Although Anne Rice‘s The Vampire Chronicles are undoubtedly her most famous and best-selling novels, there is much to be said for her witch trilogy: The Lives of the Mayfair Witches. Although none of the characters who populate The Witching Hour are quite as memorable as her vampires, the plot and pacing of her witch-stories appeal to me more than anything else she has written to date. Her skills as a novelist are on fine display here and her storytelling techniques are utterly unique, including introductory chapters told through the eyes of family associates who experience unsettling experiences with the Mayfair family; the gradual intertwining of her two main characters through a series of `coincidental’ events; and a large chunk of the novel devoted to the records of an investigative organisation. The story is not told linearly; instead it flits back and forth from present to past, raising questions that are not resolved till much later in the novel’s progression (and some which are not answered till later books).
Three major concepts are at work within the novel, all deeply connected with each other (though these connections may not be immediately apparent). First are Rowan Mayfair and Michael Curry; two attractive, successful and reasonably content human beings who are the protagonists of the trilogy. At least until the day Michael drowns at sea and is resuscitated only to believe that he has been sent back from death in order to complete a vital mission. His rescuer is Rowan, who was adopted at birth and has no knowledge of her family lineage, nor her and Michael’s shared link with the grand old Mayfair house on First Street.
Second is the Mayfair family and their bond with a mysterious spirit who has haunted them for generations. A massive collection of cousins, daughters, sons, aunts and uncles, the Mayfairs orbit around a direct line of descendants which currently rests with Deirdre Mayfair (Rowan’s mother), a catatonic mute who spends each day rocking in a chair on the veranda. For centuries, this lineage has bonded with a spirit known as Lasher, whose origins, intentions and purposes are a mystery, even to the individuals most deeply involved with him. Present throughout the tragic, magnificent and often sordid history of the Mayfairs, Lasher has been an integral part of its success — though he remains a quintessential mystery.
Those attempting to unravel this enigma are those who make up the third crucial component of the novel; an organisation known as the Talamasca, best described as a supernatural FBI who look into various phenomena around the world and have a particular interest in the Mayfair clan. Anne Rice excels herself in her creation of the Talamasca’s file on the Mayfair history. Recorded by various members, it is the transcription of the Talamasca’s observations and interactions with the witch-clan, and is utterly fascinating. Taking up several chapters, the file chronicles Lasher’s known history, and all that the Talamasca discover about the Mayfair over the years, packed full of smaller intrigues and tidbits. It’s without a doubt the best part of the book and a lot of fun to read.
Overall, The Witching Hour is a fascinating, complex and intoxicating exploration into a family throughout history, countries and the generations. Rice’s attention to detail is meticulous (right down to the patterns on antique cutlery) and manages to balance her massive range of characters, ideas, dates, intrigues, and events (both historical and fictional) with extraordinary skill. To my mind, it is her most elaborately plotted story, exceeding even her vampire novels and is unique simply because it is not so much a traditional beginning-middle-and-end story, but rather an investigation into a centuries-old mystery. For some, the length and detail may test patience, and admittedly it’s difficult to properly describe the scope of the book, as it’s very tempting to use the word “epic” in describing it. However you personally chose to define it, get ready for a novel that’s too big to read in one sitting, however much you might like to.
Rowan and Michael come across as likeable, genuine people (though admittedly, I could have done with a little less detail concerning their sexcapades), but it the historical and secondary cast that really light up the page; Julien, Stella, Petyr van Abel, Deborah, Mary Beth, the tragic Antha and Deirdre — you won’t forget any of them in a hurry. And lurking behind it all is the mysterious Lasher; mischievous, dangerous, manipulative, childlike; who he is and what he wants is always remains the core of the novel, as is his relationship with the Mayfair women. He’s one of Rice’s best inventions.
This is the first book of a trilogy is followed by Lasher and Taltos, which are not quite up to par with this first installment, but necessary reads to uncover many of the mysteries mentioned here.
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of reader who revisits certain books every year. In practice… it doesn’t always happen. The Witching Hour by Anne Rice is an old favorite of mine — I first read it twenty years ago (wow) and have gone through, I think, four copies of it, and the fourth is looking a little haggard — and with its climactic action set around Christmastime, I always wanted it to be an annual winter reread for me. But like I said… it doesn’t always happen. It’s a busy time of year, and such a long book, and…
Last year, I actually did reread it over the holidays, and found myself feeling a little differently about it, and I think I’ve put my finger on why. I recently devoured Samantha Ellis’s memoir How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much (review of that soon, too), in which Ellis revisits her young self’s literary idols as an adult and sometimes views them in a whole new light. Through that lens, I can see that my changed feelings about The Witching Hour boil down to this: what with all the skipping of years and such, this is the first time I’ve read it while being significantly older than its heroine, Rowan Mayfair.
This is really more of a reflection than a review. For an excellent and straightforward review, check out Rebecca’s. In short, The Witching Hour is the story of two lonely people, Michael Curry and Rowan Mayfair, who are brought together by (seeming) chance and fall in love, only to discover that both are tied to a moldering mansion and a haunted legacy in New Orleans, a legacy that puts both in terrible danger. Interwoven with their story is the history of the Mayfair family, and if you think reading an imaginary genealogical file sounds dry, then you haven’t read this imaginary genealogical file. I agree with Rebecca that it’s the best part of the book. I’d have gladly read a few more hundred pages of it.
As for Rowan and Michael… well, that’s where it all felt different. First, I don’t think I ever realized before just how quickly their relationship falls into trouble (though it almost has to be quick, as the book’s so long already) or how painful some of it is to read, as in the scene where they host a grand party while barely speaking. Having experienced more relationship pain than I had when I was younger, this scene hit me much harder. And Rowan, well, this was the first time I read it and couldn’t really sympathize with her diabolical temptation. I saw how it fit her character, but I couldn’t stand what she was doing, and wanted to shout at her about what a mess she was making of her life and Michael’s.
And that, I realize, also comes from lived experience and from seeing the character in the rearview mirror, as it were. When I first read The Witching Hour, and the first few times I reread it, I completely understood her and thought it was all rather glamorous in a gothic sort of way. That’s not a change in what Rice put in the book; it’s a change in me.
I still enjoyed this sweeping brick of a book, though, and found myself thinking about it last weekend on a walk, which led to this review. It’s an extremely long book and has some flaws, but it’s always creepily intriguing.
The Witching Hour ends with some ambiguity, but you don’t have to read the sequels, Lasher and Taltos. They’re not as good: they character-assassinate almost everybody, and besides, they just don’t feel the same. It pains me to say you can skip the delightful Ancient Evelyn from Lasher, but you can. In the past, I always felt compelled to read the other two after finishing The Witching Hour, and they always left me feeling let down, but this time I was saved by not knowing where they were. Rice herself once said that she initially thought this first book was complete in itself, and I think it can stand alone quite well.
The Lives of the Mayfair Witches — (1990-1994) Publisher: Demonstrating once again her gift for spellbinding storytelling, Anne Rice makes real a family of witches — a family given to poetry and incest, to murder and philosophy, a family that is itself haunted by a powerful, dangerous and seductive being.