“Witchcraft is like the Indian idea of Karma. Bad magic will come back to harm its maker.”
That’s the premise behind Scott A. Lerner’s latest paranormal thriller as he explores the guilt still hovering over the American consciousness when it comes to the Salem Witch Trials. In the seventeenth century, innocent women were put to death because of mass hysteria. Mob rule took over when fear, not justice, became the driving force in a community that was struggling to hold on at the edge of the wilderness. The idea that evil could take human form wasn’t so hard to believe—be it a mother, a sister, an aunt, a neighbor. Evil was a very real concept to them, with the threat of Indian attack ever present and the deep, dark woods casting a formidable shadow upon their fledgling attempt at building a civilization. It’s their close ties to nature that many believed gave the Salem witches their power.
“Some Wiccans think of nature itself as a deity and that everything around us holds magic within it. Kind of like The Force in STAR WARS.”
That’s how Lerner explains the Wiccan religion to the casual reader. He’s not looking to provide a history lesson instead he shares some interesting nuggets of information about why women who consider themselves witches have been feared for generations. He debunks the pointy hats and riding on broomsticks, even while giving a nod to pop culture references like the TV show CHARMED and Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” but his tone doesn’t trivialize what many consider to be a way of life. Instead, he shines a light on Wiccan practices and traditions, illuminating them for the reader through the context of his story.
“To open a hole in the world that separated the living from the dead, blood was always required.”
Samhain, otherwise known as Halloween, is one of the most important dates on the Wiccan calendar. It’s when communication with the dead becomes most likely. And Lerner delves into that concept using the idea of Blood Thorns, a plant with a Venus flytrap mentality. But instead of flies, it eats young, helpless children. Surviving on their blood, it produces a type of fruit that resembles the shape of a baby in the fetal position, a fruit that can only be harvested on Halloween.
“At this time of year, the veil between the living and the dead would be at its thinnest.”
In Lerner’s tale, cultivating Blood Thorns is strictly forbidden within the Wiccan community. The penalty for growing them is death. It’s not until a woman “with long black hair that fell to her waist and intense blue eyes like a Siamese cat’s,” is accused of seeking to reap its rewards, that another trial is conducted, this time pitting witch against witch. Why would anyone take such a risk in growing Blood Thorns? What could the benefit possibly be?
It turns out Bridget Gillis, the witch in question, is a direct descendent of one of the village’s founding members, Bridget Bishop, a name synonymous with the Salem Witch Trials as the first woman executed. While Lerner’s Bishop doesn’t claim any direct ties to Salem, he does have her fleeing London for America in order to establish a utopia of sorts for those seeking to practice their craft. She chooses a spot smack dab in the middle of Illinois farm country, where for over a hundred years its residents have coexisted peacefully beside their Amish neighbors—until now. The bones beneath the Blood Thorns are believed to be from missing Amish children, the young victims of an abhorrent sacrifice.
Lerner skillfully employs the misconceptions that surround the occult to aid his plot. He introduces Cotton Mather, one of the Salem elders who allowed the witch trials to get out of hand. He appears in a dream-like state, talking to the book’s main character and advising him to play on the emotions of the audience–just like he did. Lerner has Mather express remorse for what happened in Salem, but refuses to pass judgement on a time and place so very different from his own.
Lerner is not an advocate of the death penalty, and he makes his position clear in the story. Being a lawyer, he’s well aware of the mistakes that can occur through forced confessions and of the acquittals that have been handed down thanks to DNA testing. He writes the novel from that viewpoint and never deviates from it. Lerner also argues that cases where a child victim is involved are often impossible to defend against, since the sympathies of the jury usually end up swaying in favor of the prosecution.
Everyone wants to see the bad guys punished. Even if the bad guys are women. Even if the bad guys are innocent.
The point Lerner is trying to make is that the Salem of the 1600s is not so very far removed from the America of today. The ingredients for this particular spell are one and the same. Add a dash of prejudice to a cauldron of ignorance. Skim the surface for any remaining trace of logic or reasoning. Stir until simmering, and serve with a side of fear.