I started J.W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch late in September, wanting to get into the spirit of the season a little earlier this year. I finished it on a gray, gusty evening a couple of days into October, and honestly I couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere (marred slightly by the fact that I was getting over a cold). It really is the perfect read to set the stage for Hallowe’en — Ocker’s enthusiasm for the holiday is infectious, and you can’t help but be swept up by the magical pandemonium he chronicles in this spookiest of travelogues.
This is a book about Salem, naturally. About the charm and chaos and contradictions that constitute the Witch City. To write it, Ocker and his family spent an entire October experiencing the haunted holiday along with Salem and its other guests. It’s an excellent, enviable premise, and Ocker makes the most of it, venturing out into the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of downtown Salem during the days before retreating back to a rented house or, more often than not, a themed restaurant or bar (wherein he would imbibe colorfully-named concoctions like “Candy Corntini” and “Satan’s Cider”) in the evenings to collect and record his thoughts. The result is a loving nocturne to both a city and the holiday that, for better or for worse, it has come to embody.
The book is as much a history primer as it is a travel guide, with the first handful of chapters dedicated to Salem in the Puritan era — particularly focusing, of course, on the infamous Witch Trials. Specifically Ocker tries to figure out just why an event that was, in comparison to other similar inquisitions of the time, relatively inconsequential, and that most of which didn’t even happen in Salem proper but rather in the surrounding vicinities, came to shape the identity and soul of a single place so thoroughly — not to mention latch itself so fervently to our collective unconscious that the mere appearance of the word “witch” makes one think of Salem. It’s as close to a central theme as this book has, and Ocker tries to offer up different conclusions by interviewing, through the lens of this thesis, several individuals with varying ties to the city. We never really get a definitive answer, though, but the point is that maybe there isn’t one. Cities are made of inconsistencies and complexities as much as they are made of brick and mortar.
It’s a duality and discrepancy those who hold up Salem as a haven for Hallowe’en have to contend with, and which constitutes one of my favorite aspects of the book. A real tragedy happened there, minor or not, and viewpoints differ as to whether adding a weighty layer of morbid celebration counts as disgrace, or if it’s yet another example of human resilience against adversity. Of people, as Stephen King once wrote, dancing in defiance of the dark. Ocker favors the latter:
Everything in the entire world is founded on tragedy. Our country, every country. There’s not a society on the planet that doesn’t have ancient tragedies clawing at its back. The past is a giant corpse. But life isn’t a perpetual state of regret and mourning over those tragedies, it’s taking those tragedies, giving them their due in proportion, learning from them (or not), working to prevent them from happening again (or not), and then we all party because we only have so many holidays in our lives.
A bit irreverent, to be sure, but I stand with Ocker (and King) on this one.
In truth, history is what makes up the bulk of Season, and if there’s one gripe with the book is that at times it seems like too much History and not enough Hallowe’en. Which is funny, because we do actually get quite a bit Hallowe’en. Ocker guides us through the myriad of eerie events, creepy celebrations, and dreadful destinations Salem offers not only during the month of October, but often year-round as well. Everything seems joyous and hokey in equal measure, and it is written in such a fond, earnest manner that it led to the Witch City becoming a personal de rigueur destination. There’s a hell of a lot of Hallowe’en in here. But you still end up expecting more, especially based on the promise of the cover. It’s just as well, though. Hallowe’en always feels like too much and also somehow never enough. It’s part of the ephemeral nature of the holiday.
“You can’t fit a city into a book,” Ocker writes in the epilogue. Which is true: cities are unwieldy by nature, and too full of people (beautiful, frustrating, obfuscating people) to be entirely understood. But you can capture a certain feeling, a certain sense of a season. Ocker let us know back in the introduction: Salem is weird. Salem is absurd. Salem is magic. If the intention was to show us just how weird and absurd and magical the Witch City could get, then A Season with the Witch most definitely met its goal.