My research into shamanism and its attendant symbols and mythology, some of it included of my 2006 book Healing Songs, convinced me that women played the decisive role in the formation and dissemination of magic and ritual in early human societies—a role that was later suppressed and displaced, in the West, by an Orphic-Pythagorean worldview. In a peculiar historical reversal, the ancient Greeks aimed to replace the magical incantation with the mathematical formula, and the process involved the imposition of a masculine perspective and power structure on social and spiritual institutions previously controlled by women. In a very real sense, we still live with the consequences today.
But the magical realm was never completely forgotten, and its connection with concepts of femininity never totally severed. This hidden linkage can be seen in odd residual practices, such as the tendency of male shamans in various parts of the world to dress in women’s clothing or the passing down of countless fairy tales and folklore about witches and covens, as well as a persistent belief in the existence of esoteric knowledge from which men are excluded.
One might expect that the modern novel, a mostly sober endeavor that looks askance at fairy tales as poor relations, would be immune to these superstitious speculations. Yet a number of works of magical realism have dealt, playfully or seriously, with the notion of a conspiracy of women, practicing dark arts that have been handed down, from mother to daughter, over the generations, with fathers, sons and brothers none the wiser. Fritz Leiber explored the comic side of this supposition in his Conjure Wife (1943). John Crowley updated the notion of witch coven in Little, Big (1981), and John Updike did the same, three years later, with his The Witches of Eastwick (1984). Similar deference to the innate magical powers of women can be found in a wide range of works, including The Devils of Loudon (tagged by author Aldous Huxley as a non- fiction novel), The House of the Spirits, Like Water for Chocolate, and The Witches, among others.
Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic (1995) comes out of this same folkloristic tradition. In their hometown in Massachusetts, the Owens family are caretakers of the community's magical needs, dishing out charms and love potions the way the Seven-Eleven serves up Slurpees and pork rinds. The lovelorn come round to their back door when the sun goes down, looking for a little something extra to keep their man from straying, to secure an especially desirable mate, or even steal another woman's husband.
Two young girls, Gillian and Sally, are thrown into this hotbed of black magic when their parents die and they become wards of the mysterious Owens 'Aunts'—Frances and Bridget— who are continuing a family tradition of sorcery that has persisted more than 200 years. When customers come for their services, the Aunts send the girls off to their attic bedroom, but the youngsters sneak back down and secretly listen, with horrified curiosity, as their caretakers deal in various spells, potions and charms. After witnessing the distress of so many neighborhood ladies, whose passions have robbed them of reason and discretion, both girls vow that they will never fall victim to love when they grow up.
In time, both violate their promises, and with disastrous consequences. Sally is left a widow at a young age, with two young daughters to raise, and Gillian moves from one dys- functional relationship to the next. These bad decisions reach a crisis point when Gillian arrives at Sally’s house late one night, with the dead body of her latest boyfriend in her car. Her attempt to emulate the Aunts, and mix a dose of deadly nightshade into his food each night—to help him fall asleep before he became drunk and abusive—had apparently backfired. Instead of making her lover drowsy, she has unwittingly poisoned him.
In a panic, the sisters bury the dead boyfriend in Sally’s back- yard, But problems in the Owens clan have a way of coming back again and again to haunt their perpetrators. The ghost of Jimmy, the poisoned man, begins to hang around the household, and he is no less ill-tempered in death than he was in life. The police also take an interest the case, and before long a representative from the district attorney’s office is knocking on the door and asking pointed questions.
When reading Hoffman's novel, I was constantly reminded of Newton’s third law: "To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction." Is it possible that the laws of physics apply to magic too? Again and again, in the course of these pages, attempts to control and manipulate have unintended consequences—and invariably backfire on the instigators. The lovesick end up sick of love. The seers cannot see their own future. And what’s buried, no matter how deeply in the ground, rises to the top.
Sally wants to break the cycle with her daughters, Kylie and Antonia. She packs their bags and moves far away from the Aunts and the little town where the Owens family has become synonymous with dark dealings. But if Hoffman has anything to teach us in this novel, it’s that our past follows us wherever we go. Her heroines must ultimately face their destiny head-on or join the ranks of victims the Owens have left in their wake.
In a book where so much of the action is inadvertent, and the results unanticipated, Hoffman waits until the end or her story to show how much she is actually in control, and what she has kept in reserve. Finally the stars are in alignment, and all parties converge on the same coordinates: Gillian and Sally, Kylie and Antonia, the Aunts, the investigator from the Attorney General, and a persnickety ghost with a chip on his ethereal shoulder and some incriminating bones in the backyard. Throw in a Harvard student, a high school biology teacher, an impending hurricane, a power blackout, and a lot of dangerous magical ingredients, and we have the makings for a grand finale.
What happens next? I won’t play the seer or spoiler. But you are allowed to hold out hope that, for once, the magic does what it's supposed to, with no residual bad karma. Or, even better, that sometimes magic can happen without any witchcraft required.
Welcome to my year of magical reading. Each week during the course of 2012, I will explore an important work of fiction that incorporates elements of magic, fantasy or the surreal. My choices will cross conventional boundary lines of genre, style and historical period—indeed, one of my intentions in this project is to show how the conventional labels applied to these works have become constraining, deadening and misleading.
In its earliest days, storytelling almost always partook of the magical. Only in recent years have we segregated works arising from this venerable tradition into publishing industry categories such as "magical realism" or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels are not without their value, but too often they have blinded us to the rich and multidimensional heritage beyond category that these works share.
This larger heritage is mimicked in our individual lives: most of us first experienced the joys of narrative fiction through stories of myth and magic, the fanciful and phantasmagorical; but only a very few retain into adulthood this sense of the kind of enchantment possible only through storytelling. As such, revisiting this stream of fiction from a mature, literate perspective both broadens our horizons and allows us to recapture some of that magic in our imaginative lives.