Nadine Dalton-West & Isabella Hunter Discuss Folklore, Technology, and ‘The Book of Witches’

The Sin of Witchcraft. We read about it, we look on it from the outside; but we can hardly realize the terror it induced […]

Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell

The paperback edition of The Book of Witches, a radical new anthology curated by none other than A J Dalton approaches (Kindle edition out now). Today, writer, reader & teacher Nadine Dalton-West explores her interest in Russian folklore and the fighting figure of the modern witch, while fantasy author Isabella Hunter discusses her contemporary take on the subject matter, including social media, cancel culture, and writing moral protagonists.

Be sure to follow @andiekarenina and @EvanovaLev on Twitter for more news about The Book of Witches.

Review copies can be obtained by emailing Dr Adam Dalton-West (adz_d2003@yahoo.co.uk) or by contacting Kristell Ink Publishing. News articles concerning modern and historic witchcraft (summarising the findings of The Book of Witches) are available upon request.

West: Folklore is a bottomless pit of inspiration for fantasy writers, but what drew you to Baba Yaga and Slavic folklore? 

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin.

Slavic folklore has always been one of my inspirations – my story in the first A J Dalton collection, ‘Rusalka‘, is also based on an Eastern European and Russian tradition of water spirits. I have been a Russophile since I first saw an onion dome or heard a chord of Prokofiev, and I have been lucky enough to visit Russia and learn enough of the language to pass an AS level a few years ago. Baba Yaga is a gloriously anarchic figure, and how can you not fall in love with a house with chicken legs? 

Hunter: What inspired your story, ‘At The Witching Hour’?

‘At The Witching Hour’ probably reads like one of those stories where the title inspired the rest of the story but it didn’t. I was bouncing a few ideas around and consulted with A J Dalton on three to get his opinion on which one had the most potential. The other two ideas were knocked off for being too standard, leaving ‘Technowitch’.

It all stemmed from the idea of someone using the anonymity of the internet to do your typical witchy things: clairvoyance, hexes, curses, etc., however, they all are related to technology in some way, i.e. cyberstalking, DDOSing, and doxing. It wasn’t until I had this idea and really started to nail it down I decided to call it ‘At The Witching Hour’ and make use of the @TheWltchingHour handle within my story.

West: Why do you think witchcraft (its themes of persecution, feminism, untold power, etc.) continues to haunt us?

Witchcraft as a theme is so timeless because we remain fascinated by magic and the possibility of powers beyond our own human understanding, and also because patriarchy and misogyny are going nowhere! The witch as outlier, maverick, defying both law and lore, is a potent image of female independence too. She is a symbol of resistance for women, whether she is a Pratchett’s Weatherwax or a Rowling’s Professor McGonagall.

I also think that in a world facing climate change, there is something compelling about the notion of power that is in harmony with the planet and its natural resources. I mark the pagan holidays personally, as the turning of the seasons and the cycles of nature are potent and powerful forces which I respect, and in which I find real beauty.

Hunter: Tell us about your modern approach to witchcraft, incorporating social media, technology, etc…

The initial story had to be cut down a lot as, honestly, I think it had the potential to be a much larger piece than the anthology could accommodate. While no names are mentioned it is clear from the story that Twitter is the main site Leanne uses, but initially I wanted her to be shown using a lot more sites to gather information, as well as contrasting her public online persona against the anonymous @TheWltchingHour.

A fanciful lithograph depicting the Salem Witch Trials (1892).

There are a lot of parallels I created between the traditional witch and Leanne such as her public side vs witch side. The piece features a modern take on a witch trial reminiscent of today’s cancel culture, the only difference being that historical witches hadn’t really done anything wrong.

I also really reined in what Leanne would do morally as she was already treading a moral grey area so I didn’t want her doxing people, for instance, because I wanted her to still be a character we can sympathise with, leaving her as more of a gossip guru.

West: Do stories of witchcraft translate well to the modern day? Is it challenging to do it justice in light of frequent stereotyping?

I think that modern day “urban” fantasy has forgotten about witches, a bit, as it has chased more sexy superpowers. Even stories like “The Magicians” or the reboot of “Sabrina” tend to focus on the idea of innate psychic/telekinetic abilities and then you just end up in Marvel kinda territory, where everyone can use power without real consequence.

The Book of Witches, Kristell Ink, 2020

There’s remarkably little “craft” in Sabrina’s “witchcraft”, after all, and we are a long way from the best representation of witchcraft in popular culture, which was Willow Rosenberg in “Buffy”, and yes, this is a hill I will die on!  

The tension between “does the witch have supernatural powers or is she just the smartest person on the block?” plays quite poorly in fashionable fantasy, I think. In addition, the stereotyping now tends to have moved away from “crone” and ends up in the “slutty witch Halloween costume” zone. 

Thanks to Nadine Dalton-West and Isabella Hunter

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