John Passarella, Wither (Pocket Books, 2000)
John Passarella, Wither's Rain (Pocket Books, 2003)

What would a young modern witch do if a murderous Colonial witch returned after three hundred years to feed on local townspeople? If she were Wendy Ward, star of Wither and Wither's Rain, she would kick some serious witch butt with her modern sky-clad rituals and sex magic.

Windale, Massachusetts is a small fictional town much like Salem: it too had its own witch trials, and it too exploits this unique history to its commercial advantage. Witches wearing pointed hats and riding on broomsticks fly across the sheriff's cruiser, dart over the shopping center, and zip into storefronts. These stereotypical hags are the town's mascots, and the history from which they have been called up is celebrated each Hallowe'en in a large gaudy parade, called King Frost.

Wendy Ward stands out in Windale — she's shy, dresses in black, and doesn't deny the rumors that she is a real-live, modern-day witch. She goes to school as a freshman at Danfield College, where her father is the president, and works at The Crystal Path, the town's mystical shop. Wendy is a lucky young witch, in that her parents don't question her involvement in Wicca, and even allow her space in the mansion's basement for her own herb room; and her boyfriend, Alex Dunkirk, is not only supportive of her religious choice, he takes part in rituals at her request. Wendy bathes in lavender flowers, uses wild-crafted herbs, and makes small linen sachets for her professors and friends. She is the kind of witch who'd make a good spokesperson for Wicca — her magic is definitely "white," and her openness to share and explain is welcoming.

But it's 1999, three hundred years after the town's three most infamous residents were hanged for witchcraft, and Wendy's powers as a witch are about to be tested as the witches return to feed. Little eight-year-old Abby MacNeil is the first of the witches' victims, finding within her dreams the haunting memories of Sarah Hutchins. Professor Karen Glazer, who is in her third trimester, meets Rebecca Cole — hanged while pregnant herself — in fevered nightmares. And Wendy Ward faces the queen of them all, Elizabeth Wither, in her dreams, visions, and magical workings. The lives of Abby, Karen, and Wendy intertwine, as do the lives of their friends and family, while they witness the return of the Windale witches.

Without giving too much away, Wendy and her friends ultimately defeat the witches and discover there was much more evil lurking behind the centuries-old eyes of Wither. Like many horror stories, Wither ends with a note of false hope, as Wendy assures Alex, "Everything's fine now." The wise reader knows better, of course.

Having successfully destroyed the three-hundred-year-old Wither, Wendy considers herself and her town free of the witches' rage. She doesn't foresee the possibility of Wither's return, and certainly wouldn't expect it to happen by possession of a naïve local teen named Gina Thorne. When she does discover, in Wither's Rain, that Wither has indeed come back to Windale and is looking for revenge, she realizes she must improve her magical know-how and come into some serious power à la Charmed and Buffy. Passarella brings in some unexpected elements in Wither's Rain that either work or don't work, depending on how one feels about spirit guides and fairy godmothers. Wendy meets an older female spirit, whom she refers to as "the Crone." The Crone teaches Wendy through visions how to hone her magical abilities and increase her powers. Meanwhile, Wendy moves out of her parents' mansion, continues with school, takes on added responsibility at work, adds the color green to her wardrobe, and spends as much time as possible with Alex.

Wendy's development as a witch and as a young woman keeps the book moving, while the out-of-control exploits of Gina/Wither get a little tired. There are simply too many descriptions of bad, manipulative sex and evil deeds that seem more formulaic than authentic. The book seems a little anti-climactic and contrived when Wendy and her friends do defeat Wither, a second time.

In Wither and Wither's Rain Passarella gives us three stories about witchcraft: modern-day Wicca, as experienced through a young woman who practices with dedication and sincerity; witchcraft hysteria — or "witch craze" — in which three women are hanged for being too different in a small Puritanical town; and witchcraft of a sinister variety. Although Wither and Wither's Rain have no apparent intention of making a statement either for or against witchcraft, they do, in a way. They are very much for Wicca, and for the women and men who celebrate nature, feel a connectedness with all life, and create meaningful rituals using herb, stone, and candle. The telling of these stories, through Wendy's contemporary Wiccan practice, and through the witches' haunting memories, is an interesting thread that runs through both books. It certainly sets the series apart from most other pop-horror novels, and makes it very appealing to those of us who enjoy witchy tales of the supernatural.

Overall, Wither and Wither's Rain are exciting additions to the horror genre, and a good start to a potentially very good series. And Wendy Ward is a character many could come to love and look forward to hearing more from, as she battles evil old and new, and grows in her magical powers.

[Nellie Levine]

Author John Passarella has a Web site where he generously offers excerpts from each book, as well as information on the next book in the Wendy Ward series, Wither's Legacy, which is scheduled for publication in 2004.