Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Jessica Leonard on CONJURING THE WITCH

Horror stories centering around witches, whether in books or film, have always been among my favorite horror stories, so when I saw that Jessica Leonard, author of the eerie Antioch, had a new book coming out called Conjuring the Witch, I was eager to read it. It's a short novel centered around a rural church congregation, and when odd things start happening in the congregation, their reverend speaks of witches being among them.  Do the women in the group believe this? The men sure seem to. Tensions rise and the creepiness deepens, and if there is actual witchcraft happening, is it truly evil as the reverend says or something else, like a symptom of rebellion against the church's power structure?

I talked with Jessica about Conjuring the Witch, which is published, I should add, by Ghoulish Books.


Scott Adlerberg: I'll start with a basic question. Conjuring the Witch is a creepy, atmospheric rural horror tale, and though it's contemporary, it has a timeless feel to it, maybe because you derive a lot of your mood from how you evoke nature, specifically the woods. The woods border on the story's central location, a church, and they're like a character in their own right. The entire woodland seems sentient. Classic horror stuff.  Did you grow up close to nature and see it early on in your writing life as something you'd incorporate in a major way in your stories?

Jessica Leonard: Absolutely. I grew up on a tobacco farm and our home was surrounded by thick woods. As I grew up I started to resent being so far away from civilization. My friends could walk places and had friends in their neighborhoods - I wanted that! So when I bought my first house as an adult it was in a little subdivision where we had trick or treaters and my son could walk to his friend's houses and all those things I felt like I'd missed. It didn't take long for me to reconsider. I missed the space. We lived in that neighborhood for about 15 years, but when it was time to go, I knew I needed to get back to the woods. Nothing is more inspiration for me in my writing than having the opportunity to be still and look out into the woods. Because they absolutely are sentient! It took me awhile to come back to the woods in my writing, just as in my life, but I think it was always in there trying to break free. 

Scott: The witches kind of follow naturally from the presence of the woods. Which goes with a lot of witch stories where the whole practice of witchcraft is linked to nature, the Earth, something against established human structure, or more specifically, a male-dominated structure. That’s what you have here, with the whole story revolving around a church and its congregation. You set up an almost primal opposition between the traditionally minded men running the church and their wives. Witches in that scenario almost by definition represent pushback against male authority, a subversive force.

Jessica: It creates an instant juxtaposition. The church is the most human of all structures. The woods are pushing up against it, literally and figuratively here. So often witchcraft in literature is a symbol of evil, but I'm much more interested in seeing it used as a symbol for freedom and independence from oppression, which is what I hoped to do here. 

Scott: You definitely did. Did you have a religious upbringing you delved into here at all, or was it more using a church and its members as the sort of embodiment of repression, conformity and so on? 

Jessica: I'd say a little of both. I was raised in a Methodist church and honestly it was a very mild and kind experience for me. The first pastor I had was a woman, the sermons were mostly about love. I can't claim it felt necessarily oppressive there, but it also never felt quite right. I had too many questions and there weren't enough answers to suit me, so I searched elsewhere and no longer practice Christianity. 

But I also grew up in the Midwest/South and went to other churches that were the exact opposite. All the hellfire and brimstone and exclusion that goes along with the most organized religion. When you think about groups that can and do oppress women, well, the church is probably in your top three if not the first. The book begins by describing a neon cross on the outside of the church, something I swiped from a church not far from where I live. I think that's such a powerful symbol for everything wrong with the power of a church — bright and glaring and alien.

Scott: What kind of research did you do, if you’re big on research, connected to witches and especially to how  witches are viewed now? You read a novel or see a movie about witches set in the past, that’s one thing, but to do a plausible story now about a group of contemporary people who use cell phones and everything else but still are prone to literally believing evil witches with powers exist, is something else. Certainly the isolated, cult-like quality of the church in Conjuring the Witch helps make the beliefs, fears, and behavior of the characters believable. 

Jessica: Most of the research I did was centered around submissive wives. I knew the idea existed and had seen a few things, but delving into it I found quite a bit of Christian blogs from women who chose to "live a submissive life" and I took a lot of notes from those. I also found Christian websites that had online teachings about how they believe a family is supposed to be setup - with the man as the leader of the household and all that. It was pretty wild to me how prevalent it really was. And from there it wasn't a far leap to finding other accounts of large churches that talk about witches in a very real way. 

I remember when I worked in a bookstore and a woman came in and was very upset we sold Dungeons and Dragons books because she said they were satanic. It's that kind of mindset I had to look for and immerse myself in. Which wasn't much fun. But it was important to inform where these people were coming from.

Scott: An odd thing about certain kinds of horror stories is how often the repressive characters are often actually right factually about key things. In this day and age, a rational reaction to the accusation that there are witches among a church congregation would be to say, "Yeah, right.  Stop trying to drum up hysteria."  I mean witches with genuine powers, not just women who call themselves witches and do things like "commune with nature".  But of course, in a horror novel, these are witches with real powers, so in a sense, the repressive forces are not entirely incorrect in warning against them. But I'm curious. Witch stories work well when you have witches with actual powers and they also work well when the emphasis in the story is psychological, like a Salem witch trial type story, where you have the patriarchy with its fears and cruelty that is labeling certain women witches when at worst those women do things like "commune with nature". When you were dreaming up Conjuring the Witch, what was some of the thought process you had about how to approach witches and how to portray them and how far to go with the "supernatural" element?

Jessica: When I initially came up with the idea for the book I wasn't going to include any supernatural elements. But honestly, I just really love the supernatural and couldn't resist. For so long a witch in horror was a symbol of evil - cut and dry. I wanted to explore the witch as a symbol for independence and power, and whether you view the power as good or bad depends on which side of the fence you stood on. Also if you're dealing with a Christian church, the Bible is completely full of things we'd describe as supernatural, they're just choosing to view those powers as good instead of frightening. I liked exploring the different viewpoints there. 

Scott: What are some of your favorite witchcraft books and movies, whether portraying malevolent or not malevolent witches? Ones that may have influenced you, ones you just enjoy...

Jessica: There are so many! I recently saw She Will starring Alice Krige and completely fell in love with it. I can't recommend that one enough if you haven't seen it. Others that I enjoy are Autopsy of Jane Doe and Return to Oz - which is a horror movie, you can't convince me otherwise. For books I'll always say White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi. I love how it takes something based in reality and twists it into something else entirely, something chilling and bizarre and beautiful. It's an absolute favorite. 

Scott: I don't know She Will, but that sounds very good. I'll watch it. Alice Krige has always been very good in roles like that, with something uncanny about them.  I take it, you've been a big reader and follower of horror since you were young?  Did you come to the genre more through books or films or a little of both?  What are some of your earlier encounters with horror that made a big impact on you?

Jessica: I definitely came through books. I grew up without cable TV, so reading was what I could do if I didn't feel like watching The Victory Garden on PBS. Although I will say I watched the movie Pet Sematary at a friend's birthday party in 5th grade and it basically ruined me. I was terrified and didn't watch another scary movie for years. But books I had no problem with. I didn't start with Goosebumps like a lot of kids, I went straight into Fear Street. I have incredibly fond memories of those stories and my first "book", written in 6th grade, was a Fear Street rip off through and through. I wrote it a few pages at a time and would pass them out to my friends. From Fear Street I graduated to Stephen King. The Stand was my first and I loved how enormous it was - a full world I could drop into. I was always excited for a scary book, but the movies took me a little longer to warm up to. 

Scott: I liked how you made your points about patriarchy and marriage and male-female relations organically within the fibers of the story. Nothing felt forced in or tacked on just to make a thematic or social point. That’s not always true, I find, even in genre fiction. If you could talk a little about how you wrestled with all that when writing the book.

Jessica: I found that it came sort of naturally. These are issues that are a part of a lot of folks everyday life so I tried to present them that way. As normal as getting groceries. One thing I wanted to do was show who these people were and what had led them to be who they were, the experiences and moments that shaped them, and if we're talking about women, the patriarchy is part of that. Even if they accept it or deal with it in different ways, it's still this larger system that informs much of who they are. 

Scott: Realism is so important in a horror novel. That grounding for the weirdness that occurs.  And you did that well, developing the weirdness from the everyday. I'm curious, in terms of that and things such as craft. Who are some of the authors you'd say you learned from about writing horror, whether of the quiet and more atmospheric kind, the more graphic kind, what have you?

JessicaThis might sound odd, but JD Salinger is one of my major influences. He's one of my favorite authors and I adore the way he wrote dialogue and people in general. It's very honest and open in a way we don't see in a lot of writing currently. But in a more modern sense, I think I learned so much from authors like Lindsay Hunter, Jac Jemc, and Paul Tremblay. Authors that can put horrible things, people, and situations on the page in a way that's compelling and beautiful. 

ScottInteresting about Salinger. I still like his short stories a lot, if less so The Catcher in the Rye, but I agree about the openness and emotional honesty in his fiction.  

Well, it’s been a pleasure talking. I guess I’ll wrap up by asking a standard last question — what’s on the horizon for you next? Working on anything now?

Jessica: So, I'm working on another book now. It is hopefully a little bit of a monster story but with supernatural moments. I like to throw every idea into every book. A monster, a ghost, a family drama. We'll see how that ends up! 

You can pick up Conjuring the Wish directly from Ghoulish Books here: Ghoulish Books.

You can pick it up from Amazon here.


No comments: