Elbein shares tales of a turn-of-the-century Appalachian witch in this illustrated debut story collection.
After her husband, Tom, stumbles back to their cabin in a remote Appalachian holler near death and muttering the word “Ewah,” Anna O’Brien knows that the only way to help him is to seek out the aid of the local witch. The witch confirms that an Ewah—an ancient spirit of madness—has possessed Tom, and it will be nearly impossible to save him: “ ‘To banish the Ewah,’ the witch said, soft, ‘you need power, and power is a strange thing. Some you have. Some you have to trade for. A price higher, perhaps, than you wish to pay.’ ” The witch gives Anna the Wampus Mask to drive away the Ewah, but this might not cure Tom, and Anna might lose even more than a husband. In these eight stories, Elbein unspools the legend of Anna O’Brien, the one-legged witch of the Appalachians. In “Night on the Bald,” Anna tries to avoid spending a night in the open by following a dog to an abandoned church, but she ends up amid a coven of witches—led by a malignant raven spirit—thirsty for stolen souls. In “The Revenant Score,” Anna attempts to exorcize a gold-guarding ghost from a lonely graveyard by delivering a message to a living family only to end up a hostage in a bank robbery. In “Pretty Flowers Are Made for Blooming,” a pair of women in a farmhouse invite the traveling Anna in out of the rain, though she soon learns she’s not the only magical being expected for supper. Through hollows and mountain villages, these eight stories track Anna, whose powers bloom as she combats an increasingly strange and dangerous assortment of beasts and spirits straight out of campfire stories.
Elbein’s prose is crisp and highly sensory, building tension within each fable with the skill of a veteran storyteller: “When the first movement came under her foot it was a soft shiver, like a sleeper waking from a dream. Anna O’Brien straightened and held up the lamp, the light playing over the gravestones and dried dogsbane, sparkling off the rocks. As she shifted something knocked, deep down below.” The ghouls that populate Anna’s world come mostly from Cherokee mythology—Anna is herself of Cherokee descent—which provides a surprising, refreshing change from typical European-influenced American fabulist fiction. Each story stands alone, but cumulatively, they outline the evolution of Anna from a rural housewife to an old wives’ tale in her own right. Accompanying the collection are marvelous full-page illustrations by Turrill, which help the reader to better picture Anna’s antagonists, like the soul-devouring Kalona Ayeliski, or Raven Mocker. Though Anna is an original character of Elbein’s, the ways the author and illustrator texture her give her the feel of a Rip Van Winkle or Ichabod Crane: a character who has been wandering hills—and storybooks—for generations.
A finely constructed linked story collection full of Indigenous American ghosts and goblins.