In a cultural climate where even the weather report is sensationalized and we’re kept in a perpetual state of humming anxiety by the media, it is difficult to determine which of our fears are founded and which are imagined. Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) raises the question: is there a difference? Holman shines a light on the ways in which we perceive fear, violence and monstrosity, the idea of what scares us and how fear is manipulated—the impact of the messages of fear and the mythologies we build around that which terrifies us.
What fascinates is Holman’s close look at fear and its manifestations over the almost-century that the novel encompasses. From witches and generations-old ghost stories to the perpetual tension of our twenty-first century news media, we get a look at how the “monster” has evolved. The novel asks why do we fear that which we fear? What forms do our fears take? We witness the ways in which fear creates power dynamics: who wields it, who succumbs. To illustrate this, Holman utilizes the polarities of power and helplessness, control and powerlessness, life and death, God and the Devil. Are the “rides” on which Cora takes Tucker really happening? Is it metaphor? Either is a credible and likely possibility, like all the fears we harbor and nurture.
Witches on the Road Tonight uncovers the secrets and lies that echo through three generations of one Appalachian family. It is a deeply human, urgent exploration of America’s doomed love affair with fear. Via email correspondence and a phone interview, she shared with me some of the inspiration and process of writing this novel.
I asked her how this story emerged and what compelled her to write it.
Holman responded, “Like a lot of writers, I usually have the idea for my next book while I’m working on the one I’m finishing. The anticipation of working on something new helps me let go of whatever project I’ve been slaving over. As I was finishing The Mammoth Cheese, I became interested in ginseng and the folklore surrounding it. I was intrigued by the strange market of wild ginseng hunted in rural Appalachia then sold to China. How, according to legend, the more human-looking the root, the more potent it was. I got about as far as imagining a family of ginseng hunters living during the Depression when my twin sons were born (their due date was the publication date of Mammoth Cheese!) As you can imagine, life quickly got swallowed up with caring for them and touring for the new book. Maybe if I had been further along in my thinking about the ginseng novel, the story would have been set. But I was at the earliest stages when at the age of three months, one of my sons, Linus, was diagnosed with cancer. I barely wrote a word for close to four years until he was out of the woods, and by the time I was ready to pick the novel up again, I—and it—were radically changed. The sort of spooky story I’d envisioned felt anemic after everything we’d been through, and I knew I wanted to write about fear in its larger context and why so many of the stories we told ourselves slipped into ghost stories.”
The thematic bend of the story is the idea(s) of fear and its manifestations. I asked her to speak to the ways in which she addressed, bent and embodied fear in the novel.
She responded, “Spending time on the pediatric cancer ward among dead and dying children will make you question just about everything you’ve ever held to be true. Especially long-cherished beliefs about control; the ability the choose correctly and thus guarantee a good outcome for your life. This sense of powerlessness—not the delicious, tingly vampire-novel chills, or the kind of sexy-scared way we feel when we’re falling in love—but naked, raw What-is-the-Meaning-of-Life anguish, is at the heart of terror for me. When I went back to the ginseng hunter novel (now three years overdue!) I had all this new understanding of fear and it felt cowardly to try to write where I had been emotionally before this all happened. Even though I really needed the money and felt I should duplicate a book like my most successful, The Dress Lodger, I realized if I didn’t push myself at this critical moment, I would probably never do it. I’d be a girl who wrote books but not a writer, if you know what I mean.
“I had three different stories swirling in my brain during that time, all of which felt co-equal to me, none of which I could seem to let go,” Holman said. “I was thinking about how I liked to be scared as a girl. I told a lot of backyard ghost stories and I was obsessed with our local TV horror show host—you know those guys in the 60s and 70s who dressed as vampires and showed scary movies at midnight on Saturday nights. Then I was thinking about how I had been most afraid as an adult, and conceived the idea of a career woman who had been blindsided by motherhood. Then, of course, there was the ginseng story which I had set in a time of national fear during the Depression leading up to the second world war. If I was a writer of short stories, these would have all ended up in a collection, but I am, by nature, a novelist, and so I couldn’t sleep until I figured out how these three strands should be woven together. After many false starts, it finally came to me that I was looking at the arc of fear in America over the 20th century—beginning with extremely localized ghost stories, moving on to regional, yet more far-reaching fear, and ending with the kind of anxiety generated today by the global 24-hour news cycle. And then of course I was asking myself why, in the face of so much real terror world-wide, human beings actively generate even more ways to feel afraid. What does it do for us? How does recreational horror distract us from the real horror which is the inevitability of our own deaths?”
Holman does not attempt to explicitly answer any of the questions she raises, but the ideas she evokes and the myriad of monsters she conjures, give expression to the faceless fears with which we all struggle. What is real? What is imagined? What is harmless in and of itself? What is of true danger? In the novel—as in life—the answers are far more murky than clear. I asked her in what ways she thinks fear is manipulated by our contemporary culture and why.
She answered, “Living in New York after September 11th, I was especially struck by how hard we were working in the city to keep ourselves calm, to return to daily life. Yet the 24-hour news channels seemed to be working almost in direct opposition to that. The “Breaking News” crawl began at the bottom of the screen and never went away, Fox News got more and more hysterical. Glen Beck was preaching Armageddon. Living in a place of real and constant anxiety in my personal life, I started to get really angry at a news culture that seemed determined to make its viewers feel even more helpless. I wondered how we’d gotten from a society that had ‘Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself’ to one invested in keeping itself panicked 24 hours a day. To me, this is a profoundly suicidal impulse. It is the gutting of a culture, weakening it to the point of collapse. Imagine almost pornographically describing to your kids who are already afraid of the monster under the bed, the exact length of the monsters claws, and the snapping radius of the monster’s teeth. The gleeful salivating over catastrophe and tragedy these past years has struck me this way. I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but it seems the more afraid you keep a society, the more inclined it will be to buy anything you’re selling that makes that fear go away. And that’s anything from Ambien to bomb shelters to a political agenda.
“Ultimately, though, as we’ve witnessed recently in the Middle East,” Holman continued, “if you keep people powerless and afraid long enough, they will turn on you. So in the writing of this book, I wanted to look at how this dynamic plays out in a single family.”
The novel opens in the fall of 1940—Tucker and his circumstantial girlfriend, Sonia, are traveling Virginia for the W.P.A., recording landmarks for a forthcoming travel guide. They accidentally crash into eight-year-old Eddie Alley, whom Tucker and Sonia return to his ramshackle home in the middle of the woods. To entertain the boy—and assuage his own guilt—Tucker shows Eddie a movie on a hand-cranked projector, the first Eddie has ever seen. It is a silent version of “Frankenstein” the viewing of which goes on to command the trajectory of Eddie’s life. He leaves Panther Gap, hangs around a local TV station, ultimately marries the station owner’s daughter and becomes the weatherman and “Captain Casket,” the host of a local weekly horror show.
Tucker, whose intended stay of a few hours at Eddie’s house turns into several days, is seemingly bewitched by Eddie’s mother, Cora, who has a supernatural reputation. Their entanglement forces Tucker to expose and confront his own fears about women and his upcoming drafted enlistment into the Army.
The story toggles between Eddie, his daughter, and Tucker. Eddie—in three incarnations of his lifetime: his Depression Era youth, his mid-life and his old age wherein he is suffering from terminal cancer and attempting suicide. Wallis, his daughter, as a quietly precocious, thoughtful twelve-year-old and as an adult news anchor who serves up fear at every newscast. And Tucker, during his fateful visit to Panther Gap. Eddie’s wife and Wallis’ mother, Ann’s perspective is also featured, although in much smaller doses. Time moves back and forth poetically and thematically—and sometimes quite literally—repeats itself through the characters. Holman utilizes the resurfacing of the past through the generations to represent the evolving fears of the 20th and 21st centuries.
There is a trend of time recurring in the generations of your characters. I asked her to speak to its purpose.
Holman said, “I wanted to show how fear instilled in one generation—Cora, a powerless mountain woman who finds her power through keeping her son and the men around her afraid—translates to the next. Eddie doesn’t know if his mother killed a man or not and he grows up with a tenuous sense of reality. What really happened to Tucker Hayes? (I wanted, by the way, to give the reader the same experience Eddie had—we, too, are left at the end of the book unsure what became of him, and are forced to draw our own conclusions.) Eddie grows up to become a TV horror host, conjuring fear only to undercut it. Unlike his mother, he is not willing to take himself seriously. But Jasper, the boy who idolizes Eddie’s character Captain Casket, recognizes what is truly most frightening about him, which is his inability to face what he really is. By refusing to look in the mirror, Eddie becomes a monster, destroying the lives of those around him. Wallis, as heir to her witchy grandmother, wields fear most dramatically and dangerously. Instead of telling ghost stories in the mountains, or showing “B” horror movies on TV, she finds a global audience as the purveyor of sensationalist news stories. But at the end of the book she is left wondering if she has reported the news or created it? We play with reality in small ways within families, but ultimately that same impulse can translate to society-altering events, like the search for weapons of mass destruction that sparked the war in Iraq. Obviously it’s on a different scale, but the whipping up of fear to justify our agenda or make us feel safe is, sadly, universal.”
Holman also examines the dynamics of the male/female romantic relationships, and I wondered how she feels this fits in the larger landscape of the novel.
She responded, “So much returns to power—who has it, who is trying to take it away, the ways in which we wrestle with it, even unconsciously. We like to think our relationships are equal, but it has been my experience, even the most stable are full of successive trade-offs, little moments where, at any given time, one is more in charge or more in need. And often we find ourselves in conflict between what we need and what the ones we love need, and sometimes those needs are irreconcilable. I tried to explore this mutual exclusivity on the parent/child level in the relationships between Eddie and Cora and Wallis and Eddie, primarily. But of course it first takes its form in male/female sexual relationships. Most of the women in my book are highly sexualized, each on her own wild ride. Cora, most literally, on the backs of men. Sonia through her constant restless lens, and Wallis, almost callously, leaving her husband at home with their child, taking random lovers in a bid to fill the hole left by Jasper’s suicide. And of course as a 24-hour news journalist, she is taking the whole country on a careening nighttime ride with her fear-mongering. I wanted to show how the parent/child and male/female power struggle recapitulates larger societal struggles. The more we understand ourselves and what tears our relationships apart, the more we understand how societies seek to dominate, how wars get started, and how entire societies are rent.”
In the novel, Holman does not overly explain, she immerses.The gorgeous prose and imagery and the author’s mindful writing would be a distraction if it did not embroider an imaginative, lush and engaging story. Throughout, the consistent use of language—horror movie and war references—create a subtle but penetrating backdrop that buoys the larger themes. There is always in the backdrop war and horror references—the language throughout is wonderfully consistent. I asked her if she thinks this feels like a new mythology in the midst of contemporary cynicism and literalism about spirituality, or at least religion.
“Wars don’t just happen, individuals cause wars,” Holman said. “A boy loses his father in a war and a wound opens up that will effect his own son. We are always living in reaction to the events that preceded us, and a violent death slips into a family like a genetic marker. I created this character of Tucker who has been drafted prior to Pearl Harbor, before America even officially entered the war. His own father fought in WWI and came home a shell of a man. So Tucker naturally and profoundly doubts being asked to participate in a war that, technically for America, doesn’t even exist yet. He is torn—knowing that to opt-out allows room for the Hitlers of the world to win, knowing equally that to kill another man is to set in motion that cycle of violence and loss and hardship in a family that might well lead to the creation of another Hitler. Thus we as humans make our own monsters.
“We’re living at a time where vampires and werewolves and all sorts of sexy-spooky ghouls are prowling the collective consciousness,” Holman said, “and I don’t think that’s an accident. The world is extremely unstable right now and witches are everywhere. What I wanted to do, though, with this book was not just tell a scary story but to get more at the roots of why we feel the need to be scared in the first place, what we’re using these watered-down vampire and ghost stories to distract us from. I wanted to show how one family’s mythology of fear was born and let that speak for how we as a society live in reaction to the mythologies we, through our individual choices, help create. And to show the biggest myth of all is the illusion we can control the fear we collectively call into being.”
Witches on the Road Tonight left me with lingering thoughts about fear—it’s radius, orbit and reach, human power and control over it, as well as all that we relinquish and surrender to it. The novel is consuming in both the scope of its story and the elegance and precision of its language. Through her novel—as with the best kind of horror movie—Holman offers us an opportunity to experience fear vicariously through her characters, but the novel is smart enough that by the end, the lens has been decidedly turned upon the reader.
Sheri Holman grew up outside of Richmond, Virginia and attended the College of William and Mary where she majored in Theatre. After a few years acting professionally, she made the move to publishing, as the assistant to literary agent Molly Friedrich. A Stolen Tongue, her first novel, was published by Grove/Atlantic in 1997 and was translated into thirteen languages. The Dress Lodger, also from Grove/Atlantic followed in 2000, and was a national bestseller. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of the New York Public Library’s Books to Remember, and was long-listed for an Dublin IMPAC award. The Mammoth Cheese (Grove/Atlantic 2003) was her third adult novel, and was short-listed for the UK’s Orange Prize. Sheri has also written a novel for children, Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars (Scholastic, 2002), and with Jungsoo Kim, won the Daesan Foundation Translation Prize for “The Sobbing Drum of Nakrang: Plays of Inhoon Choi.” Her latest novel is Witches on the Road Tonight (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011). Sheri is a founding member and currently serves on the curatorial board of The Moth. She and her family live in Brooklyn, New York. Find more about Sheri at her website, sheriholman.com