Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``We watch and we are always here'' is the motto of the Talamasca, a saintly group with extrasensory powers which has for centuries chronicled the lives of the Mayfairs--a dynasty of witches that brought down a shower of flames in 17th-century Scotland, fled to the plantations of Haiti and on to the New World, where they settled in the haunted city of New Orleans. Rice ( The Queen of the Damned ) plumbs a rich vein of witchcraft lore, conjuring in her overheated, florid prose the decayed antebellum mansion where incest rules, dolls are made of human bone and hair, and violent storms sweep the skies each time a witch dies and the power passes on. Newly annointed is Rowan Mayfair, a brilliant California neurosurgeon kept in ignorance of her heritage by her adoptive parents. She returns to the fold after bringing back Michael Curry from the dead; he, too, has unwanted extrasensory gifts and, like Rowan and the 12 Mayfairs before her, has beheld Lasher: devil, seducer, spirit. Now Lasher wants to come through to this world forever and Rowan is the Mayfair who can open the door. This massive tome repeatedly slows, then speeds when Rice casts off the Talamasca's pretentious, scholarly tones and goes for the jugular with morbid delights, sexually charged passages and wicked, wild tragedy.
Well known for her vampire trilogy, Rice now turns to witches. Here she tells the story of the prominent and wealthy Mayfair family who, for five centuries, has cavorted with a supernatural entity that has brought them both great bounty as well as abject misery. Neurosurgeon Rowan Mayfair inherits the family fortune, along with the sinister attentions of this entity. When Rowan saves the life of Michael Curry their fates become entwined, and together they seek to understand and destroy the terrible force that holds her family in its power. Helping them in this dangerous task is occult investigator Aaron Lightner, introduced to readers in Rice's The Queen of the Damned ( LJ 10/1/88). Although a bit long-winded at times, this is still a compelling novel. The author's powerful writing and strong imagery keep the reader enthralled. -- Patricia Altner, Dept. of Defense Lib., Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C.
School Library Journal
YA-- Rowan Mayfair, a brilliant California neurosurgeon who was taken from her mother at birth and raised by an aunt in California, does not know that there has been a powerful witch in her family in each generation for the past five centuries. She returns to the family's antebellum mansion in New Orleans after bringing back Michael Curry from the dead. He, too, has unwanted extrasensory gifts and is integrally tied to the Mayfair witches, having grown up in New Orleans. As Rowan and Michael's fates become intertwined, they seek to understand and destroy the terrible force that holds its power over the family. The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel. While this 900+ page thriller tends to drag when Rice tells the story through the scholarly documents of the Talamasca, a group of scholars who have for centuries studied and chronicled happenings of the occult, her powerful imagery and detailed witchcraft history keep readers going. When she returns to the present, the novel surges to the end with morbid delights, sexually charged passages, and wicked tragedy. Several characters who are central to the story are not completely developed, and there is no genealogical chart to help sort out family members. These minor criticisms aside, this is a fascinating story with depth and detail. Rice's many fans will keep it circulating.--Barbara A. Lynn, Topeka, KS
Rita Mae Brown
The Witching Hour unfolds like a poisonous locus blossom redolent with luxurious evil....She writes with dramatic power....Rice thoroughly enjoys herself as she slides through seventeenth-century France, ascetic plantations of Port-au-Prince, the pain of the Civil War South, and the seeming "normalcy" of today's San Francisco and New Orleans.
The Los Angeles Times
Read an Excerpt
The doctor woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He'd seen the man with the brown eyes.
And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City he felt the old alarming disorientation. He'd been talking again with the brown-eyed man. Yes, help her. No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.
The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room at the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn't shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman againher bent head, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screen in the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life
No, stop it.
He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete façade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.
Gradually his head cleared.
He thought of the Englishman at the bar in the lobby again. That's what had brought it all backthe Englishman remarking to the bartender than he'd just come from New Orleans, and that certainly was a haunted city. The Englishman, an affable man, a true Old World gentleman it seemed, in a narrow seersucker suit with a gold watch chain fixed to his vest pocket. Where did one see that kind of man thesedays?a man with the sharp melodious inflection of a British stage actor, and brilliant, ageless blue eyes.
The doctor had turned to him and said: "Yes, you're right about New Orleans, you certainly are. I saw a ghost myself in New Orleans, and not very long ago" Then he had stopped, embarrassed. He had stared at the melted bourbon before him, the sharp refraction of light in the base of the crystal glass.
Hum of flies in summer; smell of medicine. That much Thorazine? Could there be some mistake?
But the Englishman had been respectfully curious. He'd invited the doctor to join him for dinner, said he collected such tales. For a moment, the doctor had been tempted. There was a lull in the convention, and he liked this man, felt an immediate trust in him. And the lobby of the Parker Meridien was a nice cheerful place, full of light, movement, people. So far away from that gloomy New Orleans corner, from the sad old city festering with secrets in its perpetual Caribbean heat.
But the doctor could not tell his story.
"If you ever change your mind, do call me," the Englishman had said. "My name is Aaron Lightner." He'd given the doctor a card with the name of an organization inscribed on it: "You might say we collect ghost storiestrue ones, that is."
And we are always here.
It was a curious motto.
Yes, that was what had brought it all back. The Englishman and that peculiar calling card with the European phone numbers, the Englishman who was leaving for the Coast tomorrow to see a California man who had lately drowned and been brought back to life. The doctor had read of that case in the New York papersone of those characters who suffers clinical death and returns after having seen "the light."
They had talked about the drowned man together, he and the Englishman. "He claims now to have psychic powers, you see," said the Englishman, "and that interests us, of course. Seems he sees images when he touched things with his bare hands. We call it psychometry."
The doctor had been intrigued. He had heard of a few such patients himself, cardiac victims if he rightly recalled, who had come back, claiming to have seen the future. "Near Death Experience." One saw more and more articles about the phenomenon in the journals.
"Yes," Lightner had said, "the best research on the subject has been done by doctorsby cardiologists."
"Wasn't there a film a few years back," the doctor had asked, "about a woman who returned with the power to heal? Strangely affecting."
"You're open-minded on the subject," the Englishman had said with a delighted smile. Are you sure you won't tell me about your ghost? I'd so love to hear it. I'm not flying out till tomorrow, sometime before noon. What I wouldn't give to hear your story!"
No, not that story. Not ever.
Alone now in the shadowy hotel room, the doctor felt fear again. The clock ticked in the long dusty hallway in New Orleans. He heard the shuffle of his patient's feet as the nurse "walked" her. He smelled that smell again of a New Orleans house in the summer, heat and old wood. The man was talking to him
The doctor had never been inside an antebellum mansion until that spring in New Orleans. And the old house rally did have white fluted columns on the front, though the paint was peeling away. Greek Revival style they called ita long violet-gray town house on a dark shady corner in the Garden District, its front gate guarded it seemed by two enormous oaks. The iron lace railings were made in a rose pattern and much festooned with vinespurple wisteria, the yellow Virginia creeper, and bougainvillea of a dark, incandescent pink.
He liked to pause on the marble steps and look up at the Doric capitals, wreathed as they were by those drowsy fragrant blossoms. The sun came in thin dusty shafts through the twisting branches. Bees sang in the tangle of brilliant green leaves beneath the peeling cornices. Never mind that it was so somber here, so damp.
Even the approach through the deserted streets seduced him. He walked slowly over cracked and uneven sidewalks of herringbone brick or gray flagstone, under an unbroken archway of oak branches, the light eternally dappled, the sky perpetually veiled in green. Always he paused at the largest tree that had lifted the iron fence with its bulbous roots. He could not have gotten his arms around the trunk of it. It reached all the way from the pavement to the house itself, twisted limbs clawing at the shuttered windows beyond the banisters, leaves enmeshed with the flowering vines.
But the decay here troubled him nevertheless. Spiders wove their tiny intricate webs over the iron lace roses. In places the iron had so rusted that it fell away to powder at the touch. And here and there near the railings, the wood of the porches was rotted right through.
Then there was the old swimming pool far beyond the gardena great long octagon bounded by the flagstones, which had become a swamp unto itself with its black water and wild irises. The smell alone was frightful. Frogs lived there, frogs you could hear at dusk, singing their grinding, ugly song. Sad to see the little fountain jets up one side and down the other still sending their little arching streams into the muck. He longed to drain it, clean it, scrub the sides with his own hands if he had to. Longed to patch the broken balustrade, and rip the weeds from the overgrown urns.
Even the elderly aunts of his patientMiss Carl, Miss Millie, and Miss Nancyhad an air of staleness and decay. It wasn't a matter of gray hair or wire-rimmed glasses. It was their manner, and the fragrance of camphor that clung to their clothes.
Once he had wandered into the library and taken a book down from the shelf. Tiny black beetles scurried out of the crevice. Alarmed he had put the book back.
If there had been air-conditioning in the place it might have been different. But the old house was too big for thator so they had said back then. The ceilings soared fourteen feet overhead. And the sluggish breeze carried with it the scent of mold.
His patient was well cared for, however. That he had to admit. A sweet old black nurse named Viola brought his patient out on the screened porch in the morning and took her in at evening.
"She's no trouble at all, Doctor. Now, you come on, Miss Deirdre, walk for the doctor." Viola would lift her out of the chair and push her patiently step by step.
"I've been with her seven years now, Doctor, she's my sweet girl."
Seven years like that. No wonder the old woman's feet had started to turn in at the ankles, and her arms to draw close to her chest if the nurse didn't force them down into her lap again.
Viola would walk her round and round the long double parlor, past the harp and the Bosendorfer grand layered with dust. Into the long broad dining room with its faded murals of moss-hung oaks and tilled fields.
Slippered feet shuffling on the worn Aubusson carpet. The woman was forty-one years old, yet she looked both ancient and younga stooped and pale child, untouched by adult worry or passion. Deirdre, did you ever have a lover? Did you ever dance in that parlor?
From the Hardcover edition.