Set in 1970s West Virginia, James Tyler Toothman’s eclectic novel follows a downtrodden teenage girl’s descent into the world of Satanic witchcraft.
Born and raised in the coal-mining community of Clockmaker, 15-year-old Priscilla Carpenter’s day-to-day life follows a predictable rhythm: school, church, adventures with her best friend Joseph, and physical and emotional abuse from her father, Everett. One morning, Priscilla shows affection to Everett’s dog, Lucky, and Everett becomes enraged. Before her father can beat Priscilla with a switch, Lucky attacks Everett, escaping into the woods.
Devastated and worried, Priscilla enlists Joseph to help her find Lucky. What the friends believe will be a short hike results in a journey to the compound of a blind family who operates a moonshine business. As a token of hospitality, Priscilla is gifted a book from the family’s library and chooses a guide to witchcraft teeming with spells and potions. Priscilla’s resultant spell-casting skills attract the attention of the Devil himself, who has diabolical plans she never could have imagined.
Toothman’s novel is long, but the narrative rarely feels arduous. Scenes are carried by the author’s authentic, colloquial dialogue that reinforces the story’s geographical setting while reflecting each character’s distinct viewpoint. The author’s descriptive language paints clear, vibrant portraits of Clockmaker’s residents and their culture.
Priscilla’s witchy experiments range from amusing (causing the sky to rain human urine) to skin-crawlingly macabre (temporarily transforming a friend’s unkempt, obese mother into a beauty, but with a murderous internal creature who feeds on her body). However, Toothman relies on familiar witchcraft clichés (bubbling cauldrons, black cats, broomsticks, etc.), that fail to showcase anything new or innovative. Additionally, Lucifer is a fur-wearing pimp straight out of a Blaxploitation film, resulting in an off-putting, shallow caricature of Black masculinity.
Toothman’s novel likely won’t appeal to all horror fans. But those seeking off-kilter stories celebrating the occult as a tool of feminist vengeance will be immersed in Priscilla’s magical awakening as a country witch.
BlueInk Heads-Up: Librarians serving in West Virginia may wish to consider stocking a copy of this novel, as Toothman incorporates real-life historical events into the narrative, including the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood in Logan County.
Also available as an ebook.