Hubert J. Davis,
American Witch Stories
(Jonathan David, 1975; 1990)

In the 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration funded a project for collecting folklore from the Appalachian region of Virginia. Although the book on Virginia lore was never published, the tales were preserved. Hubert J. Davis compiled a great number of those stories with others from the U.S. to create his specialized collection, American Witch Stories.

This book is both a success and a failure. It's a success because it captures the flavor of Appalachian storytelling so well. Speech patterns are preserved, superstitions and folk remedies are explained. For anyone wishing to tap into the Appalachian culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, this book is invaluable.

However, it's a failure in that it never really evokes any sense of wonder or fear in a subject usually steeped in magic and mystery. This book holds your interest for a few stories and then rapidly falls into dull repetition.

The witches revealed in Davis's work know no middle ground. Their "magic" seems limited to two ends of the spectrum -- hexing butter churns and hunting rifles so they don't function properly at one end, killing babies and livestock at the other.

The stories are short and fairly redundant, with spells and spellbreakers reoccurring often throughout the text. More disturbing is what seems to be a widely held cultural belief that a run of bad luck, major or minor, is enough excuse to treat lonely old ladies rudely, in some cases to do them harm, and in a few instances to cause their deaths.

In most of these stories, the afflicted are almost immediately able to identify the witch behind their woes. Either everyone in the Appalachians was a pretty good guesser or these women wore "I'm a witch" nametags -- or, more likely, each victim simply picked the nearest witch stereotype -- an old, grouchy woman, usually living alone -- to lay the blame upon.

I'm all for the preservation of folklore in all its forms, but this book would have been more enjoyable at half the length or less. Although a treasure for saving the stories, customs, mannerisms and dialects of a culture, a collection this large demands a little more diversity to hold a reader's interest.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from