Witch Bottle is instantly engaging. After a strange, enigmatic prologue in which the narrator encounters a ghastly cruel giant, somewhere outside our reality, we’re plunged into the minutiae of a milkman’s daily round – like an incantation to normality. The narrator is Daniel, who left his wife and infant daughter some time ago to live alone in a spartan rented house in a remote part of England. He says “I’m just trying to give you a sense of the job here…” and it feels intimate, confessional; Witch Bottle is a tale told to the reader.
The sheer quality of Fletcher’s writing is evident from the very first pages – buried amongst the milk orders and the brief conversations with Daniel’s customers are sparse, lucid descriptions of the countryside: “the wind picks up and blows a hail of bright yellow leaves across the brooding black sky, and at just the same moment a flock of crows rises from the fields and flies in the opposite direction. The leaves are like fire against all of the darkness. The crows make it look as if the wind is blowing in two directions at once.” This blend of the rural numinous – and foreboding – is deftly ratcheted up as the story progresses, earning its comparisons to the works of Andrew Michael Hurley. Witch Bottle is absolutely pitch-perfect literary horror, gorgeously written and paced, and blends its folk-horror and supernatural elements with an extremely fresh use of the cosmic.
Daniel is an enigma to the reader, despite his confessional voice. He’s sure there’s something wrong with him – he can’t be around other people too long in case something terrible happens – and I spent a lot of the book looking carefully for clues as to what this bubbling, simmering quality might be: it’s testament to Fletcher’s grip on his storytelling that I didn’t come close to guessing. He’s an isolated man who can’t relate to the lives, mortgages, and marriages of his former friends, putting me in mind of the protagonist in Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, who also violently rejects the trappings of middle-class life. The other characters in the book are equally precisely defined, including his wife Ellie, an inveterate lover of spreadsheets and Gantt charts, who Daniel describes as: “creative – she was like a sculptor, working with time”. Anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel will laugh out loud as she presents Daniel with a First Novel chart, with the steps neatly mapped out and timed from initial research through to the delivery of traditionally printed copies into his hands. It shouldn’t surprise us that Daniel fails, and there’s a sweet relatable quality to a lot of his daily interactions which humanises him, despite his warnings to the reader – and himself – of his cancerous not-normality. It takes him a little while, tentative, to ask out Kathryn, the local baked potato-shop owner, who also turns out to be the local mail-order witch. The point-of-view jump between Daniel and Kathryn could have been slightly better signposted the first time it occurred, but in later chapters it was a joy, as was her detailed and fascinating backstory: taking in witchcraft; the experience of a woman in a male workplace; sexual harassment; and dick pics. I utterly believed in Kathryn as a character.
This rich characterisation and deep narrative voice lent itself to an extremely emotional reading experience. There’s a deep sense of loss and failure which pervades Daniel’s narrative, and I found myself connecting to him deeply. Fletcher paints his emotional canvas with day-to-day sadness and loneliness, and the scenes in which Daniel delivers milk to the isolated elderly were both vivid and extremely sympathetically drawn. Similarly, his relationship to his mother is tender and sad: “I have this constant low-level guilt that I don’t visit my mother enough, but then when I’m here I feel awkward and unable to speak.” And for deep psychological horror, I don’t think I’ve read anything this year as affecting as the lengthy, excruciating depiction of Ellie’s labour, nightmarish and realistic, with Daniel’s chilling awareness there’s nothing he can do to help.
Witch Bottle introduces its supernatural horror elements from the outset, and they are carefully woven through the following narrative without ever appearing to drive it. Daniel meets a Fallen Stock van – the company which picks up dead animals from its rural clientele – and the driver is uncanny: plus-fours tucked into wellington boots, a dark green waxed coat and a tweed cap, but with blood pouring down his face and a “smile-shaped hole, through which large brown teeth are visible”. The Fallen Stock drivers stalk Daniel throughout the novel, with an excellent sense of creeping menace, and only a hint at their awful purpose: “I just want to walk this world like it is mine again.” The farmers and householders of Daniel’s milk-route are reporting unwelcome ghosts, and something horrible watches him from outside his house at night, triangular and hooded, quivering, coming ever-closer. Even Kathryn’s initially quite benign and kitchen-witch magic takes on a darker and deeper tone as the story progresses, from using fingernails and urine to scavenging roadkill: “she kneels down on the road in the grey midday mizzle and, using just a penknife, starts to fill a bag-for-life with the stag’s internal organs.”
“In this time of anxiety and ghosts and other unwelcome visitors… it’s connected. It’s all connected.” Connectedness is one of the major themes in Witch Bottle, and it’s lovingly and unexpectedly done, with Fletcher drawing a direct line between violence and war on TV and the psychic atmosphere which pervades this little corner of north-east England. Daniel muses about asylum seekers and civil wars and shipping lanes; Kathryn the mail-order witch sends her charms through the internet and notes the general loss of faith and security in those who order from her: “I think given everything in the news, people are losing faith in the institutions that are meant to provide for them.” Modernity is never far away, from the overburdened NHS to drug dealers and court dates for domestic-violence cases, side-stepping the obvious “Postman Pat” treatment of Daniel’s doorstep interactions; there’s nothing picture-postcard or twee about this rural world, despite its beauty. Kathryn’s grandmother explains to her that the modern world is threatening, patriarchal and violent, a source of contamination or quasi-radio waves: “the air’s full of their intent.” She sees it play out in her creepy manager, said to be “changed” into a more aggressive and toxic version of himself after a head injury, and the book overall frequently grapples with the question: is what’s inside you the ‘real you’ – even if you don’t want it to be?
This interior becomes exterior as the book builds towards its climax, and Daniel learns more about the Fallen Stock men – for whom those wellingtons and plus-fours are a sort of uniform, concealing something far more ancient and cult-like. He becomes “enmeshed” in their reality, exposing what’s beneath the surface of the world; there’s a great and frankly horrible sequence in the industrial estate of Craggesund in which reality peels back to reveal a hinterland not unlike the below-world of Jordan Peele’s Us, dirty and animalistic. Everything starts to fall into place, and as I read the last few chapters there were several gasp-out-loud moments as I appreciated just how carefully Fletcher had arranged the pieces of his narrative. The final scenes are truly apocalyptic, set under an orange-and-red sky in an abattoir, blood and flesh flying.
I couldn’t find any wrong notes in Witch Bottle, which was a real pleasure to read and has made it rather effortlessly into my top-of-the-year lists. Fletcher was new to me with this book: I’m excited to see he has written a number of other novels blending rural locations, supernatural threat and cosmic horror because Witch Bottle is an absolutely extraordinary calling-card.