This book comes with its own in-built health warning – unfortunately at the end, rather than the beginning, when it’s far too late to protect yourself. Author Christian Day lists the horrors that came upon him as he struggled to finish it: death (appropriately enough) of close loved ones, debilitating injuries and resurfacing of old enemies. And here I was berating myself for taking a curiously long time over this review, not to mention, as I write, experiencing the first intimations of a flu bug for over four decades…
Yet this book really isn’t about superstition, unless you view all mysticism, religion and belief in the afterlife as, Dawkins-like, very firmly in that category – in which case there is no point in reading further. Goodbye.
But even for those who either believe or see nothing wrong in believing, this book will still grab you by the throat, hold you upside down and shake you until all your preconceptions about Witchcraft – ancient and even the more modern and controversial Wiccan variety - tumble out of your pockets.
The author, whose first name is singularly inappropriate, is a practising Warlock (a term he reclaims from its unsure past) based in Salem. He also owns a shop called ‘HEX’ that superficially sounds like an only-slightly-more grown-up version of Harry Potter’s Ollivanders Wand Shop in Diagon Alley, complete with authentic human skull called Robert. But Robert is not just set dressing. Robert is used in necromantic rites. Under all the Halloween flim-flam is the very serious business of conjuring and communicating with the dead, modern witchcraft-style.
The purpose of this review is not to debate whether such things are possible, but whether The Witches’ Book of the Dead is worth reading. To many, the two things may in fact be inseparable, but perhaps along with eye of newt and dragon’s blood, a hefty pinch of suspension of disbelief – or if a devotee of most other forms of religion, suspension of belief – is called for. This is a very challenging book, even for those of us who junked debunking-for-its-own-sake knee-jerkery decades ago.
Christian Day himself, however, is obviously neither a credulous airhead nor an unlettered bigot. Indeed, it is quite an education following his own conversion from sneering scepticism – on some matters at least - to unwavering and extreme attitudes to both this world and the next. His initiatory journey was largely due to his close friendship with the previous owner of the skull Robert, his mentor, the late Shawn Poirier. (There is always something endearing about authors who give credit where it’s due, even if what’s actually being credited is unrepentant necromantic rites using the fleshless head of someone who was once as alive as you or me.)
Despite bearing a striking resemblance to Eddie Izzard in Halloween garb, Day is no lightweight. Although the Witch of Endor and the Witch Trials (both European and, of course, Salemesque) are well-worn topics, he deals with them soberly and with impressive new insights. He is also – in this reviewer’s opinion – remarkably equable about the Catholic Church, confining himself to comments such as: ‘All but a handful of the Catholic saints are the spirits of the dead said to intercede on behalf of the living by virtue of offerings and prayers. If this isn’t necromancy, I don’t know what is…’
Through his mix of folklore, history, metaphysics and magic (with or without the final, fashionable, ‘k’), Day amply demonstrates mastery of his topic – a story that in many ways runs parallel with that of his own life and lost loved ones.
But no book of magic would be complete without detailed rituals for the aspiring witch or warlock to experiment with, be awestruck by, be frustrated with – and perhaps even terrified at. Indeed, practising witchcraft of the more colourful and uncompromising sort as outlined in these pages – including working with the alarming-sounding ‘Death Current’ - may well see you sleeping with the lights on throughout many a long night. Particularly if you do as suggested, and sneak into graveyards in the hours of darkness to summon the dead. As in long, long dead in a beyond-Hammer Horror sort of way. (Though he does warn that to do so might be in violation of the law. Quite.)
But even if one believes or allows oneself even to consider that the dead are actually around to be thus summoned, the big question is should it be even attempted? Obviously Day himself thinks so, although – in his surprisingly commonsensical way – he counsels against seeking to bring them back just to tell you if your ex will phone. He also urges one not to contact spirits or entities who are just out of one’s league, saying: ‘The most obvious choices are those who cared most for you in life. I often say that the Virgin Mary is busy and Isis has better things to do, but your grandmother will care about your problems. Our personal dead often stick around to help us. Bonds made in life often live on in death.’
One should, apparently, make offerings to the dead, not to appease some kind of primitive otherworldly wrath – although sometimes Day seems to imply this, a curiously medieval attitude – but simply out of love and respect. ‘Think,’ he urges, ‘about what your loved ones liked. Was your mother partial to Opium perfume? Did your grandfather like cigars? Was your nephew an avid reader of comic books?’
But what about those of us with a penchant for books about witches, death and the afterlife? Perhaps the greatest compliment is to admit that this reviewer actually wouldn’t mind a loved one offering this book to me if I were on the other side. (But don’t forget the G & Ts and Dior perfume. And no sneaking them back when I’m not looking).
It’s a deep read, thought-provoking, no doubt even shocking in places to some who haven’t encountered unfettered paganism before. (And even many who have, or are of the lukewarm, touchy-feely New Agey school. This is hard-core and very much not for the faint-hearted or dainty-souled.) And if you have problems with Voodoo, best not to keep turning these pages.
Perhaps what is potentially most disconcerting to the casual reader, despite all this book’s Hogwartian dressing up and camping about, is that it has a deadly serious core. For example, in describing the very Gothic Victorian Mourning Tea gathering he instigated he writes: ‘Guests brought photos and paper mementos of their loved ones… permanently placed in our “Book of the Dead”, a growing, annual compendium of memories for which there will soon be multiple volumes filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, hair and even suicide notes. Death is not always pretty, and the Book of the Dead is a reflection of the whole of life.’
There are several similar bringing-up-sharp moments where the OTT Gothic mask falls away and one is left with a deeply uncomfortable, but perhaps life - or at least mind - changing sense of shock. However, this book is written so well, and with such commitment and lightly-worn but solid scholarship, that its real legacy is, if not actually a desire to join the communers with Robert the Skull behind the locked doors of Day’s HEX shop, then a sudden leap in understanding those who choose to do so. -- Lynn Picknett