Right away, before delving into each of these fantastic stories, I must give full disclosure of my bias: I’m both Wiccan and a witch. I have a fairly intimate knowledge of the Craft, both through experience and research. I love being part of this belief system, finding like-minded people, and learning all that I can about it, within the decreasing limits of my so-called free time. So finding this anthology, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, was like coming home to me. I absolutely loved it.
“An Accidental Witch”, by Liv Rancourt
I was completely entranced by this story from the first page. The descriptions, the characters, the setting — all of it grabbed me right away. In a problem reminiscent of classic sitcoms like ‘Bewitched’, a practitioner of magick approaches her Wiccan friend for a little bragging over her coven’s recent acquisition, and a little help with an awkward situation. Charlotte agrees to help, and succeeds, using her skills in Wicca as well as some quick thinking and a level head. I could see it all so clearly, and the characters all reminded me of people I know and love. Rancourt has provided a fabulous introductory story to the anthology, perfect with a chocolate-covered pastry for nibbles.
“Alba”, by Karen Heard
I was glad to take a break between stories, because I quickly realized there is a change in tone as each tale ends and the next begins. The subtleties and undercurrents of “Alba” were compelling and organic. I love strong subtext, fitting pieces together, and discovering hidden meanings. I love flipping back and forth between sections of a story to uncover what was there all along. Heard did that for me with writing that is breathtakingly beautiful and haunting. Her story strongly reminds me of favourite episodes of ‘The X-Files” and the classic ghost story “Watcher in the Woods”, flavoured with aspects of Snow White and other fairy tales. There is also a twist at the end that I did not see coming, and it was perfect. Read with a good cup of tea.
“By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, by Jonathan Broughton
Ah, vengeance. Justice. Mayhem. Some of Shakespeare’s best works were based on these very themes, these intangible aspects of human nature that both terrify and release. I was floored by this imagining of turn-of-the-century performance of That Scottish Play. Broughton uses incredible detail to skillfully set up a plot that spirals rapidly to its climax. The dramatic irony is intense and juicy. The applause of the audience is definitely well-deserved.
“The Cat Maiden”, by Mertianna Georgia
I have friends who are devout cat-lovers and fans of fantasy fiction who must, absolutely MUST read this story. I’m going to insist on it. (And of course, they will then be compelled to read the rest of the anthology, which is as it should be, because I cannot decide on a favourite here, no more than I could choose a favourite chocolate out of the box.) I adore the sweetness of Georgia’s characters, struggling to be true and strong in a harsh world. Elrick, her protagonist, is fortunate indeed to have been granted two loving guardians with gifts of magick to teach and protect him. I wish I could see this illustrated with watercolours, each picture bordered in gilt.
“The May Lady Vanishes”, by Pamela Turner
I must say, I had my suspicions about a certain character in this story from the very beginning, and I was gratified when I read the solution to the mystery and discovered I’d been right all along. I don’t want to spoil it for you, of course, so won’t go into too much detail. But Turner’s depiction of an occult shop was bang-on. And her visuals brought the story to life immediately. What I liked most about this story, though, is that it really brings home the reality that not all those who practice Wicca and/or witchcraft do so with good intentions. Witches are still human beings, capable of jealousy and poor behaviour. There are consequences for everything. Turner’s characters are entirely three-dimensional in this short mystery.
“The Hanging Witch of Painter Mountain”, by Lawrence Baker
Excellent reading for a warm — or cool — fall afternoon. Baker evokes a combination of creepy, sinister, wistful feelings in this look back to the years after the American Civil War. I love the language in this story, and his use of subtext to reveal the magick in the rough mountain community. This story makes me think of something Stephen King might write, actually. It transitions seamlessly from one reality to the next, as gently as a falling leaf, bittersweet and tangy. “The Hanging Witch” is a notable example in that every word is chosen carefully to provide meaning to the reader, and eloquently so.
“Thirteen Steps”, by Debbie Christiana
Another tale of purposeful witchcraft, tinged with horror for those who admire Stephen King. Poor condemned witch Isabella cannot be pitied for long, as she is one of those who cannot be held back even by time. The fate of the antagonist, self-indulgent journalist Bart Santz/Sanzone, is abundantly clear from the moment he is introduced, which makes riding along with him that much more enjoyable. Oh, that moment when he realizes the point of no return has come and gone… Just delicious. Tea and hot apple pie with this one, if you please. Throw a dollop of whipped cream on top. Trust me.
“Four Bony Hands”, by Rayne Hall
A stunning modern adaptation of a classic children’s fairy tale. Estelle is such a sweetheart, a good woman whose qualities I recognize in a number of my close friends. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished. Perhaps it’s her own karma catching up with her — Estelle is no innocent, though her minor civic crimes were committed with the intention of protecting life. Certainly, her fate is determined by the impact of ignorance and abuse on others. I like this story so much because Hall not only depicts human beings with great honesty, she doesn’t even hold back with the children. There is a harsh reality to being a child in a story with a witch — at least a traditional fairy tale, in which witches are inevitably evil hags with a yen for prepubescent flesh — so in a way, the children’s behaviour is somewhat understandable. If only Estelle had realized her role in their perceived story… I find myself wishing I could read the next chapter, that this one continues on in any one of several directions.
“Mishmash Magick”, by Carole Ann Moleti
Discovering this colourful tale of urban magick was a complete delight. One simply does not expect to encounter witches in the city, let alone builders of magickal circles, crafters of spells, or celebrations of sacred fire festivals in the concrete and pavement landscape. Moleti’s portrayal of the balance between the intangible and the mundane is bang-on. There is a care to the works of the urban witch, a certain way to juggle the Craft without attracting unwanted notice, and she has captured it brilliantly.
“Love Magick”, by Debra Dunbar
Dunbar knows her teenagers, and her facts about Wicca and witchcraft. This story is really and truly lovely, even with its squirmy moments of adolescent awkwardness. The outsider, Blossom, is painfully lonely and accepts an offer from one of her school’s queen bees, Sheila, to work a spell on a boy. Blossom has a good heart, and a strong conscience, and her inner beauty is clearly visible to others even though she doesn’t realize it until her crisis peaks. I wish that real life could resolve itself as well as “Love Magick” does, but that’s why we read — to learn how to work through problems, and improve how we behave toward each other. And that’s really the heart of magick: achieving balance, for the good of all and harming none.
This anthology is a must-read for lovers of magic/magick, fantasy, romance, horror, mystery, and the paranormal. I’m so glad that I read this book.