For fans of Us and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comes a witchy story full of black girl magic as one girl’s dark ability to summon the dead offers her a chance at a new life, while revealing to her an even darker future.
Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made more money. Clients pay her to talk to their deceased loved ones, but it isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and Mom’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. Things get worse, when a ghost warns her to stop the summoning’s or she’ll “burn everything down.” Katrell is willing to call them on their bluff, though. She has no choice. What do ghosts know about eating peanut butter for dinner?
However, when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.
But magic doesn’t come for free, and soon dark forces are closing in on Katrell. The further she goes, the more she risks the lives of not only herself, but those she loves. Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty or confront the darkness before it’s too late.
Okay, let’s talk about poverty, the desolation of desperation, and the fact that there are good people and bad people in this world, and many of them, both good and bad, happen to be parents.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Any fool can have a child…”, and that sentiment carries with it the idea that parenting is complex, multifaceted, and rarely easy. I don’t even have kids but I understand this reality, that it’s one of the biggest responsibilities a person or couple can undertake. And folks have children for all sorts of reasons, less ideal ones being misconceptions about family planning, a lack of access to affordable health care, and a lack of education. Low income and poverty tend to be bedfellows with these reasons, and this is perpetuated by a never-ending cycle where the state continually fails its people, or ignores them completely. And no, not all parents are fools or lacking, but how is someone, often still a kid themselves, supposed to properly nurture their kid(s) on top of working two or three jobs just to get by?
There’s no shortage of articles out there making the case that children who grow up poor are at greater risk of being exposed to frightening and/or threatening experiences, and a lack of educational opportunities. Indeed, there is a correlation to be found between poverty and the kind of parenting a child receives that shows it can skew inadequate or worse, I don’t think any of us need to be an expert on the subject to understand this fact. The result of all this, which amounts to a severe lack of opportunities in life mostly thanks to a broken system, is that more often than not, low-income kids are forced into adulthood prematurely.
As an ineffectual adult myself, I’m constantly in awe of how much is expected from so many young people in this world, having to take on responsibilities they have no business even thinking about for another five or six years, and yet here we find Katrell Davis having to do exactly that. Katrell is a 16-year-old Black girl who herself is having to financially take care of a manipulative and serially unemployed mother, and her mother’s drug addicted boyfriend who contributes nothing to the situation except violence. Not only this but she’s also expected to go to school, perform well, and maybe, just maybe, think about a future. And this isn’t the first time Katrell has encountered vile behavior from an adult, no, even at such a young age, this is becoming old hat for her.
Before we get going, it behooves me to say that Katrell, her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend Gerald, are bound to elicit very strong reactions from readers, there’s no doubt about that. And what do I mean by strong reactions? Well, you’re going to fucking hate two of them, and reach a level of frustration you didn’t know existed with the other, and we’ll get to why in a second. My hope is that you consider at least some of what I’ve said so far before you judge the actions of Katrell and her mother as you work your way through Bad Witch Burning which is an incredible debut novel from Jessica Lewis.
As the summary says, Katrell has an unexplained ability that allows people to speak to the dead by performing the somewhat simple ritual of writing letters to them. She’s not a grifter, this is something she can actually do, and will do so for the measly sum of $30. The summoning’s don’t last very long and the side effects include migraine level headaches for Latrell, but it helps paying the bills, and believe me, these bills definitely don’t pay themselves.
During the summoning of a friend’s grandmother, Katrell is warned by the spirit that being a conduit to the dead will have dire consequences that include “burning”, whatever that means, so she stops. That is until Katrell realizes she can also bring the dead back to physical life, and that people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to hug their loved ones again, who wouldn’t? And how did she realize this exactly? Well, in a nice Pet Cemetery sort of twist, her beloved dog Conrad, a once gentle giant who was murdered by Gerald (long story) is seemingly alive the next day after being buried in the back yard. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Conrad plays a VERY important part in this story all the way to the end, but I don’t want to say too much there. Let’s put it this way, Conrad 2.0 has a much different disposition than the pre-murdered one with quirky new characteristics including but not limited to, no heartbeat and zero chill when it comes to certain people.
So, with this newfound necromantic ability and no shortage of potential clients, all Katrell’s money problems are solved, right? Not so fast.
Katrell was warned bad things would happen if she continued to toy with the other side, but this monkey’s paw is too good to resist, and things unsurprisingly spin dangerously out of control. Katrell is stubborn, and worst of all desperate, a bad combination and one that usually gets you into trouble which it definitely does in her case. So, when someone in that situation is presented with an easy(ish) way out, well, there’s very few of us that would have the strength to walk away from it. And thus begins her journey and with it, a series of one bad decision after another, definitely in keeping with this genre.
Of course, what she grapples with and something we have to come to terms with as hopefully empathetic readers is we know she knows better, but the forbidden fruit, the easy way out, is just too tempting. What’s worse is that Katrell is no dummy; but she’s a product of years of abuse, environmental socio-economic trauma, and a system that just doesn’t give a shit what happens to a certain populace. And I’m not making excuses for her mother’s behavior, it’s abhorrent, but I can’t help but think how any of us would’ve turned out given similar circumstances, her mother included. But, at the end of the day, our actions define who we are, and we all have a choice to do right by others, even if it means personal sacrifice. This is a huge part of this story, the issue and weight of the choices we make, and trying to help Katrell with her decisions are her best (only) friend Will, and her high-school guidance counselor Mike.
Jessica sure gave us a beauty in Will, someone who has suffered tremendous violence since the death of her parents/grandparents, spending time bouncing around in the foster system. Remember what I said about any fool can have a child? Well, apparently in the foster system, they’ll take just about anyone with a room available to relieve pressure on an overtaxed and underfunded system, and that includes monsters. Will’s seen her fair share of fiends, fortunately for her, she now finds herself in the care of Cheryl and Allen Tapscott, two foster parents who seem to be caring, loving people. The problem is that Will is so fucked up from the trauma she’s experienced, she’s a shell of what she likely could’ve been, a sweet, creative, young Black girl with the world at her feet. Instead, she’s built-up walls around her, even to the point of being touched by anyone at any time sends her into a full-blown bout of extreme anxiety. It’s heartbreaking to see someone so young, so damaged, so conditioned to disappointment, that they have hard time recognizing a good thing when they see it, because it’s a mirage that will eventually disappear.
If there’s cause for TW/CW’s it’s in Will’s backstory, where Jessica gives us some (not all) graphic details in what she’s been through. It’s obviously fucking vile shit that no child should ever have to experience, but it’s her reality, and Jessica doesn’t pull too many punches here. It’s also something that is vital when it comes to understanding the relationship between Will and Latrell, their bond is rooted in a shared pain. They look out for each other in a way few can understand, a good example of this is a hallway scene involving another student named Chelsea (you’ll dislike her too) that will turn you into a rageaholic no doubt, but it really sums up their friendship. I absolutely loved this relationship and as you’ll see, there’s none more vital to the outcome of the story.
For his part, Mike is showing us that not all men and not all authority figures are totally useless or a threat, he genuinely seems to care about Latrell’s well-being. This is a hard pill to swallow for her who doesn’t have any experience with well-meaning adults. What starts out as an annoying stereotype, Mike definitely seems a tad overbearing when it comes to Latrell, but as time goes on, his actions and words will prove to her (and us), that he’s one of the good guys. This is important on Jessica’s part, to show us that sometimes there are folks in the system that aren’t evil or apathetic, despite what so many of us have been led to believe. Not to say you won’t experience this indifference in your own life from people you’re supposed to trust, but in this case, it’s a nice reprieve from the shit storm Jessica puts Latrell through.
So yes, Katrell is a “witch”, and one thing that Jessica really leans into here is that in these types of stories involving magic, especially dark magic, there’s always a price to be paid. And the price remunerated is usually equal to the amount taken, take a life, lose a life, that kind of thing. But all magic starts with intention, and a clear intention is step one and absolutely vital to the success of the spell, this is one of the prerequisites for successful spellcasting. We also know harm is an unintended result of action, or in this case, magic, and unfortunately for Latrell, what starts out as her cure-all, really turns into a manifestation of grief, and both physical and metaphysical suffering, and not just for her.
For you horror/gore types out there, Bad Witch Burning has enough splatter that should satisfy your bloodlust fetish. In most cases, the genre relies on folks making bad decisions, tropes such as going outside without a flashlight, walking home alone, seeing what that weird sound was, stuff like that. But here, most of the time people are making reasonable decisions, there’s just simply no way for them to know what was going to happen next. As you’ll see, there’s really only one person making poor choices in that regard. And for me, things don’t get too out of control, in fact, as the walls start closing in on Katrell, that’s the exact moment Jessica pulls the plug and shifts gears in the most wonderful of ways. And yes, there’s no question certain details concerning Katrell’s magic are left ambiguous, so those looking for a magic deep dive are in for a bit of disappointment. But, that tips Jessica’s hand ever so slightly and reveals something important, Bad Witch Burning isn’t a book about magic; it’s a book about people, it’s a book about second chances, it’s a book about forgiving yourself.
So, what’s the bottom line?
I’ve left out a HUGE part of Bad Witch Burning, purposefully of course, so that you may experience as much of this thriller as clear eyed, open minded, and spoiler-free as possible. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you to think this is just a sobering look at the general state of things, it’s also a damn fun read with some incredible sequences, the pages turn themselves. But Jessica is writing a contemporary story in the world in which she exists, so, certain truths, certain facts of life remain just that, zombie dogs or not.
But it is a point worth making, that what’s great about this book is it uses nuance and subtext, yes, and horror, to broad stroke larger themes as horror often does. This fear and anxiety that Katrell and others experience, and that has manifested on our streets and in our neighborhoods is real. This slice of life tale barely leaves four square blocks, but what’s happening to those affected, those feeling the impact of social imbalance, is happening all across America. And no, I don’t mean witches and sleepwalkers necessarily, I mean a lack of rent control, crime-infested streets resulting from zero social assistance, a system that just doesn’t care about you until you vote, these are the real monsters, not a 16-year-old girl. Children, CHILDREN, left to fend for themselves and a foster system being asked to do too much with too little that ironically puts kids sometimes in more danger.
Listen, Katrell’s problems may or may not be solved with magic, that’s the story Jessica is choosing to tell, that the American Dream is subject to collapse unless we do something about it, unless we take control of our own lives. But rarely do we accomplish such things on our own and this is an important lesson Katrell must learn, but will it be too late? Will Katrell simply bend, or will she break? Not everyone has a “Will” or a “Mike”, and it’s important to recognize that the hand being offered can be an honest one from time to time.
File Bad Witch Burning under “must read” and in a year with some pretty great debuts; you can count this book among them. Pretty auspicious start for Jessica I’d say.
Bad Witch Burning is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!
About the Author:
Jessica Lewis is a Black author and receptionist from Alabama. She has a degree in English Literature and Animal Science (the veterinarian plan did not work out). She lives with her way-funnier-than-her grandmother, who answers all of her wild questions about ghosts and zombies and werewolves (even if she’s annoyed sometimes haha!). When she isn’t writing or working she enjoys watching cooking shows or HGTV-type home shows.