Witches on the Road Tonightby Sheri Holman
As a child growing up in Depression-era rural Virginia, Eddie Alley’s quiet life is rooted in the rumors of his mother’s witchcraft. But when he's visited by a writer and glamorous photographer researching American folklore for the WPA, the spell of his mother’s unorthodox life is violently disrupted, and Eddie is inspired to pursue a future… See more details below
As a child growing up in Depression-era rural Virginia, Eddie Alley’s quiet life is rooted in the rumors of his mother’s witchcraft. But when he's visited by a writer and glamorous photographer researching American folklore for the WPA, the spell of his mother’s unorthodox life is violently disrupted, and Eddie is inspired to pursue a future beyond the confines of his dead-end town.
He leaves for New York and becomes a television horror-movie presenter beloved for his kitschy comedy. Though expert at softening terror for his young fans, Eddie cannot escape the guilty secrets of his own childhood. When he opens his family’s door to a homeless teenager working as an intern at the TV station, the boy’s presence not only awakens something in Eddie, but also in his twelve-year-old daughter, Wallis, who has begun to feel a strange kinship to her notorious grandmother. As the ghost stories of one generation infiltrate the next, Wallis and Eddie grapple with the sins of the past to repair their misguided attempts at loyalty and redemption.
In Witches on the Road Tonight, bestselling author Sheri Holman teases out the dark compulsions and desperate longings that blur the line between love and betrayal.
Past and present, reality and dreams, harsh truths and dangerous delusions mingle intriguingly in this unusual fourth novel from the versatile author of vivid historical and contemporary fiction (The Mammoth Cheese, 2003, etc.).
In a fragmented set of narratives that move back and forth between Virginia's Appalachian Mountains at the tail end of the Depression and the present day, Holman explores the repercussions of a country boy's relocation to New York City, and the grasp that his past retains, shaping both his own life and those of his chosenandestranged loved ones. When 12-year-old Eddie Alley is accidentally struck by a car and injured, he's thrust into a relationship with visiting WPA writer Tucker Hayes and the latter's wife (and companion photographer) Sonia. An encounter with Eddie's mother Cora, a locally renowned semi-recluse rumored to be a witch, changes Tucker's life forever. And the power of Cora (an Eternal Feminine figure depicted with impressive intensity) follows the others back north. Eddie, whom Tucker had introduced to the bizarre pleasures of classic horror films, finds the big city a welcoming environment and achieves success as a comic TV horror-movie host ("Captain Casket"), marries (Ann) and fathers a daughter (Wallis).But when a homeless teenaged boy (Jasper) enters Eddie's home, and his confused affections, it seems Cora will not be forgotten. Eddie's feelings toward and about his mother remain unresolved. And the witch woman's lingering aura haunts the imaginations and experiences of emotionally unstable Wallis, the eventually abandoned Ann and the sexually baffled Eddie, who will be further burdened by a steadily growing cancer (which is, sadly, much more than a metaphor). Holman tells this eerie tale with considerable skill, but it's flawed by too-numerous time shifts and the discrepancy between the vivid, flinty scenes set in 1940 and later scenes that appear pallid and strained by comparison.
Flawed but intriguing work from an estimable novelist who keeps extending her range and never fails to surprise and engage.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel
A Boston Globe Book of the Year
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of the Year
A New York Times Editors' Choice
Winner of an Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal for Literary Fiction
“Sheri Holman has an imagination that is both capacious and meticulous, and by turns somber and antic. . . . One of the pleasures of Witches on the Road Tonight is Holman’s copious knowledge of American popular cultures as they shade into American folk culture. . . . [Holman] is not exploiting the current rage for vampires, witches, and werewolves[her] magic is homegrown and rooted in the soil. Holman’s characters have bona fide issues of identity and legitimate sources of pain that magic exacerbates rather than erases. The originality here lies in the author’s ability to reshuffle the materials of pop literature and contemplate them anew. . . . Holman [has] a restless adventurousness that is the mark of a born novelist, the sort of novelist who can’t help writing even if the novel is dying or literary culture is evolving or apps are replacing human brains. Witches on the Road Tonight is a path into her work that beckons, with strange lights and mysterious apparitions.”Los Angeles Review of Books
“Sheri Holman is a difficult writer to categorize. She can write an elegantly observant novel of domestic absurdity, and she can write a book humming with Romantic misery and ghastly horror. . . . . Holman is an original, and her literary ideas are so sublimely odd that they seem to have exited her imagination of their own free will. . . . Marvelously creepy, touching, and tender . . . Witches on the Road Tonight is about the power of narrative and its hold on us. . . . The dialect we speak now, Holman says with eloquence, humor, and urgency, is that of televised natural disaster, war, starvation. Instead of horror, we have terror.”The New York Review of Books
“Undeniably impressive . . . [Holman] boasts a fine Gothic imagination, summoning visceral details at will . . . [and] evoking the blur between the real and the supernatural as if it were the most straightforward thing, a knack possessed by few writers, though Alice Hoffman immediately springs to mind. . . . [Witches on the Road Tonight] explores the dark vein of magic that runs just beneath our real lives.”The New York Times Book Review
"Holman is a master of the miniature. She uses tiny, achingly accurate details to bring each moment to life on the page; her sentences sing. . . . This richly layered novel is Holman's most ambitious and successful yet."People (4 stars)
“[Witches on the Road Tonight takes readers] deep into the secretive silence and sublime vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a setting which Holman splendidly evokes in all its eerie beauty. . . . . She is as eloquent about the physical landscape of her stories as she is about the internal terrain of human emotion. . . . Seductive and hallucinatory . . . Witches on the Road Tonight is less about monsters and witches than it is about people whose fears and failings are profoundly and recognizably human.”The Washington Post
"Holman possesses a set of literary gifts that rarely come in pairs. She's a goddess of the details that bring a place, a person, a moment to life on the page. And she's a skilled practitioner of magic realism, weaving the imaginary and the actual together into one seamless, transporting whole."Meredith Maran, Boston Globe (Best Books of the Year)
“Holman’s clear and thoughtful prose deals with guilt, love, and the possibility of redemption. . . . [A] rich and rewarding read, elegant and assured.”The Barnes & Noble Review
"Mysterious, beautiful, and immediately engrossing, Witches on the Road Tonight is a tour de force of meticulous research brought urgently to life by headlong, transporting prose."Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad
“A spooky, multigenerational ghost story . . . Eerie and fascinating . . . Vivid and lushly written . . . Holman explores an ambitious collection of themes: the fearful “monsters” created by ignorance and prejudice; the burden of limited roles for women and how they can deform and disconnect; the myth of the obedient wife and mother and the tradition of heterosexual marriage; and the importance of a safety zone between fear and reassurance and whether in today’s world we can still expect to find it. . . . [Witches on the Road Tonight] casts its spell . . . and reminds us of the dark side that’s trapped in the mirror until we’re willing to look long enough to see what’s really staring back.”Atlantic Journal-Constitution
“Holman is among the most deserving American novelists for promotion to the A-list. . . . She is a writer clearly fascinated by the fictional possibilities of history. . . . Yet it isn’t her intriguing approach to the past that is most rewarding about reading Sheri Holman, but the distinctive sentences she uses to bring that past to idiosyncratic life. . . . There is humor in Holman’s prose, and intelligent ironies, but no camp, no ghoulish excess. Witches on the Road Tonight is a serious novel about America’s relationship withand arguable reliance uponhomegrown mythologies: horror B-movies, the cabin in the woods, Southern black magic and, yes, witches. For readers who like their trendy monsters delivered in wise and sensual lines, and with a side order of cultural insight.”The Globe and Mail
“[Holman’s] weird and wonderful new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, is a blend of backwoods sorcery and ageless heartbreak. . . . 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. . . . 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.”Bookpage (online)
“Riveting . . . A truly great story . . . Holman’s gifts for Gothic prose and palpable details . . . [and her] ability to ride that line between supernatural sensationalism and everyday occurrences carries readers’ enthusiasm. . . . With a tale this deliciously imaginative and the telling of it so delightfully descriptive, Holman has crafted not only a mesmerizing and complex story, but she’s created something that is truly a pleasure to read. Let Witches on the Road Tonight slip in and weave its magic in your mind, it will leave you spellbound.”PopMatters (8 out of 10)
"Heartbreaking . . . Holman investigates a dynasty of fear, mysticism, guilt, and love, beginning in Depression-era Appalachia through to contemporary Manhattan . . . [and] maps out the devastating consequences of sin and circumstance."Publishers Weekly
“Vibrantly atmospheric, Holman’s stealthily ambiguous novel of suspense glitters with the force of sins and indiscretions unbounded by time.”Booklist
“Past and present, reality and dreams, harsh truths and dangerous delusions mingle intriguingly in this unusual fourth novel from the versatile author of vivid historical and contemporary fiction. . . . Holman tells this eerie tale with considerable skill . . . extending her range and never failing to surprise and engage.”Kirkus Reviews
“Sheri Holman is an amazing talent, and Witches on the Road Tonight is her most accomplished work to date. Beautifully written and brilliantly realized, it is also moving, insightful, compellingly readable, and spooky. Holman’s characters are real and resonant and disturbing in the way that makes fiction great. This novel does everything great fiction should, and it will haunt you for a very long time.”David Liss, author of The Whiskey Rebels and The Devil’s Company
“Three generations of witches, in a wickedly powerful American epic. An Appalachian conjure woman; a soul-bewildered TV host-vampire; a New York news anchor trying desperately to make peace with the demons pursuing her: the characters are spellbinding and the prose crackles throughout. This is a tale told by a sorceress.”George Dawes Green
"[An] eerie, often tense read."Library Journal
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Witches on the Road Tonight
By Sheri Holman
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2011 Sheri Holman
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePanther Gap October 1940
They are playing a game called Firsts that Tucker had made up to pass the time in the car that first week when he and Sonia barely knew each other, in the days before their first time, which should have imparted intimate knowledge, but had, in some indefinable way, made them feel even more like strangers than they were before.
"First word?" Tucker asks.
"My mother tells me it was 'baby,'" Sonia says. "Yours?"
"Tipi. She was our nurse. Been with the family since Mother was a girl."
"First book?" Sonia asks.
"That I remember? Our family Bible. It was big and red and I never saw it open. Yours?"
"Same. Only ours was big and black and open all the time."
It is hot for October and they ride with the windows of the '35 Ford rolled down, blinking against the dust from the ungraded road. The wind whips Sonia's platinum hair across her eyes; she pushes it back to read their Esso map. The paper has given out at the creases from their folding and unfolding of it, and the route is covered in Tucker's notes about churches and courthouses, the populations of cemeteries, the number of oysters shucked in an hour by a single Negro man in Hampton Roads. They are somewhere along the spine of the Blue Ridge, coming into the Alleghenies, as best she can tell.
"First house?" Tucker asks.
"Was not a house," she responds. "It was a fifth floor walk-up on Rivington Street." She doesn't ask him about his first house but he volunteers it anyway.
"Mine was Folly Farm, fifteen miles north of Richmond. Like Tipi, it came with Mother. Of course Father lost it along with everything else. First assignment?" he asks.
"'Gloves Make the Girl.' Ladies' Home Journal, October 1920."
"A piece on shell shock for my college paper. My father was diagnosed in '23, but Mother says he thought he could talk to animals long before he ever set foot in the Marne."
He takes the switchbacks of the mountain fast, choosing dirt roads over anything paved. She is supposed to be logging their mileage but it has been hours since Sonia has seen a marker. She wrestles the map as it flaps in the wind.
"I've lost us," she says.
"Put it away. We should drive as we would divine for water."
"They'll be angry if we get it wrong."
"Oh, how the tourists shall whine," Tucker says. "We're doing them a favor."
Their assignment was to chart a driving tour of this region for the Virginia Writers' Project. Tucker was to describe landmarks and local history; Sonia was to photograph it all. Hundreds more, just like them, were mapping the other forty-seven states, one more public works project like the Civilian Conservation Corps whittling picnic areas on the Skyline Drive. Until now, no one had thought to sell America to Americans. Everyone's sick of the dust bowl and raggedy babies, their field officer in Charlottesville told them. It's time for this country to love itself again.
"Peel me an egg, would you, Mrs. Hayes?" Tucker says. Sonia takes a hard-boiled egg from their paper lunch bag and rolls it between her palms, flicking chips of shell out of the window. Her fingernails are permanently stained black from the chemicals she uses to get the cool, strong contrast she wants in her work. She holds out the egg for Tucker to bite.
"I've been proposing all my life," he says, grabbing her hand and kissing each black nail. "There was Cousin Flora of the skinned knees and slipped hair ribbons. Cruel Bette, who broke my heart with her Matryoshka-doll figure and diminishing affections to match. But at last I've found the ideal wife, who forsakes the common obsession with matrimony for the more sacred institution of honeymoon."
He bites the egg in half. "And she cooks, too!"
Sonia smiles and eats what's left over.
The car has drifted and Tucker corrects the wheel, hugging the narrow shoulder nearest the rock. On Sonia's side, the mountain drops away beneath a wide case-hardened sky. Lifting the Rolleiflex she wears on a strap around her neck, she points it out of her open window. She is notorious at Wealth magazine, where she works, for wasting film. Some of her colleagues say she doesn't trust herself and so takes ten shots for every one she keeps; some say she's voracious in the moment and her pictures are the photographic equivalent of owl pellets, just the bones and feathers of an experience. She doesn't care what they think—she's shot more covers than any of the men. Tucker fixes his attention on the hazy ridgeline.
"First love?" he asks.
They have been sleeping as man and wife since the third week of their assignment. It took him longer than most of the writers she's traveled with. With the others, after a few days, two rooms were awfully expensive, weren't they? We could sure save a buck if we were modern enough to share. They'd buy the tin rings at Woolworth's and sign the register Mr. and Mrs., then over cigarettes and whatever bottle they could get cheap, they'd stay up late talking until at last his head would end up in her lap. God, you are so gorgeous. Why hasn't some man made an honest woman out of you? What a beautiful mother you'd make. His finger would trace her calf and she would close her eyes at his idea of a compliment, remembering the sunken-eyed schoolboy in Berlin staring down at the kitten he'd finished off with a brick, or the little girl from Rivington Street, her first printing failure, who had emerged from the stop bath so poorly contrasted she was barely distinguishable from the tenement rubble behind her.
With Tucker it had not been words or whiskey offered up as seduction but, instead, a movie, projected on the cinderblock wall of a roadside motel in Harpers Ferry. For their six-week trip he had packed, along with his notebooks and clothes, a hand-cranked Pathé iron projector that had belonged to his father, and every night he showed her films, odd bits and pieces he'd collected, old Edison shorts, newsreels of famine, and scenes of the war in Europe. She sat in the crook of his arm as he cranked the handle, the bulb flickering to life and the dim blue picture jittery against the wall. He chose a newsreel piece on the work of Käthe Kollwitz, whose etchings of mothers cradling their starving children Hitler had labeled as degenerate. I love these old films, he said. We have a hand in the speed of creation. Then, without breaking cadence, he leaned down and placed his mouth on hers. With his free hand he untucked her shirt and eased his palm along her ribs to the curve of her breast. His mouth moved down her throat, over her pillowed stomach then farther, never breaking rhythm, and she continued to watch—the children reaching up, wordlessly crying out for bread, mothers hunkered over dying sons—until the film spun through and battered against the reel. Could you ever love a wretched sinner like me? he whispered, covering her with himself. But none of these men knew the first thing about sinning, Sonia thought, they only desperately wished to, as they wished to know all the dark rooms of the world.
"First love?" she repeats, her camera trained out the window. "Why you, of course."
She knows Tucker is Southern before he opens his mouth, by the way he spends the evening saying good-bye without ever leaving. He is already at the door when she arrives at Bennett's party, pressed in on all sides by the actors and antique dealers and men Bennett meets in bus lines. Tucker stands with his jacket over his arm, his eyes cast down, nodding as the woman next to him shouts close to his ear. Normally, Sonia isn't attracted to blond men, there is something pink and infantile about them, and their light eyes are always watering, but Tucker is blond like sandstone, softly eroded and a little abrasive. He wears a beige linen suit in a room full of black and brown jackets, and he slouches with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. The woman finishes talking and he speaks a few words in reply and kisses her on the cheek, moving even closer to the door, where another woman grabs him by the arm and draws her own concentrated nods. Bennett catches her watching them. There's a lucky bastard, he shouts over Artie Shaw on the record player. His play fl opped on Broadway so he signed on with the WPA back home. Now he's gotten drafted. He'll be swimming in peach till the day he leaves. Tucker takes his hands from his pockets and holds them palm up for the second woman as if to say, See, there is nothing left. No man is so appealing, Sonia thinks, as one who apologizes for himself in advance. Then, Speech, speech, someone shouts and he lets himself be pulled back into the room and passed a fresh drink, and he is convinced to drawl a little drunkenly, God bless this country where a man might so easily be transferred from one teat of Lady Liberty to another. Much later, when Sonia goes to retrieve her scarf and purse, she finds him drinking alone on their host's bed, staring out the window onto Washington Square Park below. The cars race up Fifth Avenue and turn sharply when they reach the white triumphal arch. In the glass above him she catches a glimpse of her own tired face, she has talked and drunk away all but a red smudge of her lipstick. She takes a seat on the bed beside him and they sit in comfortable silence for such a long time that Sonia thinks she just might be asleep. But then he catches her off guard. What scares you? he asks, and she answers without thought, The Nazis have taken Paris, London is flattened. I'm scared everything exciting is happening somewhere else. She pauses and asks what is expected—What scares you?—knowing before he even suggests it that she will be leaving with him. Dying, he says. And women like you.
"Mrs. Hayes," Tucker commands.
"I spy with my little eye—Sider and Apples Sold by the Pound, Bushel, or Truckload."
They are cresting a hill and Sonia doesn't have time to read the misspelled, hand-painted sign before they have reached a clearing and a slapped-together wooden stand. The structure's sloping roof is shingled with apple slices drying in the sun and behind it sits an elderly man working a mechanical peeler like a pencil sharpener. He shakes his denim jacket free of skins when Tucker excuses the car to a stop.
"Look at that ancient specimen," Tucker says to her as the man ducks beneath the shed's awning and rises to his full height. "We could saw him in half and count his rings."
Tucker and Sonia sit in the front seat letting the old man appraise them through the windshield. He has a fifth-button white beard that Sonia guesses he's been growing longer than she's been alive. He has halved his Model T and fitted it with a flatbed. On it, wooden crates of more apples are stacked three high.
"We need one of him," Tucker says.
Tucker swings open the car door as Sonia adjusts the aperture of her camera. There's good light and a panoramic view of the valley, and she thinks, yes, Tucker is right, this is what they want to see of this place, a roadside Sider Man with his apples and his time. She watches Tucker approach him, loose-limbed and casual, holding out his hand as if for a wary dog to sniff. The Sider Man shakes it stiffly.
"Mighty fine fruit you have here," Tucker says, picking up a dull green apple from a basket at his feet.
"Mountain pippins what's ripe now," says the old man. "A few Fousts."
"Some venerable orchards up this way, I'd imagine."
"Yup," says the old man, eying Sonia, who has found her settings and stepped out of the car to join them. He traces her figure through her linen shirt and plum-colored trousers. Then his eyes go to the dark roots of her platinum hair and linger disapprovingly.
"Where I grew up," Tucker is saying, "we had an Apple Blossom Festival. Y'all have anything like that up here?"
"In the spring."
"I love those festivals," Tucker says. "Pride of place."
The Sider Man nods. His face is deeply lined from sun and tobacco. He rocks back on his cracked naked heels and waits for Tucker to get to the point. Sonia wants to get the truck in the shot, too, and circles around him, looking for her angle.
"Y'all just passing through?" the Sider Man asks at last.
"Me and the missus are out and about on behalf of Mr. Roosevelt," Tucker says. "Works Progress Administration. They're writing up travel guides to the forty-eight states to give artist types like us something to do. We're on good terms with the battles and business of this commonwealth, but they want us to send back some flavor. You know, stories, legends, anything that makes this mountain special."
The Sider Man stares at him blankly.
"I don't suppose you know any legends?"
"Can't say I do," the Sider Man answers.
"What about local features?" Tucker asks kindly. "Caves or springs? Twice a year when I was a boy, we'd drive these mountains so my father could sit in the hot springs. Met veterans who fought at Bull Run."
Sonia can see him casting around for that thing they share. Tucker is always able to find something, she's seen him get lumbermen and merchant marines, cigarette rollers and seamstresses to talk for hours. But the Sider Man stands mute.
"Now's your chance," Tucker says bluffly. "You're going in a guide book. People will drive from all over to find you, and you'll be selling apples faster than you can pick 'em. My wife here will even take your picture."
Sonia smiles politely. "It would be an honor," she says.
The Sider Man turns back to his stand. "WPA took my photograph years ago. Some Jew from New York City. You vampires gonna come back for a man's soul, you might buy something first."
They are back in the car with a bushel of pippins and a jug of applejack between them. The Sider Man fits another apple to his peeler, unwinds his long russet ribbon. Sonia turns in the front seat to steal a shot as they pull away.
"Don't," says Tucker gruffly. "You can't take a picture of rejection without deserving it."
The stand is gone, they are headed down the other side of the mountain through a granite pass. Laurel bushes cling to the cliff while rain-swelled springs flow in channels beside the road like running boards on a car. In a month, this way will be impassable, she thinks. Tucker is taking the turns too fast; three empty Coke bottles roll lazily across the floorboards and clink together, back and forth down the hill.
Using one hand to drive, he uncorks the applejack with his teeth and takes a deep draw.
"First lie?" he asks.
"I don't lie," she answers.
"I asked for your first, not an example," he says.
Sonia turns away in annoyance. She has been told no so often she doesn't hear the word anymore. Someone has always arrived before her wherever she's been and she has learned simply to shoot from a different angle.
"He's right, you know," Tucker says. "Who are we to turn a person's life into a stop along the way?"
His hands are trembling lightly on the steering wheel, his face rudderless and resigned, just as it was the night of Bennett's party, as he watched the cars along Fifth Avenue. As if the trip out here is more than the trip inside, and the forward motion alone might prove him courageous. She knows because her body becomes the journey as much as anything else, the unfolded map upon which all of these men lose and refind themselves. They speak of marriage and wanting to give her a child to show that this is real and she plays along, going so far as to give their imaginary child a name, calling him Pa when he calls her Ma, feeding each other waffles in the brown and olive crypts of one-star hotel dining rooms. Then, later, with quiescent Juliette or Angela or Veronica (they always want a girl, these men) sanctifying the union, he is free to fold her legs up to her ears and weep away his guilt on her breasts, telling her how beautiful they will look swollen with milk. It's the same thing, she thinks. Before. After they just have to somehow make it okay. All these men with their hats in their hands and their pained, expectant faces.
"Stop the car," she says with enough force that he obeys her. He stops on a blind curve, parking the Ford as close to the cliff as he dares. Below them on the other side, a gorge of grapevine and waxy rhododendron spills down to white water. Sonia picks up her Rolleiflex and steps out, slipping down the embankment.
Excerpted from Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman Copyright © 2011 by Sheri Holman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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