Anne Rice—she of the famous Vampire Chronicles—had only recently returned to her beloved New Orleans when she began writing The Witching Hour, which is, among other things, a love letter to the Big Easy. Her descriptions of the city are gem-like in their clarity and beauty, as is much of Rice’s writing here. Perhaps more than anything else she’s written in this particular setting, The Witching Hour perfectly captures the tone of the city itself, with its languid pace and its positively baroque level of detail. Whatever you think of her, one thing you can always count on Anne Rice for is sumptuous writing.
Yet sumptuous writing alone cannot sustain a story, especially one of this length. So, is the story itself any good? We shall see. The first book of Rice’s second epic series (and it is epic, covering around three hundred years of European and American history) follows the long line of the Mayfairs, a family of witches who trace their origins back to Renaissance-era Scotland and a witch named Deborah, the first to summon the dark spirit Lasher, who subsequently haunts and torments each of Deborah’s descendants in turn. But what does Lasher ultimately want from the Mayfairs? That mystery is the heart of the novel’s plot, and it becomes clearer and clearer as the legend of the Mayfair witches unfolds, much of it told in epistolary form as collected by the Talamasca, a sort of early supernatural investigation team that watches and keeps tabs on the Mayfairs but tries not to directly interfere. Despite their best attempts to keep their distance, however, the Talamasca becomes fatefully intertwined with the family as one of their agents becomes sire of an important branch of the Mayfair clan.
All of this is framed by the story of the present-day Mayfairs, particularly Rowan Mayfair, a young doctor who was whisked away from New Orleans as an infant and taken to California for initially unclear reasons, so she has never really known her family. Into Rowan’s life comes Michael Curry, an architect with his own ties to New Orleans who nearly drowns and is rescued by Rowan. As the two become lovers, Rowan seems fated to return to the city of her birth, where she will finally confront the dark mysteries of the Mayfair clan and her own nebulous past once and for all.
At nearly one thousand pages (in the Knopf hardback), it is a massive tome, and with a large part of it being essentially exposition, some readers are going to be put off by the saggy middle of the novel. Personally, I found the history of the Mayfairs to be fascinating, and I almost wish each of the legacy Mayfairs, or at least the more interesting ones, had gotten their own book. Especially those who lived in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. To be sure, there are a lot of family members covered here—indeed, the book would’ve benefited from some sort of timeline chart or family tree to refer back to. Perhaps future runs of the novel will remedy that. As for the Mayfairs whose lives are presented in The Witching Hour, each one feels more decadent than the last. There’s enough drama and suspense in the Mayfair histories for three soap operas: wealth, murder, incest, madness, kidnapping, incest, violence, dark secrets, incest . . . it’s all here.
Did I mention there was incest? Yeah, there’s a lot of that. The thing is, there’s a pretty important reason for it, and it rarely feels gratuitous or exploitative the way it can in the works of, say, V.C. Andrews. But if incest bothers you, consider yourself forewarned. Despite their almost cliched level of gentility and charm, a goodly number of the Mayfair witches are not nice people. What? Bad witches? Whodathunkit? Of course, the aptly-named Lasher is often the driving force behind their wickedness. The Witching Hour is Southern Gothic writ large, and it mostly works. Still, it all unfolds at a pace many fans of more traditional horror fiction will find tedious at the very least, if not outright plodding. But the family is colorful and eccentric enough to be engaging even without the more horrific elements, which really don’t pop up until near the very end of the book. But when they do . . . hoo boy. As someone who grew up in a traditional Southern clan, with a grandmother who canned her own fruits and veggies, there’s one freaky revelation that felt so spot on that it was a pretty solid icicle to the heart of this reader.
Bottom line: This is quintessential Anne Rice. People either tend to love or hate her style. Some may feel it is precious and overwrought. For me, as an admirer of elegant, poetic writing, I could probably read a set of VCR instructions penned by her from cover to cover and be perfectly convinced by the end of it that I had read something amazing. That said, when you dispassionately separate Rice’s writing ability from her storytelling, you may realize that the latter doesn’t always live up to the former. Here, it comes close but falls a wee bit short. There’s a lot of information stuffed into the exposition, and it can be difficult to keep all of these Mayfair women separate in one’s mind. Moreover, given her resolve throughout the majority of the novel, Rowan’s sudden turn near the end feels more than a little forced. Finally, without giving anything away, let me just say that the ending is likely to drive some readers absolutely bonkers. But if you’re willing to follow Rice on this long and often torpid journey, you may be rewarded with some dazzling sights, sounds and smells along the way, and even a well-honed fright or two.