Not in Kansas Anymore by Christine Wicker

From its title, I was expecting this book to be a closely researched journalistic investigation into desperate housewives dabbling with voodoo, the kind of objective, detached inquiry you might find in the New York Times Magazine. In some ways, it’s actually a lot more than this; in other ways, however, it’s somewhat less.

At its best, Not in Kansas Anymore is an intelligent, thoughtful work, whose most interesting and original chapters are less anecdotal than analytic. In these chapters, in the spirit of her epigraph from William James, Christine Wicker engages in a serious way with the vital significance of faith, folklore and superstition in everyday life, the complications of enchantment, and relationship between empiricism and magic thinking. She examines how the desire to escape the limited confines of our mental and physical routines fuels much of ordinary human life, leading to a wide spectrum of activity, thought, and language devoted to the exploration of other dimensions of existence. Like religion and fantasy, explains Wicker, magic is appealing because it gives shape and form to our strong intuition that there’s more to life than the reality that surrounds us. The author navigates her way through these intricate ideas so smoothly, giving instances that are so obvious and straightforward, that she makes it easy to understand how the things we take for granted are actually complex philosophical assumptions.

The less interesting chapters of the book are those describing the author’s adventures and the people she meets during the course of her investigations. She spends time in Salem, Massachusetts attending the Vampire and Victims Ball; she visits the proprietress of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company in Forestville, California; she befriends a vampire queen in New Hampshire; a rootworker in Florida, and a voodoo priestess in New Orleans. None of these sages appear to be especially holy or enlightened; in fact, they feel rather familiar, perhaps because, these days, “interesting characters” are grist for the mill that churns out “human interest” documentaries for HBO and the Independent Film Channel. Still, it’s hard not to be infected by Wicker’s constant good spirits; she seems bravely determined to see the best in everyone, make the most of every encounter. Self-deprecating, honest, and personable, she’s like your favorite fun aunt.

Perhaps the worst thing about this book is its title, which is misleading in so many ways. The phrase “not in Kansas anymore” is normally used, as it is in The Wizard of Oz, to refer to territory that’s utterly, uncannily different. It’s also used, in the David Lynch sense, to suggest that if you peel back the surface of the most ordinary domestic circumstance, you’ll find all kinds of bizarre goings-on underneath. Yet there’s nothing different about the places Wicker visits. They may be geographically located in California, Massachusetts, Florida, and New Hampshire, but the folk she meets live in the kind of ordinary, suburban tract homes and trailer parks you find all over the country. The point about Wicker’s book, it seems to me, is that you don’t need to peel back the surface at all — today’s bedroom occultists and kitchen mystics are part of ordinary life, co-existing, often amicably, with Baptists, Presbyterians, and Atheists. One of the book’s main points, surely, is that nobody’s making a secret of this stuff any more. There’s nothing here about what “your neighbors aren’t telling you.” Actually, most of the people Wicker interviews about the “dark arts” can’t seem to shut up about it.

Christine Wicker is a former religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, and Not in Kansas Anymore is billed as a “hunt to find what’s authentic and what’s not in America’s burgeoning magical reality.” The book’s title and jacket description refer to “magic”, never “religion”, although many of the belief systems Wicker investigates are, in fact, ancient religions, and are clearly considered sacred by those who practice them. She addresses this overlap clearly and at length, but her focus appears to blur when she includes groups like the Otherkin — people who claim to be elves and werewolves in human form. It’s not clear how the Otherkin differ from fantasy role-playing fans, or those who inhabit avatars within virtual communities online. If Wicker is making the case that this fascination with another, special realm — attained by only a select few, with its own rules and rulers — is the same impulse as that driving mainstream religions, I wish she’d had the courage to flesh out her full argument, and follow its implications, wherever they might lead. Then we really wouldn’t be in Kansas anymore.