Evangeline Walton’s “Witch House”

     

I have just finished reading “Witch House”, a Gothic novel by fantasy author Evangeline Walton. Walton is best known for her Mabinogian Tetralogy, a fantasy re-telling of the Welsh Mabinogian, a mediaeval manuscript that contains the mythology of Wales dating back to pre-Christian times.
First published in 1945, “Witch House” bears the distinction of being the first full-length novel to be published by Arkham House, the publishing company created by author August Derleth to collect the works of his friend H.P. Lovecraft into book form. It is also the only foray by Walton into the Gothic genre, not counting the short story “The Chinese Woman” which was published in a 1981 Weird Tales collection and is a prequel to the novel that tells the origin story of the maleficia that resided in Witch House.
When I found out about the existence of the prequel, I stopped reading the novel and sought out “The Chinese Woman”. I was so impressed by the tale of Li Wan, the sixteen year old girl who was sold to Captain Pegleg, an aging salty dog from New England, at a Chinese brothel, which her unsympathetic relatives had sold her to when her father, a local shaman, had passed away.
The captain, a no nonsense man, was a widower who spent his life on the sea to get away from his family, whom he did not get along with. Although way too old for her, he loved Li Wan in his own way and always treated her well despite his family’s outright rejection of his “pagan baggage”. Pegleg’s sons and their respective wives did not care for Li Wan’s ethnicity, non-Christian practices and especially her questionable past. Pegleg’s daughter-in-law, Abigail was so strenuously opposed to Pegleg bringing a “heathen harlot” into the house with her children, she made the whole clan move out of his house while she was there.
Li Wan could not understand how her lord’s family could be so disrespectful to their father. She loved him and bore him a son whom the family promptly took away from her the minute the old captain passed away few years later. Li Wan, seduced by the spirit of the original patriarch, Joseph Quincy, who built the house and infused it with his evil essence after escaping Salem Gaol, during the infamous Salem Witch trials of 1692, placed a curse on the captain’s family, and then committed suicide using a magic knife which was an heirloom from her father. The curse, which included the murder of the male progeny of her stepsons, was accomplished through the use of a spell given to her by Joseph Quincy, who resented his descendant’s rejection of his witchy ways. In this she was also assisted by the boy’s own sister, Sarai, a naughty little creature who aspired to follow in her ancestor’s steps, but whom was very fond of Li Wan and jealous of her brothers. It is Sarai’s spirit, which supposedly haunts Witch House in the novel.
The story picks up right after the death of Aunt Sarai, who took over the house once she was old enough and her relatives had all passed on or moved away. Deciding that she needed to restore the Quincy bloodline, she sought out the grandsons of her young uncle, Li Wan’s little boy, Joseph Lee (Lee being an anglicized spelling of Li) and marry one of them off to their female cousin, Elizabeth Ann Quincy.
Placing the three young people together and keeping them isolated in the house, she was grooming them for coupling when young Elizabeth decided to run away just as things were getting hot and heavy between her and her cousin Joseph, the stronger personality of the two brothers and Elizabeth’s constant companion till that point. Seducing Hugh Stone, a young man from the village, she glamoured him into taking her away from there with the promise of marriage and love. They ran away, got married and had a daughter, Betty-Ann.
It seems that although they went through the motions together, Elizabeth did not really love Hugh, and when they fell on hard times, he despaired and took his own life. Soon after, at the behest of her Aunt Sarai, Elizabeth finally gave in and returned to Witch house with her young daughter, now a precocious young girl of about five or six, from what I gather. By the time they get there, however, Sarai has passed and the will bequeaths all of her wealth and assets to Elizabeth and her two cousins, brothers Joseph and Quincy, under the condition that they all live under the roof of Witch House for nine years straight. From the moment they arrive betty-Ann begins acting out and complaining of being terrorized by Aunt Sarai’s ghost. There are poltergeist type phenomena and things being thrown around rooms as well as pets being killed and all blame Betty-Ann save for her mother. Exasperated, she seeks out the hero of the story, Gaylord Carew (yes, that really is his name) who is a psychologist-healer-mystic of some sort. The bulk of the novel deals with Carew using his extensive occult and psychological knowledge to debunk the supernatural happenings and save Betty-Ann from harm and in the process develop a relationship with Elizabeth.
The supernatural stuff in the book is creepy and the anecdotes of the early days of the house remind me of old folkloric tales of witchcraft from that part of the country. My problem with the story is that some of the occult jargon that Carew spews out to explain the phenomena sounds like late 19th century spiritualist mumbo jumbo. In an effort to sound modern, it actually dates the novel. The best parts are when Walton describes some of the haunting, like a giant black rabbit that appears to Betty-Ann and watches her through the windows, or the portrait of Aunt Sarai that seems to come alive at times, or the ghost of Li Wan, talking to Elizabeth while she naps in the living room. These are well written moments but Carew’s explanations of these phenomena are a bit daft. Also, even though there was a subtextual love story between Carew (or “Gay”, as he is called lovingly by little Betty-Ann) and Elizabeth, I didn’t really get emotionally involved in it like I did with Li Wan’s jeremiad in the prequel.
In fine, I preferred the prequel to the novel but still would like to have seen more in this vein from Walton, had she decided to write more tales within the Gothic genre.

Advertisements

One Response to “Evangeline Walton’s “Witch House””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: