Witches, Demons, Mystics: When Writers Cross the Supernatural Line
Is There Such a Thing as Magical Realist Non-Fiction?
It is an excellent time to be a reader of nonfiction. This year has brought more stunning examples of the form: Margo Jefferson, Wendy S. Walters, and Maggie Nelson blending formal risk-taking with haunting emotional honesty; Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly and powerfully addressing race in America; Jessica Hopper delivering a collection of vital criticism; and Heidi Julavits and Sarah Manguso remixing the writer’s diary into something profound and strange. But what happens when the subject matter of a soberly written nonfiction work is itself impossible to quantify?
We live in a stranger world than we’d like to imagine. And without channeling some sort of New Journalism Fox Mulder or engaging in a version of the Mysteries of the Unknown series for the National Book Awards set, it’s worth pointing out that writers wrangling with the supernatural in literary non-fiction have a particular set of challenges before them. Three recent books deal with religion, mysticism, and the uncanny–each in different ways, but each through directly engaging with the beliefs and experiences being described. Magic realist nonfiction? Perhaps.
In Alex Mar’s Witches of America, the author’s investigation of several different communities of witches gives way, first to an exploration of occult history and then to Mar’s own growing interest in its relevance to her life. Jen Percy’s Demon Camp explores the psyche of a veteran traumatized by his experiences of war and his guilt over the deaths of several fellow soldiers, and of the religious community that seeks to exorcise some very literal demons from him. And the essays collected in Joni Tevis’s The World Is On Fire grapple, in large part, with the apocalyptic, from the landscapes used for nuclear testing to the cave in which the Book of Revelations was written.
Mar, Percy, and Tevis blend the personal and the social in their works. In all of these books, there’s a focus on communities—whether it’s the followers of an Irish goddess or the residents of a rural town striving to find a future after the loss of an essential part of their economy. All are active presences in their books, sometimes as a participant; at other times, as an observer. But it’s another active presence that makes these works particularly fascinating. All three authors are cerebral stylists, heirs to numerous nonfiction techniques. But there’s also something about these books that suggests an alternate reading of a phrase beloved by Werner Herzog: “ecstatic truth.” More specifically, they use the ecstatic as a way to examine deeply vital questions about the society in which we live.
“October is the time of year, they say, when the veil between the worlds becomes thin and the multitiudes of the dead can reach across to touch you,” Alex Mar writes on the first page of Witches in America. This is no horror novel or ghost story, however—it’s a clear-headed account of numerous subcultures, with an eye towards how they began and of their internal dynamics. Mar delves into a number of excursions into the paranormal in this narrative, sometimes hedging her bets—the presence of the phrase “they say” in the sentence quoted above allows for some distancing, at least at first. But while Witches of America begins as a kind of documentary tour of different approaches to witchcraft—in Mar’s telling, one that arose out of a film project—it ends up turning into something stranger and more personal.
A nod to Paul Bowles early in the book suggests that Mar has her eye on a literary mode that predates New Journalism. As she delves into the history of the communities and practices that she’s documenting, she also notes that certain laws also delve into the supernatural. In a chapter on Gerald Gardner and the origins of Wicca, Mar notes that “in June 1951, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was finally repealed, making it legal for someone to publicly claim that they worked with magick or spirits.” The works collected by Katherine Howe in last year’s anthology The Penguin Book of Witchcraft provide a vast resource for those interested in learning more about witchcraft and the laws of centuries ago.
Throughout the first third or so of Witches of America, Mar is a skeptic, even as she draws closer to the activities about which she’s writing. But slowly, those borders shift; after an unsettling dream, Mar writes, “my curiosity about the Craft refuses to fade.” And soon, a book that had been looking at communities from the outside shifts, becoming instead a more familiar narrative, that of spiritual seeker, albeit in a context less familiar to many a reader. As this shift happens, Mar’s narrative is more open to the possibility of the uncanny, both through her own practice and through the description that others make of astral travel. “I’ve immersed myself in witchcraft circles deeply enough for people to speak to me about such major-mental-leap concepts with the assumption of instant acceptance,” Mar writes. And later, she cites “Leon Festinger’s handy theory of cognitive dissonance” to raise the question of to what extent participants in theoretically mystical experience may simply be talking themselves into believing. Or, in X-Files poster terms, of wanting to believe so hard that you do.
Still: Mar includes some unsettling dreams and visions that she herself had in this narrative, and it’s enough to indicate that Witches of America is more than a survey of communities with unorthodox belief systems across the country. It would be inaccurate to say that this is an evangelical work or an endorsement of the practices described inside, but it’s also something more than a dry survey. A similar approach was taken by Gabby Bess in a recent article for Broadly about the appropriation of Hoodoo practices. Here, too, the tone is neutral, but some of the actions described veer into the paranormal sphere.
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In the first paragraph of Jen Percy’s Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return from War, the reader is introduced to the book’s subject, a veteran named Caleb Daniels. In rapid succession, the reader learns Daniels’s rank, his task in combat, and of the depression that has surrounded him since returning to the United States. Mention is made of suicide attempts, all of which were interrupted, “once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah.” Here, then, the trauma and its manifestations take on a much more intense dimension, one which quickly moves past the hallucinatory.
Demon Camp doesn’t really focus on whether there’s a more scientific, psychological explanation for Daniels’s visions of demons—“this isn’t PTSD,” he tells Percy at one point. Instead, Percy follows him into a community of believers in similar supernatural adversaries, drawing out his own beliefs and expanding on the cosmology under discussion. Percy’s version of Daniels’s description of the demon haunting him is memorable for a number of reasons.
He said it does not represent anything and that it’s like nothing we know here in this world. He said it’s not a metaphor because there are no metaphors for this kind of evil. It was shadow. It was death. It was the gathered souls of all his dead friends.
As Percy follows Daniels, she also becomes increasingly aware of a sense of wrongness. In the book’s first half, we learn of the ominous dreams that follow Daniels around; in its second, we’re also given a sense of the unrest that Percy is feeling. Eventually, she finds herself in conversation with a group of believers in demonic influence, and becomes aware of a presence: “I feel a burning in my spine. Something moving around.” Percy describes this as “my body betraying me,” and—as with Mar’s narrative—questions emerge. Is this evidence of a supernatural entity, or is it a case of something psychological, a body behaving in the way that it’s been conditioned to?
Percy’s focus here is more on Daniels’s wartime experiences and guilt than anything; his relationship to questions of the supernatural also shifts over the course of the book. While his case is an extreme one, and one that provides a window into a very particular community, it’s also (as Percy points out in an afterword) only one of many ways in which wartime experiences can leave someone feeling lost after their return. It’s a particularly harrowing part of a much larger story; for all that this narrative heads into the horrific, Percy doesn’t lose sight of the fact that trauma can take many forms, not all of which lend themselves to narrative treatment.
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The power of ritual, concerns everyday and specific, and the delirious all crop up very early in Joni Tevis’s The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. The first essay focuses on the Sarah Winchester House, a famously eccentric building in California; in it, Tevis juxtaposes questions of artistic intent, economic anxiety, and the unknowable. For the rest of the book, these hang over the proceedings, bringing Tevis and the reader towards a conclusion rooted in both history and the mystical. A trip to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum summons painful memories, which are then juxtaposed with the apocalyptic; nuclear test sites in Nevada are examined with the same eye as a museum abounding with Liberace memorabilia.
Near the end of the book, Tevis, along with her husband and daughter, visit Patmos, Greece—specifically, the Cave of the Apocalypse, where the book of Revelation was written. Tevis vividly describes her own relationship with the religious text in question.
I’d avoided it as an adult but read it as a child, believing it was a foregone conclusion that the world would end soon. Fireballs, nuclear winter, cancer, starvation. We’d make it through the initial blast, I sensed, but would live only to suffer and scrounge for years.
It’s a place where the anxieties of a generation raised during the Cold War collides with a touch of mysticism—Tevis’s book is, in fact, an extended meditation on the different ways that this collision, or this overlap, can take place. Throughout this book, she wrestles with the questions that emerge; whether an apocalypse is carried out through the will of an omniscient deity or as the end result of political conflict, does it matter to those affected? And what sort of art can arise through that anxiety? The World is On Fire is a kind of survey of how the mystical—for good and for bad—can be subsumed into culture and the quotidian nearly every day. And Tevis’s prose moves quickly between the ecstatic and the grounded, raising many unanswerable questions along the way.
That context—of how the mystical can be sublimated into larger cultural questions—is something that all three books reckon with. In Mar’s case, it’s a look at belief systems that avoid Christianity’s focus on sin and damnation; throughout, the question is posed as to what a religion based around acknowledgment and positivity looks like. Which isn’t to say that Mar makes the belief systems she’s writing about seem utopian; at one point, she notes controversies over the “exclusion of transgender women and men” from the Pagan community. And for Percy, the questions she poses are deeply relevant to our society. In her afterword, she cites the aftermath of the First World War as the first time in many Western societies that psychological trauma was acknowledged as something that could affect men. Here, the uncanny isn’t just something that can be relegated to obscure shelves and after-hours television shows—it’s a means by which writers can pose bold questions and find their way into some of the most haunting ambiguity out there.