Book Review — Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft

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.

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“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.

Buy Link: http://www.amazon.ca/Beltane-Witchcraft-Fantasy-Stories-ebook/dp/B009D41V3E

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Three Days after Solstice

Even though I didn’t celebrate Yule the way I wanted and had envisioned, I still enjoyed the moment as it passed.

I have a clear memory of a conversation I had with my mother, though whether I was 11 or 12 at the time isn’t certain. What I do remember is telling her that when I became an adult, I would be celebrating Christmas as an expression of joy in winter: that I would be rejoicing in the change of seasons, in the beauty of winter, because that was the value I saw in the holiday.

I still see that.

And that is what I have been doing. I’ve been listening to traditional Christmas carols — the songs about sleigh rides, snow, evergreens, mistletoe. None of the winter elements of the holiday have much to do with the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem. But they have everything to do with Saturnalia, with Yule, with the time of the year when Persephone has descended to the underworld and life sleeps. When the snow comes, and the days shorten, we have two choices, as I see it: we can run away and hide from it, OR we can embrace it.

This year, I have chosen to embrace the cold. I’m doing much better at taking my children outside to play and slide and make snow angels. I’m lighting candles, and enjoying the peace of the dark nights. I’m taking my dog for walks in the winter night, admiring the lights on neighbourhood houses.

All of the colour, the glowing, the giving and receiving of gifts — it speaks to me of balance. When the world grows dark and cold, we join together (whenever we can) to reflect on our blessings and share our abundance, so everyone has enough to get through. There is so much symbolism in gift-giving, in the plump energy of Santa Claus. We party, and feast, and decorate, keeping our spirits going.

So, as a Pagan and a Wiccan, and a witch, this season has a lot of meaning for me. It goes deeper than the label. I may not have done the ritual I wanted to perform for Yule, but already, three days later, I can feel how the wheel of life has turned. It’s an intangible sensation in the air, in the body, in the sunshine. We’ve passed the test of the dark and the sunlight is slowly returning. When my children and my husband open their gifts tomorrow morning, and I receive their tokens of love, we’ll be completing our own ritual, celebrating our beliefs in each other, and in the potential of humanity to overcome all that is cold, dead, and wrong in the world.

On the practical side, until then, I will be cleaning and getting the children to help me with that, until their father comes home and our fun activities can begin.

I hope that, whatever you believe, you are with family and friends this week, or next. That you are safe, happy, healthy, have enough to eat, clean water, warmth, and love with you.

BB

Echoes of Bacchanalia: Witchy Reflections on a Hallowe’en Pub

Our small town had its annual Hallowe’en Pub (sponsored by the Rotary Club) last night, and I went for the first time, with two girlfriends. We’ve lived here for twelve years, and I’d never gone before although I’d wanted to.

I had a great time, of course. It was fun seeing everyone dressed up, relaxing, dancing and joking and in a general celebration. It was wonderful to go in costume and dance with my friends. Some faces were so obscured by makeup or covered by mask that I couldn’t be sure who I was seeing, unless I asked.

It occurred to me, halfway through the evening, what an ancient ritual this was — this custom of fancy-dress and masquerade in the dying days of autumn. There was no orgiastic frenzy, and no use of mind-altering chemicals other than those found in legal alcoholic drinks, but the spirit and purpose were there for any who chose to look closely.

I watched the hot young (and matured) things in their body-baring store-bought or homemade costumes, gossiped with my friends about how this time of year always seems to be an excuse for girls to be slutty (my own costume was hardly modest, but as I was playing on puns to mock 50 Shades of Grey, I figured I was allowed the use of leggings and a bustier — with a shirt underneath 😉

I thought to myself, from an anthropological standpoint, and a biological one, it’s a good season for young fertile women to seek mates. I felt like I was observing a ritual of preening, an invitation for admiration — if only for self-admiration — and why not? If you have a great body, be proud of it. (That includes curves, by the way.) Choosing an affecting costume to feel funny, sexy, pretty, adventurous, it’s a release from the stresses of the wrap-up of summer. We’re going to be bundling up for winter soon, covering our lovely legs, waists, and cleavages with woollens and fleeces. Celebrating in the ancient way, with music and dancing and revelry, it’s both a farewell to summer and an act of defiance against the dark and cold of the coming winter.

I watched men of all varieties in their own mock-ups of ideal body forms, with foam muscles if they didn’t have their own to strut, listening to their banter and laughing at their ludicrous and lurid pantomiming… Sex was not quite in the air, but there were echoes of it. Or maybe I just hadn’t had enough to drink. In a college cafeteria, when everyone knows everyone even in masks, there is still a need to take a little care in the small town in which everyone talks. But behind a mask, the eyes are a little freer to admire, and the body feels less inhibited in its movement. A man whose body has gone to seed with maturity can pretend, just for the night, that he’s got the six-pack and biceps that society admires, and we all go along with the image because it’s permitted on Hallowe’en.

Again, this suspension of disbelief — this theatre in which everyone is a participant and an observer at the same time — is a necessary part of the celebration of the fall of the year. Pagans believe that the year turns in a wheel, and the ancient Celts followed a calendar which saw Samhain as the final month. That makes sense to me. We dance, we drink, we cavort, we laugh, we raise our fists against the end of life and toast the memories of those recently or long passed away, in preparation for a time of sleeping and winter chores. The new year doesn’t have to begin right away — there must be a space of wait, until Yule when the longest night of the year passes and the days begin to grow a little brighter. More celebrating.

I think that rituals like Hallowe’en fancy dress / costume parties, trick-or-treating, scary decorations, pumpkin carving, etc., are all symbolic of our resistance to the call of Death. Humans, for the most part, desperately cling to life or resolve to find death of our own choosing when the time comes — we don’t want to be told what to do or when to go. So at the end of October (in the Western calendar), we fight back against the dying light and browning world by surrounding ourselves with colours of red passion and orange warmth, rescinding the dark’s power by reclaiming all the shades of night, lighting candles and bonfires to keep the memory of the sun’s warmth alive through its absence. We are performing a wake for the death of summer. We are reminding ourselves that just because our landscape is coming under the rule of winter, we continue to live.

Last night’s Hallowe’en Pub was nearly as pagan as a secular activity can get… Except there were no symbols of fire. I would not expect candles in an indoor facility, but without even battery-operated votives, jack o’lanterns, torches, or what -have-you, I couldn’t help but think that it felt somewhat incomplete.

I’ve heard the arguments about the commercialization of the holiday. I know that people grumble about the cost of parceling out junk candy to kids in costumes that aren’t fit to wear more than once. But I view it from a Wiccan Witch’s perspective: Hallowe’en represents the sharing of abundance at the closing of the year. It represents acknowledging our fears and our dreams, learning about our imaginations and about boundaries… Going to a party based on celebration of the dead, the scary, heroes and monsters, harvest bounty — it’s an essential and empowering element of the human experience.

So to me, the Hallowe’en Pub was in a way, on some level, a religious experience. I walked home under a full moon, appreciating my life, feeling the energy I’d experienced, knowing that the party was still in full swing, and that the energy would continue to surge into the night.

There is a meaning to everything.

50 Shades of Grey

I love my puns!

Shadows in the darkness…

It seems rather unnecessary, doesn’t it? The title of this blog. How can shadows — which are themselves, dark — exist where there is no light?

They simply do.

My life is filled with them. They haunt me when I am trying to fall asleep. I see them on these grey and dreary days of fall, as the yearly cycle comes to a close. I feel them in my heart, as the dwindling light begins to sap the energy reserves I built all summer.

This is a dangerous time of year for me. I love Hallowe’en and Samhain, but as an adult, I haven’t expressed that feeling as I did when I was younger. My husband is also an eager devotee to Hallowe’en, and given a free rein, would turn our home into the creepiest on the block. So what stops me from fulfilling my every spooky desire at this time of year?

The shadows, in the form of depression. I feel them gathering in the corners and moving slowly toward me, as inexorable as the winter dark. I’m better armed against them this year, and I’m not spiralling as I have done in the past. But nevertheless, I feel them. It is the lack of motivation to get off the couch…the increasing desire to sleep…the lack of motivation to do anything, really, but those low-energy activities that help me feel less lonely. Like going on Facebook, looking at lolsnaps, fails, etc. The more I indulge in these time-suckers, the more connected I do feel but the less I get done in the things that matter in a physical sense. The shadows are gaining ground.

I attended a series of workshops in the spring, learning methods for dealing with my anxiety and chronic depression. To some extent, those techniques are working. I’ve been treated for anemia since May, also, which is helping. The techniques are going to become even more vital, now.

Part of that is learning to accept my own limitations and not comparing myself to others. I need to stop saying “I should” and be satisfied with what I do accomplish. For example, this weekend I aimed to finish my Hallowe’en decorating. Didn’t even start. I constantly visualize one of the best moms I know and berate myself for not being more like her, but at the same time, the logical part of my brain is fighting back to tell me what I am doing well and why I should not be ashamed or feel inferior. That particular mom doesn’t have a mental illness. That particular mom hasn’t gone through the money troubles we have experienced. That particular mom has gone through her own battles, faced her own demons, and for her own personal reasons, has gained victory. Maybe I’m just jealous of that and I want my own battles to be over. Could be a form of battle fatigue — maybe I could call it “life fatigue”.

I remember my mother giving me full control over decorating for Hallowe’en, and not understanding why she didn’t want to do it. Now I know…it’s just not on my to-do list of things that must be done. What I am supposed to be doing — housework, marking, shopping — those things aren’t be done either. And the whole avoidance makes me feel ashamed all over again, so I shrink further into my shell and keep avoiding until every dish is dirty, the clean laundry threatens to topple over in its mountain, and/or people are coming to the house so clean is a must.

I miss decorating for Hallowe’en.

I miss setting up for Samhain.

I miss my enthusiasm. It’s there, just dampened.

I once had a conversation with two of my colleagues and friends (one of whom was the above super-mom), about the point of Hallowe’en. The points of view were a) it’s all about spending money on candy and costumes, which is a waste, and b) it’s the Devil’s holiday, so if anything, the candy and costumes are the main focal point to take power away from the skulls and gore. My perspective is Pagan, Wiccan, witchy, and anthropological: we need a day in the fall to blow off some steam. It was once the Devil’s night, yes — after months of hard work, harvesting, preparing for winter, young people would perform acts of mischief like tipping outhouses and soaping windows. Kids needed that release, and some adults did as well. It still happens in places, when eggs are thrown or trees toilet papered.

Pagans and Wiccans of all stripes recognize Samhain as the night when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, and it’s important to remember those who have passed on. The traditions in this sense cross many cultural boundaries, and the food that is shared represents honouring the dead, feeding hungry spirits that come to the door, appeasing evil spirits wishing to do mischief, and I think, sharing the bounty of one’s harvest.

Today, the costumes and decorations and candy are mainly symbolic of cultures long dead. How many of us really believe that children in masks will frighten away spirits on the streets, or that the jack’o’lantern will protect the home? Why do we buy sugary junk to fill their sacks? I think it’s a remnant of the community spirit of making sure that all have enough before winter. We have our Thanksgivings, an official harvest festival of light and warmth and nourishing food — Hallowe’en / Samhain is another, celebrating the coming darkness with noise, colour, sweets, and candlelight. As the trees bare their skeletal arms to the sky, the rain and snow chill the air, the plants wither and die, those of us with depression (and even those who are not) are brought to thoughts of death, loss, and loneliness. Death is a solitary thing, after all. So at Hallowe’en, we push back our fears of death by poking fun at it, admonishing it by taking control of it with decorative skulls, gravestones, ghost stories, and gifts to those who represent the dead. If we laugh at what we fear, it has less control over us (or so we would like to believe). Hallowe’en is a powerful psychological device in helping us to deal with our fears. It’s a necessary device, I think.

Which brings me back to my shadows.

One of them is always money, because there is never enough. We live constantly in debt, which is a long story; my wish to indulge in Hallowe’en is necessarily curtailed by budget. I am perfectly capable of whipping up papier-mâché bats and spiders, sewing costumes from clothing remnants, etc., but I find it difficult as an adult with two children to raise. Much easier when I was single and a dependent. When I was a teenager and a young married wife, I envisioned my house changing with the seasons — throw pillows, blankets, tableware, towels, even the pictures on the walls changed to reflect each turn of the wheel of the year. We’re not even close to that goal. But I take out that dream, every October, and December with the approach of Yule, and I polish it. Maybe I should print it and post it on my fridge.

My dreams keep the shadows away.

Thy Will Be Done — Available Now!

http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Eclipse-16–Monthly-ebook/dp/B009M53KXI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349751303&sr=8-1&keywords=Dark+Eclipse+16

So proud of this one — if you’re a fan of history, witches, the Salem witch trials, or vengeance against those who commit crimes against humanity, you’re going to love this…

Available for Kindle or Nook. Tell me what you think — I love hearing from readers!