Every October, I bring you my favorite new horror reads, spotlighting women writers who are upping the creep factor in the world of horror lit. This year, I thought I’d shake things up a bit. Instead of focusing on all the best new horror releases across the genre, I’m going to share my favorite witchy titles that happen to have a feminist twist. Because even though my tastes tend toward psychological horror, my TBR has been filled to bursting these days with witchcraft and Ouija boards.
And I don’t just mean those storybook witches we see at Halloween, stooped crones with green skin, a hooked nose, a pointy hat, and a broomstick. I mean the witches we’ve seen across history and across cultures, folks who have harnessed power — whether natural, supernatural, or something else entirely — to heal others or to protect themselves or to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
Sure, witches get a bad rap. They are demonized and criminalized and stripped of their power… much as women are. But to my mind, a witch is just a woman who is seen as a threat to traditional power structures.
So if you’re ready, I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.
We Were Witches by Ariel Gore
[cw: domestic abuse / intimate partner violence]
My first rec — Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches — isn’t even horror-adjacent. Rather, I picked it up when I was looking deeper into the world of speculative memoir. Technically, this one’s billed as a work of metafiction but, either way, witchcraft creeps its way in. In We Were Witches, a single lesbian mother attempts to scrabble her way out of poverty but is faced at every turn with phallocentric narratives and paternalistic forces. In an attempt to fight back against societal scorn for unconventional women, she embraces witchcraft that looks suspiciously like… feminist-driven self-advocacy?
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
One of our Feminist Book Club picks, I loved this ’80s-tastic read about a group of high school field hockey players who decide to turn to witchcraft in order to turn around a long-running losing streak. It remains unclear whether they’ve truly harnessed black magic in order to become a winning team. Perhaps it’s just their faith in what they’re doing that makes them shine. Either way, what was most gratifying about We Ride Upon Sticks was being able to delve deeper into the individual story of each girl: who they were, how they related to each other as friends, and how they related to the world around them.
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
[cw: domestic abuse, forced pregnancy]
I think Nettle & Bone may be the first fantasy I’ve ever picked up. It’s just not a genre that’s appealed to me in the past. But when it comes to T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon, the brilliant mind behind fantastic and fun kids’ series like Hamster Princess), I’ll read anything she puts out. This dark fantasy is about a princess determined to save her older sister from an abusive prince. She enlists the help of a gravewitch, a fairy godmother, and an ex-knight. Magical acts abound. But the best thing about this book is how it shows that, with a bit of pluck, a woman can break the shackles that seek to keep her powerless in the face of powerful men. (Pro tip: You should totes pre-order her next book, A House with Good Bones, for some more witchy shenanigans.)
When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
First of all, isn’t this cover to die for? In Barnhill’s feminist fantasy, women pushed to lead lives of submission instead become dragons in what is known as the Mass Dragoning of 1955. Because this transformation is tied to women’s bodies, it is considered a taboo topic. (What else is new?) But one young woman who was left behind has questions. Caught between a mother who refuses to acknowledge the existence of dragons (but who seems to have magical powers of protection?) and an aunt who transformed into one, our young narrator struggles to find her way in a world that doesn’t seem invested in her or in her dreams. Will she push back against the constraints that have been forced upon her, embracing her own inner dragon? I loved the hell out of this book. You must read When Women Were Dragons. Also, did I just recommend another fantasy title? Have I foolishly been missing out on an entire genre my whole life?
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
This work of magical realism came out just last month and, let me tell you, it was mesmerizing. In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, life in the Montoya household has always been odd, and the unexplainable has always been brushed under the rug. Eventually, everyone but the titular matriarch leaves home… until they receive word that Orquídea Divina is about to die. She invites them to her funeral, urging them home to collect their inheritance. When they arrive, instead of the answers they’d hoped for, Orquídea Divina transforms into a tree and magical gifts begin to manifest in her descendants. What does it all mean? They end up traveling to Ecuador — where Orquídea Divina’s story began — to find out.
Cackle by Rachel Harrison
I’ve mentioned Harrison — and this book in particular — in my previous horror posts. Just to recap, our protagonist Annie has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend and feels somewhat adrift. She aches for reconciliation but resigns herself to a new life in a remote village, where she quickly latches onto a new bestie in a relationship that seems increasingly codependent. But who needs who more… and why do the other villagers seem so afraid of Annie’s new friend? Obviously, Annie’s new best bud is a witch, one who keeps spiders as pets. It’s not exactly a big mystery. But how things play out at the end of Cackle is still a delightful surprise.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
I picked up this historical fantasy (yes, another fantasy) at about the time I realized there was a theme running through my recent reads. (Witches. The theme was witches.) In The Once and Future Witches, the year is 1893 and, well, witches have been wiped out. As the book’s description goes, if a modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box. But when the three previously estranged Eastwood sisters find themselves together again in the town of New Salem, they begin to question whether the suffragist women’s movement might be better served by becoming the witch’s movement. The metaphor connecting the struggles for both political power and magical power might not be in any way subtle. But I certainly didn’t care, and I don’t think you will either. The Once and Future Witches is such a fun and exciting read.
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, Dani, Tamra Bonvillain, and Steve Wands
[cw: sexual assault, gaslighting]
Machado writes speculative fiction and nonfiction, and I adore her work. So when she ventured into the world of comics, another favorite medium of mine, my body was ready for it. What I didn’t expect was how dark and, frankly, upsetting this story would become. Still, Machado kicks ass at dark and upsetting in a way no one else does.
At the beginning of The Low, Low Woods, we’re introduced to two friends and their hometown of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania, a former mining town where strange and unexplainable occurrences go unexplored. But when El and Octavia wake up in the movie theater with no memory of the past two hours, things come to a head. El wants to know more. Octavia wants to forget it ever happened. This push and pull is at the heart of what’s wrong in their small Pennsylvania town. That and a witch who has the answers El has been searching for.
The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
I wasn’t going to include this one at first, because it’s not a novel; it’s a memoir. But witches aren’t just a fiction created by men who fear powerful women. Witch is an identity that’s embraced by many.
The man referenced in the title of The Man Who Could Move Clouds is a sort of witch. Or rather, he’s a curandero, a healer who uses natural and spiritual remedies to help others. He’s also the author’s grandfather and, though it’s frowned upon within their Colombian culture for women to practice these healing arts, he teaches his daughter — the author’s mother — everything he knows. The magical power that’s woven throughout their lives? It simply exists as a part of their culture, though there are some who believe in it and others who think it’s nonsense… or a curse.
The author? She believes. And when she, her mother, and her sisters all have the same dream, she becomes determined to relearn her family history and the history of these gifts.
And there you have it. My favorite recent witchy reads. Though bonus tip, if you want a witchy title to read with your kids, check out this older post of mine.