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
I talked with Jessica
about Conjuring the Witch, which is published, I should add, by
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.
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?
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.
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...
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
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?
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.
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
Jessica: This 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.
Scott: Interesting 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.