Witches on the Road Tonight
by Sheri Holman
Atlantic Monthly Press, 264 pp., $24.00
Sheri Holman is a difficult writer to categorize. She can write an elegantly observant novel of domestic absurdity, and she can write a book humming with Romantic misery and ghastly horror. There is no predicting what we will encounter when we land on either of these seemingly well-trod shores: what natives, what flora, what fauna. Holman is an original, and her literary ideas are so sublimely odd that they seem to have exited her imagination of their own free will. The Dress Lodger, her best-known book, is a powerful story set in a nineteenth-century London of Dickensian poverty that positively oozes with fear and despair. The novel, peopled by freaks, prostitutes, and medical dissecting knives, is full of heart, though one of the hearts, that belonging to a baby, beats outside of its tiny owner’s body.
Holman’s next book, The Mammoth Cheese, is utterly different: an impeccable, irresistible comedy of manners that manages to encompass both the big, politically sensitive subjects of abortion, fertility pills, family farms, and religion, and the more intimate, quotidian ways of mothers, daughters, cows, and Thomas Jefferson. Far more austere in its imagery, the novel is no less wondrously strange than its predecessor. One of The Mammoth Cheese‘s most prominent characters is, indeed, a very, very large cheese.
Holman’s new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, is, again, a happy surprise. She has brought together the crisp, domestic comedy of The Mammoth Cheese and the seeping ghoulishness of The Dress Lodger to create a marvelously creepy, touching, and tender novel. The supernatural is simultaneously questioned and accepted, as if being a witch were as impossible and as inescapable as a loved one’s rare genetic disease. A thoroughly modern ghost story, Witches on the Road Tonight is also a tale of the ghosts of real life: the ghosts we cannot shake, the memories and choices that haunt us.
One of the characters notes:
If she’s perfectly honest, she has to admit she doesn’t much care for horror movies. There, she’s said it. She doesn’t understand why people would want to put themselves through something so unpleasant. It’s not that she’s squeamish; no, she used to pore over Butler’s Lives of the Saints in the library at school…. Breasts on a plate and a body pierced by arrows; she didn’t turn away from violence, she just felt it shouldn’t be purely recreational.
Holman has built her novel around recreational fear, the fear we insist on seeking in horror films, novels, or scary stories around a fire at summer camp. But Witches on the Road Tonight, though both extremely entertaining and periodically terrifying, is not, itself, an example of recreational horror. Even more than it is a scary story, this is a story about what it means to be scared. Holman asks why we crave that sensation, generation …