Witchcraft takes on many forms and perspectives in various works of literature. It finds its origins in folklore and myths, it carries the traits of gothic and horror, but it is also used in satire and comedy, and undoubtedly plays a major role in fantasy. The mystical and supernatural have always been associated with all things dark, scary, and evil. However, the representation of witches and magic has developed through time, leaving outdated stereotypes behind. The aesthetics of horror, the weird, grotesque, and everything else different from normal reality have switched from being repulsive and feared to being attractive. Eventually, witches transform into the protagonists of the story and make witchcraft seem appealing.
Witchcraft in Literature 101 will be divided into seven different chapters:
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Gothic Tendencies in Lives of the Mayfair Witches
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Feminism in Witches Series and Good Omens
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Wonders of Magic in Harry Potter
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Retelling Mythology in Circe
Gothic Tendencies in Lives of the Mayfair Witches
Horror has roots in folklore and religious traditions, however, as a literary genre, its rise began with the Gothic literature of the late 18th century. Early Gothic writers, like Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, introduced the elements of gore and grotesque in their fiction, which allowed the later ones, namely Edgar Allan Poe, to use these properties in the exploration of extreme psychological states (Mullan, 2014, para. 6). Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker created their famous monsters guided by the same fascination with fear. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains, “the monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy […], giving them life and an uncanny independence” (Cohen, 1996, p. 4). Witches, vampires and other fantastic creatures – ghosts, demons, angels, or the Devil himself – all represent the mysterious and irrational part of common reality. Consequently, witchcraft and the supernatural have always been attached to horror; however, its modern representation within the Gothic fiction has evolved, as did the genre itself. The legacy of the Gothic literature lives on in the works of modern writers, like Anne Rice, as her trilogy Lives of the Mayfair Witches (1990-1994) is characterised by the most distinctive traits of the genre.
Anne Rice (1941-2021) is an American writer, whose fiction belongs to the supernatural, horror, and gothic literature. She is mainly known for her series of The Vampire Chronicles (1976-2018), with the debut novel Interview with the Vampire (1976) establishing her as a prominent author. Rice's fiction is rather distinct within the horror genre, because interpersonal relationships are much more important for her stories than scaring the readers. Her controversial representation of the monsters as vulnerable, emotional and thus sympathetic to readers, recalls Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), “where the loneliness of the creature permeates our fear of him” (Karadanaian, 2022, para. 5). Besides the occult and the suspense, romance is another essential characteristic of Rice’s fiction. Her work follows the traditions of the Female Gothic, a term introduced by Ellen Moers to describe the movement within the Gothic literature defined mainly by Ann Radcliffe's fiction (Moers, 1985), – a tendency perhaps best illustrated in the first novel of the Mayfair trilogy, The Witching Hour.
The Witching Hour (1990), Lasher (1993), and Taltos (1994) are the three books of Rice’s series about witches. The story is set in New Orleans and chronicles the Mayfair family history since the 17th century when the Scottish witch, Suzanne Mayfair, was burnt at the stake. Suzanne summoned an evil spirit, Lasher, who became her loyal and possessive demon. From then on, in each generation of the Mayfair family a woman is born, who has a power to see, communicate and command Lasher, according to the pact that the spirit made with Suzanne, whom he promised to love and serve faithfully (Rice, 1993). This person, being the most powerful witch, is acknowledged as the designee of the Mayfair’s legacy, who inherits the family mansion and the money capital, but also a necklace with an emerald gemstone that symbolises the role and binds the witch to Lasher. Under the influence of Lasher, the Mayfairs become powerful and wealthy; though, together with the legacy, passing a family curse for the future generations. The main part of the Mayfair’s chronicles is presented in the first novel as a documented investigation done by the secret supernatural order, Talamasca. It follows the countless tragedies of the family in its detail, such as “drink, rape, revenge, inexplicable pregnancy, sudden death, crazed children and occasional murder” (Theroux, 1994, para. 6). Lasher’s main goal is to become flesh again and to step into the human world, for which purpose he haunts the family and awaits for the thirteenth witch of the family line – the one who is capable of making his ambitions come true. The plot in the present time focuses on Rowan Mayfair, the successor of the legacy and the thirteenth witch, and follows her struggle with the evil spirit, while she attempts to prevent Lasher from entering the human world and fails to do so.
Whereas in the earlier representations of the genre a castle was a traditional place for the setting of a story, Lives of the Mayfair Witches unfolds in a great plantation mansion in Louisiana. While the wealth of the family grows, the mansion appears rich, beautiful, fashionably decorated, and welcoming for the family members. However, when Rowan arrives at the mansion for the first time, after discovering her belonging to the Mayfairs, she enters an old, decaying, abandoned house (Rice, 1993). This moment of the protagonist’s arrival echoes Poe’s House of Usher, where the melancholic and gloomy scenery of the decaying house almost acts as a character itself, mirroring the story of its owners (Poe, 1839). Mayfair mansion is generally described as an “unsettling place”, where portraits and shadows seem to be alive and dark repulsive secrets are hidden, like a chest with dolls made of bone and hair, or a collections of human heads conserved in the jars (Rice, 1993, pp. 701-713). The house is also full of ghosts of the previous owners who, just like in any other gothic novel, disrupt the "sense of what is present and what is past” (Bowen, 2014, para. 4). Through the novel Rice brings up the analogies to the similar mysterious houses herself, making the allusion to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). The setting is a very important element in the Gothic genre, as a story is meant to be reflected in its architectural surroundings.
It is common for the characters in Gothic fiction to find themselves in a strange place, “somewhere other, different, mysterious. It is often threatening or violent, sometimes sexually enticing, often a prison” (Bowen, 2014, para. 2). The Mayfair mansion becomes all of those things for the different characters through the novels. Sexuality, being a recurring theme in Gothic texts, has a purpose to provoke and shock the readers, invoking psychologically disturbing feelings through the stories, which can include the themes of “perversion, obsession, voyeurism and sexual violence” (Bowen, 2014, para. 5). In the novels, Lasher, being an incubus spirit, enters into a sexual relationship with each of the thirteen witches; however, he either rapes them, or subdues them to his will, turning their nature evil within time. The spirit has an appearance of a tall, slim figure with brown eyes and dark hair. Described as a handsome man, he seduces the witches with his seemingly sensitive and compassionate nature, hiding his wicked motives.
Mainly through the Lasher’s influence, the Mayfair family has a history of forbidden love, incest, necrophilia, and rape between their members, as “unconventional love seem to be the norm in Gothic novels” (Van Gorp, 1998, p. 17). Incest "was the least of their sins, but the greatest of their schemes”, as Rowan discovers in the first novel: the unnatural relations between the family members has served a purpose to “strengthen the line, to double up the powers, to purify the blood, to birth a cunning and terrible witch in each generation” (Rice, 1993, p. 699). It is safe to assume that if the house embodies the history of the Mayfairs, then Lasher, the spirit who has inhabited the place, can be seen as a representation of the family trauma, which is an essential trope in Gothic novels.
Witchcraft in general has a rich representation in Rice’s series, as she introduces her witches as the protagonists of the story. A definition of a witch is stated in the novel as “a person who can attract and manipulate unseen forces”, as the most powerful Mayfair witch in each generation is bound to Lasher (Rice, 1993, p. 250). Most of the witches in the series demonstrate psychic abilities to read minds, to foresee the future, to be at a few places at the same time; a few of them possess the gift of healing, just like Rowan who became a neurosurgeon. The women of the Mayfair family, portrayed in The Witching Hour, are described as powerful witches and strong independent women, who appear to have humane struggles and relatable issues, which makes most of them sympathetic characters.
Not all of the witches are good, as some of them turned evil when they submitted to the Lasher’s will. The last women in the line, being Rowan’s closest ancestors, attempt to resist the evil spirit and die young in tragic circumstances. Their narrative lines, just like Rowan’s in the present time, are closely tied to the regular Gothic trope, where the central figure in the novel is “a young woman who is simultaneously a persecuted victim and courageous heroine” (Moers, 1985, p. 91). Rowan tries to resist the monster but fails, once he succeeds in seducing her and makes her abandon her husband. In this way Lasher appears as a stereotypical Gothic villain, who “seeks to entrap the heroine, usurp the great house, and threatens death or rape” (Milbank, 1998, p. 121). It is debatable whether Rice’s portrayal of women can be considered as feminist, but it is doubtless that her story follows the traditional Gothic novel tropes. While witches were not the protagonists in classical Gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, considering the views on witchcraft in that time frame, the situation has completely changed. The modern representation of the figure of the witch “has gained presence in gothic fiction and horror”, becoming a commonly used character (Brugué, 2017, p. 10).
Lives of the Mayfair Witches can be seen as a great example of modern Gothic literature. It owns some of the essential elements of the Gothic story, such as an unsettling mysterious house, a strange family with its ghosts and dark secrets, unnatural love, an ancient prophecy, a female heroine in distress and a villain who attempts to usurp her (Brugué, 2017, p. 3). Rice follows many tendencies from the previous Gothic texts, “blending what has worked successfully in the past as formula with a very personal, contemporary voice that engages important modern-day issues” (Hoppenstand and Browne, 1996, p.7). Her literary work is often subversive and shocking, aiming to attack social taboos and reveal psychologically disturbing issues. However, it is not the supernatural elements of the story that are so scary, but rather the struggles of the protagonists and the horrors that can be concealed in one’s inner world. Rice’s fiction takes on a dark but extremely fascinating perspective on witchcraft. In her work witches become mysterious, attractive, controversial, and very humane characters, who find their central role in modern Gothic and horror fiction.
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Figure 1: An evil spirit's reflection in the mirror. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://ru.pinterest.com/pin/13018286416906968/
Figure 2: Victorian Gothic House. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/768848967605359517/
Figure 3: Mysterious figure on the stairs. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://ru.pinterest.com/pin/714735403378876386/
Figure 4: Moira, G. (1892). The Silent Voice. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q99323179
Figure 5: Gray, J. (2018). Victorian Witches. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://jengrayart.artstation.com/projects/kYLZl