Witches, in one shape or form, by one definition or another, have a long literary history and are a constant source of inspiration. I spoke to Marion Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literature at the University of Exeter, to put together this reading list of witches in fiction, starting with the relatively modern Young Goodman Brown in 1835. Clearly, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, but a cherry-picked selection that will likely be of interest to our readers. Marion is the author of an introductory book on the study of witchcraft, the themes of which we discuss in the first episode of the Sublime Horror podcast.
Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Hawthorne’s 1835 short story is a classic of the witchy horror genre. The Salem colonist Young Goodman Brown goes into the wild American forest looking for trouble in the form of a witches’ sabbath – and finds it. The effect on him is deeply saddening: we watch him begin to perceive corruption, sin and betrayal in every innocent smile, every guiding hand. This is an everyday horror story of the triumph of experience over innocence, or misanthropy over optimism. Young Goodman Brown continues to inspire new fictions: most recently, you can see its echoes in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Hawthorne also revisited the witchcraft theme in a number of his other stories, including The House of the Seven Gables, and The Scarlet Letter.”
The Dreams in the Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft
“Also featuring in the Sabrina reboot is Lovecraft’s 1933 short story. In an apparently haunted house in Arkham, Massachusetts (or is it Salem?) a young physics student finds an unexpected linkage between folklore and mathematics, which takes him on a strange journey. Dark imaginings of paganism, Satanism and encounters with alien creatures combine to make the reader shudder. Creepy and viscerally unpleasant, The Dreams in the Witch House is celebrated by Lovecraft fans both for its shocks and for the ambition of its cosmic imagination, although its critical reception has often been lukewarm. This is one of Lovecraft’s best stories in my opinion, with just the right blend of fear and thrill.”
Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger
“Published in 1999, Weird Sister is a beautifully written, rather neglected story of a witch who comes back to haunt the family of her accusers (probably – other interpretations are part of the elusive pleasure of the story, and it has multiple narrators). Pullinger’s novel is based on the real-life case of the Warboys witches in 1593. Agnes Samuel and her parents Alice and John were all accused of witchcraft by the wealthy Throckmorton family, who published a lengthy pamphlet account of the Samuels’ supposed crimes and the intimidation to which they were subjected. Agnes, Alice and John were all hanged. Weird Sister returns to that old story of fear, manipulation and cruelty and gives Agnes her revenge.”
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
“Oyeyemi’s novel, published in 2009, is also inventively narrated, including by a house. It combines haunted mansion elements with magical realist ones, and draws on Gothic stories by Edgar Allan Poe, among others. Like all of Oyeyemi’s surprising and thought-provoking fiction, it also crosses conventional boundaries between magical cultures. As well as magic, usually of the harmful kind, the book is about migration, mental illness, eating disorders, adolescence and grief. It tells the story of the magical entrapment of Miranda Silver in her old family home in the liminal town of Dover: a place that should represent welcome and safety but is in fact deeply hostile.”
The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
“My final witchy horror text was published in 2017. It was liked by reviewers, sold well in high street bookshops, and quickly came to the attention of Richard and Judy’s Book Club, suggesting the ongoing – and, if anything, increasing – popularity of witchcraft stories today. As the title suggests, the novel tells the (fictional) story of the sister of the real-life witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, who in 1645 set himself up as the “Witchfinder General” of eastern England. Hopkins and his fellow obsessives contributed to the accusation of over 200 people, by their own estimate. Underdown’s well researched and chilling novel imagines what might have motivated Hopkins, and how horrifying it must have been to witness his witch hunt.”
Witchcraft: The Basics by Marion Gibson is published by Routledge. You can buy the book here.