Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Rhode Island and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1984)

So far on this trip around New England we have had two appearances of the supernatural (most prominently in Carrie, and with the brief appearance of the real-life executed “witch” Ann Hibbins in The Scarlet Letter), two cases of adultery (Constance Mackenzie and Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughters in Peyton Place and The Scarlet Letter respectively), and small-town gossiping has been rife (nowhere more so than in Peyton Place). Now with John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick we have all three – a novel about gossiping adulterous witches. It makes sense that we have reached this point – the themes of fear of the supernatural and suspicion of one’s own neighbours are embedded into the roots of New England. The first known person to have been executed as a witch in the region was Alice Young at Hartford, Connecticut in 1647, just 19 years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A further 11 are recorded as having been executed from 1648 to 1688 (including Ann Hibbins) and from 1692 to 1693 the Salem Witch Trials led to the hanging of fourteen women and five men (more of the accused died from torture and in prison) famously dramatised in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. The episode is one of the darkest in America’s history and understandably the shadow it cast has long resonated in the literature of the region.

“Puritanism had landed smack on that rock and after regaining its strength at the expense of the soft-hearted Indians had thrown its steeples and stone walls all across Connecticut, leaving Rhode Island to the Quakers and Jews and antinomians and women.”

As with Peyton Place any work that features in its title the name of the town or city where the action occurs you would expect the said place to feature as prominently as any character, and in the Witches of Eastwick Updike includes some wonderfully biting passages describing both the fictional town and the state of Rhode Island, especially in the opening chapters. However, I'm disappointed to say the story did not bewitch me at all. Aside from a few key set-pieces (the tennis match, the hot-tub orgy, and a murder/suicide scene that is the main turning point) most of what happens over the course of the novel is related from one character to another after the fact during a series of extended gossip-sessions between the three witches, in a manner that I personally founded extremely tiresome. Even the Darryl Van Horne character appears mostly in the conversations of others, like a mysterious Gatsby-type figure. In the 1987 film Darryl Van Horne, played by Jack Nicholson, turns out to be the devil (cue some quite ridiculous and rather dated 1980s stop-motion). In the book there is barely even the implication, other than that his skin and, erm, bodily fluids are cold to the touch. He is devilish, Machiavellian even, but a man all the same. It is no wonder that fans of the book AND the film are so hard to pin down. I think it's safe to say I'm neither.

Next: Connecticut

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