Season of the Witch
In order to remain ahead of the curve, fashion prognosticators determine years in advance which color will be the “new black” for a particular season. It has to be this way in order to give the textile manufacturers enough time to produce the fabric. Very similarly, it often takes a year or more to determine genre trends in publishing. Writers need time to write the books; publishers need time to edit, typeset, market, and print the books. Everything needs time.
So when something works, as in the case of wearing black for almost any occasion, publishers (and writers) look to produce work that hits an established mark. In fantasy and horror, vampires are the original black. They may rise and fall with the tide of book buying, but vampires are always there. Readers know and like what they’re getting from a vampire book.
At some point over the last few years, perhaps beginning with the success of Max Brooks’s World War Z, zombies became the new black. Somewhere along the line, there was a brief flirtation with werewolves, but readers were having none of it. Werewolves, if anything, are the burnt sienna of fantasy/horror—a color that looks great in the store, but is really hard to wear once you get it home. Evidence of this restlessness in literary capital is everywhere in books. With the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, one might even say that BDSM lite is the new black for romance, but I’m not sure what old black was. In YA, the success of The Hunger Games has seen an explosion in dystopian fiction with Artemis-type heroines. But here, in the days leading up to Halloween, let me make the case for the witch.
Banking on the success of fantasy and horror in general, TV is doubling down on their bet to capture the public’s attention with witches in “American Horror Story: Coven” and “The Witches of East End.” But the witch has a deep and varied tradition in literature that goes unrivaled by other archetypes.
Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, for example, has carried over into comic books from both DC and Marvel, and plays a role in modern literature as varied as her heroic presence in The Mists of Avalon, an excellent re-examination of Arthurian legend from the perspective of the female characters, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where she appears as a gross (but still amusing) caricature of feminine villainy. It’s interesting to see the vastly different interpretations of the character, but the two are almost incomparable—one a satire, the other a serious depiction of feminine power.
Medea, the great Greek witch and wife of Jason, was depicted by Euripides as a jealous and vengeful woman driven to infanticide by her husband’s betrayal. In modern interpretations of the figure, Rick Riordan places Medea at the head of a New York City department store in his Heroes of Olympus series.
On the adult front, Babayaga, a new novel by Toby Barlow, mines Russian folklore, placing the eponymous grande dame (or dames as the case may be) of witches in the middle of a Cold War intrigue.
And the recent best-selling A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness kicks off a trilogy of books chronicling the story of an Oxford scholar who embraces a heritage of witchcraft and engages the magical world by the side of a vampire. After debuting on the New York Times list, Harkness’s follow-up, Shadow of Night, continued the successful start. Readers will have to wait for the next installment, but the pull of magically empowered female characters is undeniable.
Whether these two books stand the test of time, or whether they are merely a new black, destined to be eclipsed by the latest shade, time will tell. In the meantime, we have a massive backlist of tried-and-true books about witches: The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike or Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire are two books you can wear to work and not be afraid to go straight out to a night on the town. Who needs a new black when you have them?