[24 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“Once witches slip in ... they’re hard to get rid of.”
All truly great stories are told one sentence at a time. Very early on in Witches On The Road Tonight author Sheri Holman (The Dress Lodger) lets her readers know that this is a truly great story.
“She knows Tucker is Southern before he opens his mouth, by the way he spends the evening saying goodbye without ever leaving.”
It’s a simple sentence in its way, so perfect and succinct, but it’s also so full of information, so utterly evocative, that for a moment it’s hard to imagine there could be a more wonderful sentence in the whole of the English language. Luckily, there’s another on the very next page and many more on the pages that follow!
Witches On The Road Tonight is the tale of three generations of sorcery. It’s really three stories woven together by their shared secrets to form a tapestry of consequences. The first thread begins in post-Depression, pre-WWII Appalachia.
A writer, Tucker, and his photographer girlfriend, Sonia, drive a rural road on assignment documenting local history for the government. Suddenly a boy is struck down in the car’s path. Although the child, Eddie, insists he’s not hurt, Tucker and Sonia feel guilty and insist on taking him home. Home is “this isolated shack, roofed with flattened Pennzoil cans, the chinks of its windows stuffed with dirty rags…” It sits high in the hills, hidden in the woods, on the edge of a precipice. Eddie lives there with his mother, Cora. His father is away, also working for the government, building Skyline Drive.
To make amends, and to assuage his conscience while they wait for Cora to return from foraging for ginseng, Tucker brings a hand-cranked projector from the car to show Eddie the first horror film ever made. It’s Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein. Eddie’s life is forever altered. He will eventually run away and get into television, becoming the beloved Captain Casket, the host of a horror show for kids. But first, Cora comes home to find strangers in her house with her son. She reluctantly offers Tucker and Sonia lodging for the night, and the reluctantly accept. Sonia is much more reluctant than Tucker, who sees the situation as an example of southern hospitality which they cannot refuse without offense.
However, Tucker’s in for more than hospitality. He has a life-altering horror show of his own that night, finding himself in the woods, transformed into a “milky beast with flaring nostrils and the rolling eyes of a horse,” being ridden by a “vision of blood and sinew.” This is, of course, Cora, who has slipped out of her skin to seduce him. Sorcery runs in the family, you see. “Once witches slip in,” she explains the next day, “they’re hard to get rid of.”
Holman’s gifts for Gothic prose and palpable details are what make scenes such as Cora’s midnight ride so riveting and realistic, but it’s Holman’s ability to ride that line between supernatural sensationalism and everyday occurrences that carries readers’ enthusiasm along on the characters’ unfolding paths. She transitions fluidly from Eddie’s childhood memories to those of Captain Casket’s grown daughter, Wallis, a news anchor with much of her father’s determination, many of her grandmother’s talents and a lot of family secrets.
Witches on the Road Tonight often shifts from childhood perceptions to youthful recollections and adult perspectives; from Cora to Eddie to Wallis and from adolescent Wallis to elderly Eddie; from mid-20th century rural Virginia, to the suburban ‘80s and modern day Manhattan. Some of these shifts settle better than others; 80-year-old Eddie is not as engaging as his earlier incarnations; Adult Wallis doesn’t sparkle on the page like her adolescent self does. This may be because Holman, like most storytellers, is more at home in the magical environs of the memory.
For the most part, the flaws of her here-and-nows don’t detract from her fantastically vivid there-and-thens, rather they serve to highlight them. Could Holman have spent more time with eight-year-old Eddie or 12-year-old Wallis? Yes. Might she have explored certain characters, such as Sonia, more before moving on? Sure. Would we have liked to have had more adventures in the dark woods with Cora? Of course. Who doesn’t want to slip out of her skin and revel in the moonlight every once in a while?
These are not complaints, nor are they necessarily faults. Even truly great stories have some threads that unravel to reveal small holes in the fabric. That doesn’t mean the big picture can’t still be beautiful. It can, in fact, be breath-taking.
With a tale this deliciously imaginative and the telling of it so delightfully descriptive, Holman has crafted not only a mesmerizing and complex story, but she’s created something that is truly a pleasure to read. Let Witches on the Road Tonight slip in and weave its magic in your mind, it will leave you spellbound.