Howe’s sojourn with an advanced institute for behavior studies in social science in Palo Alto. Howe’s witches may or may not be real, but her “evil” is real in a sense that Rowling’s Voldemort just isn’t.
Elizabeth Howe’s imprisonment, torture, and hanging has vividly informed the imagination of her descendant Katherine in the aforementioned The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (alternately known in the United Kingdom as The Lost Book of Salem), The Penguin Book of Witches, and Conversion (2014), all of which bring the maligned women of Salem justice and compassion in readers’ homes and hearts.
The Physick Book ofc Deliverance Dane was sparked when Howe rented an apartment while getting her graduate degree in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Salem’s next-door neighbor and a town noted for its expansive collection of 18th-century houses. With an undergraduate degree in art history and philosophy and working toward a career as a history professor, Howe not surprisingly loved old architecture. As she studied the original wide-pine floorboards of her home one day it occurred to her that someone from the witch trials might have stood exactly where she was standing, touched exactly what she touched, while considering the witch hunt and the accompanying trials. “People traveled to the trials from all the nearby towns,” Howe says. “It was easy for me to wipe out the power lines and cars and put in some pigs to see what early America must have looked like. I began to wonder what those people had felt and thought during the trials and how people can see the same event differently based on their own politics, class, gender, and race.” It was only a short leap for Howe to begin a series of what-if questions that ended in at least two bestsellers: What if Salem’s witches really had been practicing magic?
The heroine of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Connie Goodwin, represents what Howe believes most women deemed witches actually were: unique and strong women who were creative and intelligent, and who didn’t abide the fear-driven dogma of their time. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is actually a dual narrative, one story set in Salem Town beginning in 1682 and the other set in Cambridge and Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1991. Connie, a post-graduate doctoral student at Harvard, is startled by an oral exam question from her adviser Manning Chilton: “Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?” Connie hadn’t and, as she struggles to collect words for a thoughtful academic answer, imagines the question to be more trick than truth. She responds with the usual colonial ontologies and epistemologies, but Chilton keeps her after the formal meeting to encourage her to open her mind to the possibility of magic. Connie resists such an angle for her dissertation until events in her personal life conspire to relocate her and her dog Arlo to her dead grandmother’s neglected house, hidden, as it is symbolic of Connie’s unknown heritage, in a tangle of overgrown gardens and woods. There Connie discovers an old key in a 17th-century Bible, accompanied by a strip of parchment possessing Deliverance Dane’s name. Connie soon begins to experience episodic hallucinations of her grandmother’s past.
Having been a postgraduate student herself scouring libraries for thesis material, Howe writes into life Connie as a credible and intelligent woman who captivates the reader with her search for a book of magic healing “recipes” and spells that would change everything she thought to be true. The setting of Connie’s grandmother’s home is done so meticulously that the reader can almost smell the old closed-up rooms, wooden shelves crammed with musty books, feel the square head nails in the floorboards snag stocking feet, and see the light reflected in the dusty herb bottles in the kitchen. Howe says, “I tend to be a ony visual person (my first real job was in an art museum, as it happens), which is one reason I love to wallow in setting.”
Wallow she does, bringing colonial New England, and all the fears and hardships of a struggling America, into focus. Readers responded to Howe’s fictional account of accused witches’ truths by putting her first book on the bestseller list. “Fiction is a cool way to explore a one hundred percent factually true subject that gives the stories of history power,” says Howe, who has recently completed the sequel, The Daughter of Deliverance Dane also set in Massachusetts. Howe’s family had settled in Essex County, Massachusetts, in the 1620s, and she had been aware of her eighth and ninth aunts Proctor and Howe since high school. But in a moment of surreal spookiness she discovered that Deliverance Dane was her eighth great grandmother after the 2009 publication of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
To write historical fiction powerfully and credibly, an author must be master, or mistress, of the facts. Showing through fiction that she was, Penguin asked Howe to edit The Penguin Book of Witches, an academic foray into the documents of witch trials in early modern England and North America. Organized by era, each account begins with a brief historical and insightful introduction followed by letters, news, and court papers such as original depositions. In her introduction to the “Trial of Ursula Kemp” in 1582, Howe writes, “Another contributing factor to suspicions of witchcraft in the early modern period was the inexplicable sudden ailments in both persons and cattle. Sickness from unhygienic conditions made for high mortality rate, but those deaths were easier to bear if they could be blamed on someone else.” Ursula’s section includes several examinations of witnesses—witnesses in most trials were usually children—as well as several confessions by Ursula herself. “The said Ursula bursting out with weeping, fell upon her knees, and confessed that she had four spirits, whereof two of them were he’s, and the other two were she’s. The two he spirits were to punish and kill unto death, and the two she’s were to punish with lameness and other diseases of bodily harms, and also to destroy cattle.” As were most accused women who lived on the margins of society, Ursula was executed despite the promise of leniency if she confessed.
The Salem witch trials being the most famous, many of us think of witch-hunts as being mainly a Puritan and colonial New England phenomenon. But they occurred in the Old World, too, during the 16th and 18th centuries, reaching a peak in the 1580s with English witch hunting. Court documents show that witch trials made up 13 percent of all criminal cases. Readers see the fear and the physical pain of the condemned witches in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, but they also see the children who are responsible for that fear and physical pain in Howe’s young adult novel Conversion.
Conversion was inspired by a story Howe heard on a local cable news channel while waiting for a brake light repair in a mechanic’s shop. “The cable news was on in the waiting room, and I wasn’t paying much attention until the news anchor said in passing that they’d figured out what was really wrong with the girls in Le Roy, New York. According to the newscast, the Le Roy mystery illness of 2011 was actually just an outbreak of conversion disorder.” Students had exhibited a range of odd symptoms from twitching to disordered speech to an inability to walk. Some blamed it on environmental pollution, others a reaction to the HPV vaccine or PANDAS, a pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections. Medical professionals finally settled on conversion disorder, a mental condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other unexplained neurological symptoms. They believed that the pressures of competing for the highest and best marks to get into the highest and best colleges had caused excessive stress that manifested in bizarre physical symptoms. This was not unlike Sigmund Freud’s early investigations of late-19th-century neurasthenia.
Howe set out in the context of a young-adult novel, blending science and the supernatural, to explain the symptoms that triggered a widespread panic. In her fictional version, the setting is St. Joan’s Academy, a private Catholic girls’ school. As with Deliverance Dane, Conversion is also a dual narrative. One narrator, Ann Putnam, a primary figure of the Salem witch trials, tells one story as she confesses to her pastor; and Colleen Rowley, a student at St. Joan’s, tells another and tries to solve what is happening to her friends while she is also under the stress of trying to achieve valedictorian status. Conversion appeals equally to adults as to teens. Howe is first and foremost an academic historian, and her ability to weave fiction in and out of historical and behavioral truth is nothing short of magical itself. She recreates the witch trials through rich language, precise and gradual character development, and background setting from the perspective of one of the girls responsible for them and from the perspective of an intelligent young woman who solves the medical mystery, partially by reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Conversion’s dual narratives are set in Salem Village, although the reader doesn’t know this until the end of the book when Colleen discovers that Danvers used to be Salem Village. Colleen also discovers that people rarely want to hear a complex truth; the adults in positions of authority settle on explanations that benefit their own agendas, just as the magistrates and judges did in Salem’s widespread witch panic: “None on the Court be well disposed to the hearing of reason, I’m afraid. They are gripped with fear for their own reputations.”
Howe includes Tituba’s confessions, right out of The Crucible, just as she did Ann’s, changing nothing, bringing history alive in striking scenes. The court document is a fascinating historic portrayal of the destruction and madness that lies and panic created amid an uneducated and fearful community. Tituba fits the classic witch profile, an Indian woman from Barbados who lives in the margins of the community and without its protections. She was a slave to the white children who accused her of tormenting and casting spells on them.
Q: What did this man say to you when he took hold of you?
A: He say go into the other room and see the children and do hurt to them and pinch them. And then I went in and would not hurt them a good while. I would not hurt Betty. I loved Betty, but they haul me and make me pinch Betty and the next Abigail…
Tituba begins the examination by denying witchcraft and any knowledge of the Devil, but she ends her examination on that first day of trial not only by admitting to fantastical and impossible crimes, but also by naming two other women as her accomplices, thereby sealing their fate along with her own. During her physical, examiners found evidence of the witches’ teat they were searching for—her clitoris, which tells us even more about the uneducated nature and fearful temperaments of early Americans—and multiple bruises to indicate Tituba had been beaten, likely by Parris, her owner and the children’s father. Howe believes that “Tituba confessed for the same reason that people confess to crimes they did not commit today—because she had been hounded into it by people in a position of power. . . . These details are perfectly consistent with English witchcraft manuals—too consistent. For someone who could not read, this kind of knowledge could only have come from someone else.” (Penguin Book of Witches, p. 141)
Q: What other creatures have you seen?
A: A bird.
Q: What bird?
A: A yellow bird.
Q: Where doth it keep?
A: With the man who hath pretty things here besides.
Q: What other pretty things?
A: He hath not showed them yet unto me, but he said he would show them me tomorrow, and he told me if I would serve him, I should have the bird.
Q: What other creatures did you see?
A: I saw two cats, one red, another black as big as a little dog.
Q: What did these cats do?
A: I don’t know. I have seen them two times.
Q: What did they say to you?
A: They say serve them.
Tituba explains that she never let the cats suck her but they bid her to pinch and hurt the children Abigail and Betty Parris. She flew to their home by riding on a stick. Tituba gives the names of Good and Osborne and says they wanted her to kill somebody with a knife, but she wouldn’t. During the examination the children who named Tituba have fits screaming nonsense words and pointing their fingers at nothing, exclaiming that they see something vile and evil as they fling themselves about theatrically in front of their audience.
Howe uses the actual documents to show in Conversion how quickly the questions, ridiculous as they are, receive even more ridiculous answers. What begins as a ploy by adolescents to get out of their daily chores turns into fantastic skeins of what we call today fake news, but fake news that is taken as truth by neighbors of the accused who held personal grudges or jealousies. But even had they wanted to defend an accused friend, that alone would have led them to suspicion, trial, and possibly death by one of the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t witch tests that led to the executioner. Meanwhile, the girls behind the hysteria, had they admitted to their own guilt when they saw the deadly results of their game, would not have been believed in the midst of the chaos and panic they had fed but themselves assumed to be bewitched. There were adults who saw through the playacting of the young teenagers. Howe shows young Ann Putnam exhibiting enormous guilt and misery—but short of telling the truth— even as she writhed on the floor screaming her torment by the witches’ menagerie of animals.
And then there is the ember of truth, what divides fiction from nonfiction, that Howe shows the reader in both The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion: that some of the women, the ones named things like Deliverance, Grace, Faith, Patience, and Constance, actually possessed powerful, if not supernatural, intuitive abilities and healing powers.
Howe occasionally ventures away from witches in her novels—but only semantically, so to speak. In The House of Velvet and Glass her heroine Sybil can descry the future. If Sybil had lived in colonial times, she too would have been accused of witchery if she had rankled a neighbor or made a grumpy adolescent do chores. Howe’s second young-adult novel, The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen (2015), could be said not to have witches either, as no character actually says the word “witch” or, for that matter, “ghost”—even though Annie is one. In The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a clerk warns Connie with a variation of Einstein’s famous quote, “But remember. Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” Howe illustrates this warning repeatedly in her plots, as well as demonstrating the flip-side of the warning when her male character Benton tells Sybil from In the House of Velvet and Glass, “Now I have certainty that you believe you’ve experienced something real, but your believing it doesn’t make it so.” Alas, Benton’s words, much like the precedent of hunting people down just because they are different and accusing them of crimes they didn’t commit, could all too readily be applied to xenophobia-wielding populist governments in several countries today.
The richness of Howe’s novels is that they all reflect life, rational and not, because life actually is both rational and sometimes not. Degrees in art, philosophy, and New England studies provided Howe the material and skill she needed to write her bestsellers, of which more may be in the offing. But to really appreciate what she is getting at by querying “the contingent nature of reality and belief,” we may need to open our minds, as Connie’s adviser Chilton Manning suggested, to the possibility of magic. At the end of the 17th century in New England, magic and supernatural phenomenon were bound up in then-powerful religious cosmologies, particularly Calvinist varieties of Protestantism that, unlike the earlier Lutheran and subsequently Episcopalian varieties, were not friendly to the full gamut of onrushing modernity. But whatever the cultural delivery system, there are still things that scientific rationality in our own time cannot assuredly explain. That gap is eternal fodder for opportunistic politicians in anxiety-ridden times. If we want to understand Donald Trump in context, perhaps we would be wise to read Howe’s novels as a study of our current political climate, reflecting on the cause of the witch hunts, the psychology and fear behind the trials, and the judgments of Cotton Mather.