Steamy witch saga is beguiling despite its unwieldy length

December 09, 1990|By Suzanne Bledsoe | Suzanne Bledsoe,Ms. Bledsoe is assistant features editor of The Sun.

The Witching Hour.

Anne Rice.

Knopf.

965 pages. $22.95.

Forget Shakespeare and the gloomy foreboding of "Double, double toil and trouble" -- the witches in Anne Rice's novels definitely are not "Hamlet" hags. They are beautiful women who through the vagaries of the birth order become part of the Mayfair family legacy that jumps from Scotland in the 1600s to the Caribbean to modern-day New Orleans.

Despite the "accidents" and death that often befall their enemies, we can't help but care about these witches, who often seem perplexed about how to deal with their psychic powers.

How can we not feel sorry for Rowan Mayfair, who inadvertently kills the convicted rapist who tried to attack her; or for Stella, who was trying to escape the family and eventually was shot to death; or for Antha, who, holding her clawed-out eye, fell from a third-story window?

They are innocents caught up in the world of "the man," described in his material form as "a tall, brown-haired man with large dark eyes and a beautifully shaped sensuous mouth." But "man" is a misnomer for the volatile spirit, Lasher, who was unleashed by the first Mayfair witch. (Anne Rice seems to like "L" characters: In her vampire chronicles, there was Louis in an "Interview With the Vampire" and his mentor Lestat in "The Vampire Lestat.")

This spirit, or demon, attaches himself to the chosen Mayfair of a particular generation, and we learn early on that he is planning to be around for a long time: "I shall drink the wine and eat the meat and know the warmth of the woman when you are no longer even bones."

In fact, much of the novel's suspense revolves around the demon's power and the hold he has over the witches. Is he a lover ("He was kissing her as his fingers stroked her breasts. The pleasure was so keen . . .") or is he treacherous ("The thing is horrific, and each and every witch that seeks to command it shall in the end lose control of it")?

Anne Rice's background as a pornographic writer is obvious in this tale interwoven with steamy sex, voodoo and incest. It's not unusual for fathers and grandfathers to sleep with daughters and granddaughters.

But eroticism is only part of this mammoth history of a family.

The central characters are Rowan, the unknowing chosen witch who was adopted at birth by an unchosen relative and spirited away to California to escape -- she hopes -- her destiny, and Michael Curry, a transplanted resident of New Orleans of Irish descent who is rescued from a stormy sea by Rowan.

They are pulled back to New Orleans for different reasons. Each has strong misgivings that they will return to California.

Ms. Rice successfully uses an epistolatory style to move us through the Mayfair saga from the earliest witch, Suzanne, to Rowan's current life. She chronicles the letters and reflections of an intellectual group, the Talamasca (their motto: "We watch, and we are always here"), that has traced the Mayfair witches since their beginnings.

The history, though, often gets mired in names and people and relationships, and this reader felt bogged down trying to remember who was so-and-so's third cousin or great-granddaughter -- and did it matter?

The Witching Hour," too, is often unsettling -- you will question your definitions of destiny and what is good and what is evil, or at least wrestle with them a little, but still will be drawn, perhaps as hypnotically as Rowan and Michael, to the unkempt Garden District house on First Street in New Orleans, where the final conflict is played out. (The house is based on Ms. Rice's own home, where she lives with her husband and son.)

There is no neat and tidy ending, and the conclusion calls for a sequel. I have just one request: Please, Anne, couldn't you write a little shorter next time? At 965 pages, this one was much too long, even for this lover of books.

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