MALEFICE by Leslie Wilson


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 In the year 1655, during the English civil war, a parish woman is hanged for witchcraft, also known as ``malefice''; and in a series of guilty, grim soliloquies, townspeople and a local gentry reveal their own rather brutal sins and crimes. Alice Slade, ``ugly, with a wicked tongue and a poisonous glare,'' was mocked in Whitchurch St. Leonard as a child, daughter of ne'er-do-wells, later becoming the wife of a weak and violent drunk and the mother of two daughters, one a bulbous idiot named Margaret. At age 50, having become a beekeeper, Alice is convicted by the local judge--a newly elevated supporter of Cromwell, who's winning the civil war--of having cast mutilating or deadly spells on a number of her townspeople, including the parish vicar's wife; and during the last night before her hanging, the vicar--formerly a royalist, now hoping to curry favor with Cromwellians--tortures her to extract a confession. He gets more than he bargains for, learning, for example, that he was the most outstanding tormentor of his virtuous wife Sarah, whom he had always suspected of infidelity; and he catches glimpses of Satan, who looks remarkably like himself. Meanwhile, in a series of ``literary'' monologues that echo what Alice is presumably telling the vicar about his neighbors, Alice's daughters, acquaintances, and accusers take turns remembering their lives with her, inadvertently exposing the adulteries, betrayals, thefts, drunken brawls, lusts, pretenses, and episodes of turncoatery they have visited on each other. In the end, with Alice dead, fat daughter Margaret illicitly buries her in the parish churchyard--and, having inherited the bees, appears to have inherited the gift of malefice as well. A somewhat dour story recommended for the staunch of heart and stomach.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-42403-2
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1993