Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is U. I haven’t read many authors whose surnames begin with U, and John Updike is not one of my favourite writers. I find his writing about American suburban life in the 1960s and 1970s a bit peculiar. When I read some of his short stories, they felt like a film caught late at night on a hotel TV that you decide pretty quickly that you’d rather not bother with. So I was indifferent to his main subject, it seems, of the relations between men and women in suburban America. This put me off from wanting to try anything else he might have written. Then I watched The Witches of Eastwick, and looked for the book, and blow me, it was by John Updike. I loved it. In the past I’d done some research on novels from the 1920s about witches, so I was familiar with the ideas that writers use about witches or witchcraft, and the different directions they can go in. With all this fermenting at the back of my mind, I read The Witches of Eastwick again, and now I am doubly impressed with this novel. Not only is it exuberantly written, so cleverly plotted, strong and decisive in its narrative, and with unforgettable characters and events, John Updike really knows his stuff about witches.
The Witches of Eastwick is about a town on Rhode Island in the 1960s, where three witches live: Jane, Sukie and Alexandra. They became witches when they divorced their husbands or, when they got bored of their husbands and killed them. Jane’s husband is a dried twist of herbs hanging in her cellar. Sukie’s husband was turned into laminated placemats. Alexandra’s husband is a jar of multi-coloured sparkling dust kept on a shelf in her kitchen. They all have children, they all have lovers, serially, and they are all struggling to make ends meet. Alexandra makes little sculptures that you don’t want to let go of; Jane gives music lessons and is trying to become a church choirmaster. Sukie is a reporter, on the local paper. They are a coven, but they don’t do very much. Their lives are pretty stagnant. Then a man from New York arrives, having bought the old Lenox mansion on the bay. Now, I don’t how much H P Lovecraft you’ve read, but you’ve probably seen at least one traditional American horror film set in the north-eastern states. That phrase, ‘the old Lenox mansion on the bay’, should be enough to make you think, ah, yes, Gothic gables, magic, spooky goings on and possibly a bit of horror, things happening at night, manic screams, neighbours whispering, someone somewhere being very freaked out by poltergeists or worse. The Witches of Eastwick does fit into that tradition, but, unlike Lovecraft, there are no octopus-headed monsters coming out of the bay from an undersea alien kingdom: we’re spared that nonsense. Updike gives us suburban America crossed with the full European witchcraft experience, and it all starts on Hallowe’en.
The newcomer is a strangely uncouth man, but he is also fabulously wealthy. He is a great pianist, he collects modern art, he starts an immense program of renovating and rebuilding the mansion, but he doesn’t care about the egrets in the wetland that he’s going to concrete over. This gets the local do-gooders annoyed, who are the other women in the town, and they don’t like the witches either. Jane, Sukie and Alexandra are notorious in the town for their lovers: they do seem to have slept with every man in town, including most of the available husbands. Updike was writing in the sexually liberated 1980s, about the brand-new sexually liberated 1960s, and the atmosphere, and the moral standards of the day, work pretty well. The period touches do their job, they tell us that we’re not in Reaganomics but in the era after Kennedy was assassinated and in the thick of angst about Vietnam. The historicising bits in this novel don’t intrude, but they do root us in the right period: we don’t start wondering about AIDS, for instance. We accept that married women don’t need to work, and that divorced women who have to work are lower in social status than the smug matrons who still have husbands, even though Jane, Sukie and Alexandra may also be having sex with those husbands. The witches also all have sex with the newcomer, Mr Darryl Van Horne, who is, it is fairly clear early on, the Devil.
At around this time the witches start to do a little more magic than usual. Sukie makes a spell to bring Alexandra and Darryl together, because her friend is being shy. Alexandra raises a storm to clear the sunbathers off the beach when she wants to let her dog off the leash. She gets bored by an after-concert conversation by a demanding local grande dame, and causes her necklace to break and her shoes to unfasten, and gets away in the confusion. Mrs Lovecraft (yes, that was the name, Updike is just checking that we’re concentrating) subsequently falls, and Alexandra doesn’t care if she has broken her hip or not. There’s an unsettling and appropriate callousness in these witches’ magic. They care about each other, but they are not afraid of causing bad things to happen; their spells might hurt, but they don’t often do lasting damage. All this changes when they get drawn more closely into the goings-on in the old Lenox mansion.
The four play tennis together on Darryl’s all-weather court, and the games degenerate into witchcraft matches, where a ball becomes an egg or a snake, or a leg will freeze to the ground. After the match, they go inside to flop on the sofa in the music room and have drinks served by Fidel, Darryl’s Cuban manservant, who brings them all spicy and peppery hors d’oeuvres. Updike really goes to town on Fidel’s snacks: the women are served more and more outrageous and inventive things to nibble, on the theme of spicy, chilli, hot and exotic. I think we can see the metaphor here. Once drinks and snacks are over, it’s time to get into the hot tub to look up at the stars, followed by various wallows and massages, in and out of the pool, depending on the season. Updike writes these gatherings, which are very inventive orgies, in an erotically suggestive but never explicit way. He’s also clever at building the traditional rituals of witchcraft into the story. Traditionally, witches worship the devil at Sabbats, and kiss various parts of his body as part of their devotion. They dance widdershins, they dance naked, there is music, and it all happens at night and in particular ritual places, and at certain times of the year. All this is woven, seamlessly, into the plot.
Naturally, people notice. Felicia Gabriel, a particularly vile woman, and an obsessive busybody, is full of bile and hatred for the three witches. She has raging feuds with everybody in the town, and her suffering tired husband Clyde, the editor of the local paper and Sukie’s boss, drinks too much, trying to deaden himself from the monster that his wife has become. Her viciousness is well-known, and so the witches put a hex on her that makes her spit out feathers and bits of rubbish that they add to the jar of her spell in Sukie’s kitchen. Felicia expels these horrible objects from her mouth in her sleep, when she speaks, and Clyde is horrified at the physical form her hatred has taken. He kills her, and kills himself. It’s quite a shock in the novel, and the witches are a little perturbed. Guilt now becomes an important part of how they think about themselves, but they’ve started something that won’t stop. The two adult Gabriel children come back to the town to see about their parents’ funeral and to sell the house, and Sukie invites them to the Lenox mansion, and that’s where things start to unravel for everyone.
As well as the constant subterranean theme of what witches do, Updike’s writing is fantastic for its torrential description. He doesn’t just delicately scatter a few descriptive moments into the narrative: we are swept away by his invention. He extends metaphors beyond their natural lifespan, and he decorates an event, a moment, a comment, an action by encrusting it in adjectives that add layers of meaning and fun to the story. It’s a wonderful read, and it is perfectly plotted. I’m not saying anything more about how the story works out, but it is deeply satisfying, and not at all what you might have been expecting. And there are no last-minute Lovecraftian interruptions from the supernatural. Updike is totally in control.