The Witches: Finding Narrative in History

I recently had the task of reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches (full title is The Witches: Salem, 1692). I write “task” instead of “pleasure” for two reasons. First, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed reading 400 pages about a mass hysteria that turned into tragedy and gross injustice, in which 20 innocent people lost their lives. Second, I wasn’t really sure if I liked it while I was reading it.

I think Stacy Schiff had an incredible challenge: Bring the reader into Salem, 1692 – introduce them to all relevant characters – outline what happened in the order that events occurred – and give appropriate backstory/information whenever needed. Considering the cast begins with 20 victims (to say nothing of accusers and judges), that’s a lot of people to wrangle.

Now that I’ve finished, I’m on the positive side – I liked Schiff’s The Witches. However, I do feel that it has an interesting battle, and that is narrative vs. history. Throughout the book, I felt the two were constantly at war with one another in Schiff’s writing. She would attempt to give each chapter a narrative, but in the end most felt bogged down by superfluous information.

It was great for historical relevance but not so much for storytelling. So I want to write about that: How does a nonfiction writer balance the battle between history and narrative?

The challenge of finding a narrative

To begin, it depends on what you’re researching. Schiff begins her book by stating that the puritan settlers of Massachusetts were studious record keepers…except when it came to 1692. This means that she had to fill in a lot of gaps. To give contrast, I’m reading another piece of nonfiction right now called Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (quite a topic change, I know) and, not only is this book discussing much more recent history, the author had the ability to actually interview most who were directly involved.

So, right away Schiff’s writing must rely heavily on inference and intuition, which can blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. This may sound like an advantage when it comes to establishing narrative but think again. Most historical nonfiction authors have two priorities: Get it right and make it interesting.

Schiff was immediately challenged with the first priority. When the information isn’t readily available, more research is needed. She had to expand her scope – bring in tangentially related information. When developing a narrative, widening your scope is the last thing you want to do.

A plot is often a very simple thing that is then dressed up by character, setting, and other elements. For example, Star Wars can be boiled down to “hero saves galaxy” without losing its essence. The plot of the Salem Witch Trials is that innocent people were wrongly accused and convicted of an impossible crime – but how do you get there when many details (in some cases whole defenses) have been omitted or destroyed.

A weak plot begs for outside help – but that outside help can overwhelm and distract from the initial goal of writing the story. You see this in fiction – certain authors can fall more in love with “world building” than with telling a story. If too much attention is paid to details – or supplemental information – without enough devoted to core knowledge, the story can fall flat. In short – it won’t be interesting.

But with a topic like the Salem Witch Trials, is that even possible?

Does history need a narrative?

It is difficult for me to write about Stacy Schiff’s The Witches without getting lost in the history. This is, to me, essential knowledge for every American (or at least my fellow Massachusetts residents). Today, my state likes to hold itself up as a land of reason, science, and logical debate (…and sports teams), so it is an important reminder that we have come a long way, and that there were serious consequences when we abandoned our better senses.

Schiff The Witches
This monument sits in Danvers, Massachusetts – which used to be known as Salem Village.

So, which such a packed slice of history – does narrative really matter? Isn’t simply recounting the trials enough? I would say no. Schiff’s biggest triumph is that she brings her reader into the mindset of the 1962 puritan. Through this lens, we are better to understand truly what happened – beyond the simple order of events.

Saying that innocent people died in the Salem Witch Trials is like saying the Holocaust happened. It loses a lot of its resonance and meaning without discussing the “how” and the “why.” These events cannot be made simple by vague summation. Even growing up, I thought that disasters like these happened because of “evil people” or something like that.

Evil people don’t exist and believing they do only opens the door for more bigoted leaders to come to power. In what narrative she can salvage, Schiff presents Salem as a dark place in more ways than one. The people they are constantly afraid. Real world dangers such as disease and Native Americans mix with supernatural ones like the devil and demons. Add to it a poor understanding of science and a constant persecution complex and this community was ripe for disaster.

But even that isn’t the whole picture. There were grudges to be settled, opportunists doing whatever they could to get ahead, teenage women suddenly thrust into a position of power, wrongs to be avenged, and simply matters of colonial politics.

Again – it’s a lot. What happened over a couple months needs the preceding years to explain it in proper context.

I’ll leave these thoughts with this question. What is more interesting, saying Giles Corey was executed for witchcraft, or this:

The final impact of Stacy Schiff’s The Witches 

In the end, I feel that Schiff’s The Witches is a weak narrative saved by its historical significance. Given her obstacles, I think she did the best she could. Much of the real procedure has been lost, letting us only speculate as to the true nature of this delirious period of history. We have an incomplete picture but, through her supplemental research, Schiff goes a long way to fill in the gaps.

I just wish it didn’t derail the main action so much. It also doesn’t help that each chapter is roughly 40 pages – or that one of her asides was to mention Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series (in the same chapter that discusses alleged sex abuse in 1692 Salem – I’m not kidding).

Alice: a Visit to Wanderland

Okay, it’s October and I am already well behind my horror blog writing. This month, as with every October, I will be reading exclusively horror – either books that are in the horror genre or have many horrific elements. This year I have chosen to kick things off with Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles by J.M. Sullivan. As some of my more astute readers may have already noticed, Wanderland Chronicles is another book from Dreamcatchers publisher, Pen Name Publishing. Rest assured, I shall endeavor to remain objective.

So, first thing’s first: I don’t care for Alice in Wonderland. It’s not that I hate it, I have just never invested in Lewis Carroll’s universe the way that some others have. While I’m a big fan of fantasy, I’m also a big fan of logic… something that vanishes rather quickly as we journey down the rabbit hole. It is impossible to deny the impact that Carroll has made on writing and on imagination. Nevertheless, it’s never been my tea party.

Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles
I actually liked Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I felt brought a more sensible plot to Carroll’s world. That said, I think we can all agree that the film would have benefited from less Mad Hatter.

Yes, but what if there’s zombies?

This the question author J.M. Sullivan asked when she re-imagined Carroll’s world as post-apocalyptic fantasy. Gone are the over-sized rabbits and the disappearing cats. In their place are the Momerath, virus-infected human beings with a bad temper and an appetite for human flesh.

And it’s not Wonderland anymore, it’s Wanderland – or what’s left of Phoenix. No rabbit hole required for entry. All that Alice Carroll (see what she did there?) needs to do to get in is simply walk… and not die. That’s the rules for Wanderland: keep walking, try not to die, and stay on the good side of the Red Queen.

Wonderland vs. Wanderland

While Wanderland Chronicles abandons much of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical scenery, its characters nearly all have counterparts. Apart from Alice, Wanderland inhabitants include Chess – a boy with unnaturally quick reflexes, Bug – a surveillance expert with a passion for smoking, and Dr. Matt Hatta – I’ll let you figure that one out on your own. And, of course, the kill-happy Red Queen.

For the most part, Sullivan does an admirable job fitting these characters into their new roles in the zombie-filled wasteland. The only unfortunate side effect is that it does make the plot fairly predictable, something that takes all the air out of any tension she is trying to build. We know before she leaves what Alice will find in the Wanderland. Luckily, the book’s climax does add some twists away from the source material.

aliceinzombieland
The idea of mixing zombies into Alice in Wonderland is not new. Wanderland Chronicles, however, does a better job of it than the fanart of the internet.

Writing in Wanderland

J.M. Sullivan crafts strong characters with believable (love triangle excluded) emotions and reactions in Wanderland. Her Alice is a fun protagonist, if one who goes from introvert to extrovert very quickly. Chess, Nate, and the Red Queen round out a compelling support cast. The plot hops along at a brisk pace, never dallying in any location too long.

twdclementine_feature
If I were to compare Alice to another protagonist in the world of zombie fiction, it would be Clementine.

If I have any complaint about the writing, it is that it violates the “less is more” rule. This is author J.M. Sullivan’s first book and I could tell that she didn’t trust her language, often repeating or going too simple. I’m from the school that taught me to avoid repetitive words on a page. Never give two sentences of explanation when one will do. Lewis Carroll owned the lingo of his fantasy, but this is the area of all others where J.M. Sullivan feels like a tentative tenant.

I hope that, in the sequel, she finds a stronger voice to suit her strong protagonist.

Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles won’t make you a believer in the zombie genre – it’s not World War Z. For those who don’t care for either Lewis Carroll’s world or horrific undead cannibals, I would advise giving this one a pass. That said, any out there who enjoy a fun zombie-filled romp should sink their teeth in. Wanderland Chronicles is the perfect popcorn to open up a fun-filled October.

 

Prejudice in Fantasy

Let me say a few quick things before we dive in. This article is not intended to be your last stop on this topic, but your first. This topic is worth researching as it reflects a shift away from Tolkien’s more simplistic fantasy archetype, as well as an important examination into issues that we as a society still struggle discussing. I’m also (with a couple exceptions) going to focus on prejudice portrayed in writing – not in the author. All righty, here we go.

Racism, prejudice, bigotry – whatever you wish to call it – has been reflected in the fantasy fiction genre for many years. Part of this comes from the simplistic nature established by the Tolkien archetype. Orcs are evil because… well, they just are. Their whole race was made from black magic with ill intent. You can read every extensive page of Tolkien lore and never find a good orc, Tolkien never envisioned one.

Tolkien orc prejudice Warcraft
When Blizzard first created Warcraft, its orcs were also stereotypically evil. As the series evolved, this shifted to favor actual characterization and a break from the Tolkien model.

And that’s fine. Middle Earth is not ever intended to be a one-to-one comparison with our actual Earth. Its larger-than-life heroes without flaw are proof of that. The Lord of the Rings has much more in common with Greek mythology than modern day fantasy. After Tolkien, however, the problems really started. Writers, influenced by the grand epic nature of Tolkien’s world, sought to flesh out and humanize their characters… while still maintaining Tolkien’s simplistic world view.

The Unknown Prejudice of Brian Jacques

I grew up reading Brian Jacques‘ Redwall series. Books like Mossflower, Mattimeo, Mariel of Redwall – I loved them all. I was a big fan of mixing epic fantasy with local woodland creatures, somehow it helped make it more believable for me (I say this as someone raised surrounded by woods). As I grew older and the series continued, however, I began to notice things.

Marlfox was the novel where I first really noticed it. It seemed like certain races – rats, foxes, cats – were just destined to be evil. Wickedness appeared hardwired into their lineage. Born a fox – well too bad, you’re a monster! Every good character in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was relatable. The mythological, Arthurian nature that was present in Lord of the Rings was nowhere here.

The problem manifested again and again with every new book – and perhaps this was the root of it. Jacques likely had never envisioned Redwall as a long-running series (22 main books when all was said and done). It is fine to have a group of murderous rats once or a thieving fox once – but as these character recur endlessly without contradiction, then an ugly commentary on racism becomes apparent.

Prejudice in Redwall
One bad rat is not a problem. A race of bad rats without a single good rat is.

I will not assume motive but the taint on the series is sadly undeniable. Whether intentional or not, Jacques has damaged the enduring charm of Redwall with, at best lazy and at worst racist, villains.

A Better Portrayal of Prejudice

There are many Brian Jacques (and unfortunately some H.P. Lovecrafts) in the fantasy genre. The inherent problem stems from a domination of white voices at the expense of minority ones. This is an issue that troubles multiple genres. A recent (2015) study found that less than 2% of science fiction stories published that year were by black authors. The odds of that happening by chance are practically non-existent.

We need to do better. If literature is as mind-opening as we claim than we have to make sure it is a medium owned by everyone. I say we because last year I attended a writers of color event and discovered – with incredible dismay – that I really had never read books that weren’t from a white author.

While there is nothing wrong with reading white authors, it is innately limiting. That meant that there was a whole perspective, whole dimensions of understanding that I was missing. It was unacceptable to me so I resolved to change it.

The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is a marked improvement in the examination of prejudice in fantasy literature. Jemisin presents a world where those gifted with earth-related magic (here called orogeny) are treated with distrust, abuse, and torment. Stripped of their humanity, they are seen as less than people and too dangerous/stupid to be left on their own. They must be shackled for the good of all humanity.

Of course, The Broken Earth is told from the perspective of one of these “less-than-human creatures” and the reader can learn firsthand how nightmarish the whole system is. The lazy black-and-white nature that writers like Jacques relied on is gone. The Broken Earth Trilogy sparks thought without hitting very real issues expressly on the nose.

Dragon Age Mage Prejudice
Dragon Age was a fantasy video game series with writing that was initially similar to N.K. Jemisin’s work. Its portrayal of prejudice against mages was thought-provoking and compelling… until it was dropped for the most boring black-and-white conflict that Bioware could imagine.

I believe it is incredibly important to discuss issues like racism and slavery outside of the real world. Trapping them in history confines the reality of what happened and is still happening in the world. While books like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing may be fantastic – and it is fantastic – they can be too easily ignored. Sometimes the best way to talk to people on tough subjects is to do so indirectly. It, at the very least, is likely to expand the audience.

I am optimistic that more new voices will enter the literary space and that genres like fantasy will deepen and improve. The presence of writers of color can only strengthen us. They will bring to light issues and ideas that we may have not thought of before and we will strengthen each other by having, for the first time, truly open exchange. Prejudice is a literary topic begging for new and better voices that offer real examination and do not simply attempt to emulate what has come before.