That Old, Black Thaumaturgy: Scott Snyder’s “Wytches”

Wytches marks a radically important turning point in Scott Snyder's evolution as a writer. And thereby hangs a tale…

I love reading the Afterword of Wytches, so much, it’s almost more of a thrill than reading the actual first issue…almost. In the folds of “Who Would You Pledge?,” writer Scott Snyder unravels a tale of childhood innocence and hubris against the backdrop of an unremitting and unforgiving naturalistic expanse, rife with the kind of dark spaces easily animated by children’s imaginations. As a kid whose parents were word about encroaching urban values, Snyder’s parents bought a lake house in the Kentucky backwoods (Virginia? Pennsylvania? Who knows, but the exact location is there in that enthralling Afterword). And a neighbor kid, Ryan, who shared Young Scott’s brio and fear, quickly became a comrade-in-arms joining in searches of the backwood for evidence of witches.

It’s arguably Snyder at his most moving in this Afterword—the idea that innately there was the sustained belief that witches were somehow part of the natural order. And beyond that even, that kids could mount expeditions into the unknown dark, a kind of archaeology at kids-eye level, to uncover “evidence of witches,” in the same way other kids across the nation dug up Old West bullets or arrowheads.

And all those things that made Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon so great—a little girl lost in a dark wood armed with nothing but a baseball game playing over an oldtimey transistor radio; the fear and the lurking dread? This story is the exact opposite of that, it is the wild and the brio and the boyhood-esque tilting at the world from King’s “The Body,” and Rob Reiner’s movie based on the same, Stand By Me. Snyder’s story is this secret, darker-than-you’d-imagine lives of children exploring a haunted naturalistic landscape. And having the hubris to believe that they can come out unscathed from seeking witches. Classic horror, classic Snyder, purely beautiful, hauntingly so.

So when we get to the actual turn of horror, a fearful encounter experienced by both Ryan and Snyder, but experienced some 20, 25 years apart, our enthusiasm for the story, and our compassion for Snyder is at an all time high. Snyder sees this thing himself, a quarter lifetime on, but what Ryan sees is a witch, not in human form, but closer to a human-shaped tree-like figure, its bark twisted and gnarled by evil and dark and centuries. Of it wasn’t real. Snyder didn’t really see something like that. But just as seeing that figure triggered the end of Young Scott and Ryan’s adventures into the backwood, so too did “seeing” this figure trigger another turning point for Snyder—writing this book and returning to work with artist Jock (Snyder and Jock last worked together on Detective, back when Bruce Wayne was still missing and Dick Grayson was still temping for him), and returning to creator-owned work.

So it’s this story of seeing a witch (a witch unlike any other witch you could ever imagine, a witch made from the environment it lurks within) being a kind of turning point for Snyder, this story that’s buried deep in the narrative DNA of Wytches, that cues up a different question—is Wytches itself a kind of turning point for Snyder? A, y’know, turning point in his evolution as a writer?

Wytches is the story of young Sailor Rooks, “Sail,” and her cartoonist dad Charlie and her handicapable mom Lucy who live in a little house at the edge of the forest, quietly eking out a livelihood. It’s the story of the Wytches, the witches-who-are-the-trees, who inhabit this wood, and it’s the story of bloodlines and secret, dark rituals and covens pledging oaths far from the bright lights of the cities. From the overture that chronicles a small chapter of the Cray family back in 1919, the disturbing elements are clear enough—that family member will turn on family member, that the act of pledging (even though it isn’t explained clearly enough yet) is forever, and that the evil that lurks and sometimes erupts, erupts through nature, rather than against it. The oldtimey word for which (oldtimey in this instance going back to the Dark Ages, rather than back to the Civil War or before) was thaumaturgy—the word for when magic and miracles are enacted through nature, rather than against it.

Wytches, at this point, is just a pleasure to read. Snyder starts of with the dictionary definition and works his way forward from there. The act of that definition being adulterated, in an attempt to delete the meaning, tells you everything you need to know about this book. Definitions are incantations and recitations of the familiar, they are the known, the safe, the predictable, repeated with such regularity, that it becomes mundane.

Between that really powerful opening of the profane incantation of a dictionary entry being besmirched so as to be deleted, and young Timmy ensuring his mom remains “pledged” to the Wytches, you feel like you’re in good hands. You feel like its the start of American Vampire all over again. And why shouldn’t you? Because you can already sense that there’s something big and momentous in the works with Wytches, and you can sense that its going to be worth the time and effort you put into American Vampire.

Wytches certainly lives up to those expectations and then some. The Rooks family dynamic is exactly what you’d expect from Snyder—atypical and deeply engaging. You’ve got Dad Charlie educating daughter Sail in the various genealogies and kryptonites of mythical monsters (as if these are a real threat) while waiting on the school bus, only to have Sail suddenly flip the script and suggest Wile E. Coyote cartoon style violence. A kooky, hipster dad who feels like the best kind of Snyder character; the kind of dad with a tattoo of the magic ferris wheel from his own cartoon strip on his arm, who’s open to the sudden wonder of nature that occurs when a deer wanders indoors into his production studio. And a uniquely-dressed free-thinking young girl who’s ready to take on the world, because she has the support of her family. It’s the kind of family you get the sense Snyder wanted to cast the Bat-Family as during his epic “Death of the Family” arc in Batman.

In an Iconographies interview a fistful of dollars short of two years back now, Snyder suggested, “In terms of a personal signature in relation to vulnerability, it’s hugely important and it’s probably the thing I spend the most time on before I begin any of the arcs. So I have to know what it’s deeply about for Bruce each time. Whether or not he’s explicit and says to the reader, this is what it’s about, I have to know what it’s about. Whether Bruce realizes it or not. Even the end is not necessarily as important as whether you the reader sees what his gone through. This story, the Joker story is deeply personal to me, and a lot of the time I think, the way I approach Batman is about locating where Bruce in the trajectory of continuity. Meaning, he should be confident, he’s got this wonderful family around him, he hasn’t got any threats around him, Joker’s disappeared: so at the beginning of ‘Court of Owls’, Bruce is in a great place.”

It’s a statement about the extreme importance Snyder, as a thinker and as a writer, places on the idea of family. And it’s family that becomes the driving force of Wytches in the same way that the vampire myth was the driving force behind American Vampire. And how good was American Vampire? Much as you’d expect, there were vampires. But what you didn’t expect, what you couldn’t foresee, was that the vampire myth would be leveraged to explore the birth of American exceptionalism. How the vampire myth would be used to explore the story of how America conducted itself from being primarily inward-looking (more or less up until the Civil War) to becoming a world power (more or less with being ushered into the 20th Century).

That’s really, always been a powerful note in Snyder’s storytelling—his adaptive ability with using the genre elements of horror to work towards a kind of literary fiction level that transcends genre altogether. And, heroically as an artist, it’s exactly this structure of family that Snyder goes after in Wytches. Because Sail isn’t all that she seems. But then again, neither is Charlie, nor for that matter Lucy. It’s not quite clear, but you can pretty easily get the sense that Charlie and Lucy are aware of Sail, if not being “pledged,” then somehow being being promised to those things in the forest. But are Sail’s parents going along with that, or in some way educating their daughter to resist?

Then there’s Sail herself. That memory she has of Annie, her erstwhile bully, getting eaten by the Wytches speaks directly to the horror that Snyder’s hoping craft with the book. It’s not the horror of the supernatural, it’s the horror of how easily you can come into mortal danger in your everyday dealings, how a bully can pull a gun on you and threaten to sexually violate you. And the idea that it’s that kind of mortal danger that the horror of the Wytches responds to, the idea that some how physical danger from the real world opens you up to supernatural threats. That’s the real horror. And. And, it’s a scene that Snyder crafts almost flawlessly. And it’s arguably the weakest part of the book.

Here’s why.

A little while ago, back in our very first review of American Vampire, a review of an issue containing a short story by Stephen King, I bemoaned what I identified as King being “ecliptic” of Snyder’s reinvigoration of the vampire genre. I was counseled that there was no intent on King’s part to upstage Snyder, that instead, King had hoped to use his popularity to help spotlight American Vampire. For my part, I was just eager to read more Snyder comicbooks, like King’s his is a singular creative mind, and already back then, I wanted more.

Part of the reason I was able to read a “schism” between King’s and Snyder’s writings, was that the two are two very different creative minds. Their different treatments of the two chapters that comprise the opening issue of American Vampire is evidence of that. Snyder uses genre as a means of exploring our inherent vulnerabilities that manifest with our hubris, King conventionally explores how traditional social institutions (like capital punishment in The Green Mile, say) make us vulnerable to the inherent evil and darkness in the world. Both are enjoyable, both make for thought-provoking existential horror. But both are qualitatively different. If I had to make a choice, I’d choose both, because why live in a bargain basement world that’s filled with less than what you could have had?

With Wytches, Snyder makes a promise. He makes a promise in that scene where we wait on the bus with Sail and her kooky hipster dad, he makes a promise when that unnamed Asian girl warns Sail about that that professor is a serial sexual harasser, he makes a promise in the Afterword, when he writes about Ryan and Young Scott braving the words in a children’s crusade of witch archaeology armed with nothing more psychologically vivid than Louisville sluggers with nails driven through them. The promise made is that we’re getting a classic piece of Snyder-esque fiction fueled by hubris-driven protagonists and mad quests into a dark that is far bigger and more fearsome than we.

But that’s not what we’re getting. And honestly, no problem there, writers evolve. Writers, want to, underline want, evolve. And we should. If we’re like Snyder, we’ll take our old audience with us as we do evolve, and even so build a new core around ourselves. But with that immensely powerful scene where Annie pulls a gun on Sail and threatens to sexually violate her, we’ve wandered into territory that’s pure Stephen King. And in the compass orientation that was true for the me back in 2010, up is down and black is white, here. Because for 2010-me, the difference between Snyder and King is stark and clear. And now, not five years gone, we’re living in a world where Snyder’s emulating King. And even that, even that is still cool. Because, and it took a writer the quality of Jorge Luis Borges to remind us, as writers, we create our own precursors. And if Snyder wants to emulate King, then I’m coming along for the ride. And so are you. Because Snyder’s a great writer, miles ahead of all but a few writers of this generation, and King’s a great writer. So there’s no downside here. There’s no “problem” in Snyder working through the same themes as King.

But here’s what is different. Snyder doesn’t connect this scene that’s pure Sometimes They Come Back, pure Carrie, in its theme, with institutionalized vulnerability of the human spirit. At least not in the way King connects Pennywise with the kind of lives people in Derry have been living, like in IT, or connect the harsh yearning for the past the people of Jerusalem’s Lot experience with the vampires that eventually come to bedevil them in Salem’s Lot. Snyder just doesn’t make that kind of connection. Annie isn’t purely evil to Sail because somehow the world has positioned her to be, or because somehow the way we live our lives has positioned her to be, or because somehow school has positioned her to be. She’s evil, kinda, just because.

And therein, directly in that moment of not-quite-King, lies the remarkable promise of Snyder’s Wytches. Because Snyder’s walking down the road of the same themes as King, but he’s not unraveling them in the same way. So what he’s done effectively, is recast Stephen King as Frank Miller, and use Wytches to tackle Miller’s Batman: Year One as he just recently did with his own Batman: Zero Year. Snyder’s brought the aesthetic sensibilities of comics storytelling to horror fiction. Tell me how that isn’t the best of things this Halloween season?