A tragic blend of sorcery and heartbreak
Sheri Holman never writes the same book twice. Her weird and wonderful new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, is a blend of backwoods sorcery and ageless heartbreak. Its story extends from Appalachia in 1940 to contemporary New York City, with stops along the way in the 1960s and '80s. Holman freely borrows from Mary Shelley, cheesy horror movies, mountain folklore and the Gothic-laced Southern coming-of-age novel to create a disturbing world, wholly her own.
Given Holman’s commanding narrative abilities, every character in the novel is afforded a moment in the sun, but the through-line of the story centers around Eddie Alley and his daughter, Wallis. Eddie is a young boy, living with his mother, Cora, in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains when two interlopers—a writer and photographer at work on a WPA guide to the region—change the trajectory of his life. The writer, Tucker Hayes, falls under the spell of Cora, who is rumored locally to be a witch. He also takes young Eddie under his wing, showing him an old silent film version of Frankenstein on a hand-cranked projector. Tucker, who is a week away from being inducted into the army, ultimately disappears, presumed AWOL. The truth, we will come to find, is far more complicated and unexpected.
The ancient film and projector survive the years. Eddie has evolved into Captain Casket, the host of a kitschy horror-movie show on a local television station. Eddie’s wife, Ann, invites Jasper, an orphaned teenager who reveres Captain Casket, to come live with the family for the summer. Like Tucker before him, Jasper proves a dangerous interloper, not only the catalyst for arousing Wallis’ budding sexuality and igniting her connection to the family’s dark legacy, but also awakening impulses that Eddie has long suppressed.
Holman expertly untangles and reweaves many threads in this novel: among them, the lure and revulsion of both external and emotional violence; the complexity of sexual love; the fragility of the relationships we construct; real and perceived ghosts; and, of course, witchcraft: “Someone else’s curse, like the story of someone else’s love affair, is meaningless and hollow,” Wallis comes to realize. “Only our own love has the power to damage.”
As intended, Witches on the Road Tonight haunts. As the twisted narrative unfolds with tantalizing surprises, Sheri Holman displays her own kind of sorcery, making us believe what we might not otherwise believe.