Book Reviews: Cat Magic Whitley Strieber Tom Doherty Associates (TOR Books), Paperback Jul

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Book Reviews: Cat Magic Whitley Strieber Tom Doherty Associates (TOR Books), Paperback July 1987 Review by Robin Culain, .K.A.M., Copyright 1986, 1987 For years I've waited for a Wiccan work of major literary talent; something that really touches the spirit, that says something important about who we are and presents some of the unique insights Wicca has for the world. A book that presents Craft without coating it in sugar or gore, without confusing it with cousin religions, without including Secrets of the Art to boost circulation. Cat Magic had some promise in that respect. Whitley Strieber has a number of reasonably creative and competent mainstream novels to his credit. The prolog to the paperback edition is a pleasant "standard" piece on the realities of Wicca as a serious religion. There is even a referral for potential seekers, although the source Strieber cites, and presumably used for research, bears the same relation to Traditional Wicca that Jerry Falwell does to Anglican Christianity. Unfortunately the source appears to have influenced the tone of the work all too well. As I read I found myself excited, then annoyed, and ultimately angry and disgusted with the near-miss quality of the work. So close, and so far. In a nutshell, the book tells the story of a transfer of Coven leadership in a small rural town in New Jersey. Many of us know how such occasions can become pregnant with drama, tension and excitement. A group of particularly virulent Fundies provide the negative tension, trying to undo the Witches long-standing relationship of tolerance with the townies. I guess the writers didn't think ordinary Craft life is interesting enough for the marketplace. The Witches are something out of an Ecotopian fantasy; kind and loving, with names like Grape and Feather. The High Priestess has to die and come back for the Initiation to be valid. Now, my Tradition is as tough as any, and my teacher's teachers are so mean they don't even have names, but this is a little much. Not only does it encourage the lunatic fringe, it insults the reality of the Third Degree by implying that nothing short of literal death and return creates the kind of contacts we expect of High Priestesses. In the course of events the HPS condones particularly nasty vivisection, meddles shamelessly with her Coveners' autonomy and - to the writers credit - comports herself as a crusty old Crone in the Grand Gardnerian style. The description of the community is full of new-age hype; all the crops are ten feet tall and the relations between the Coveners have that gloss of unreality that comes from not having lived or closely observed real Coven life or communal living. More than a picture of what Witches are, it is a sort of cartoon of what the writer would like us to be. Depending on your own vision, you'll like it or not. Another serious problem lies in the writer's pornographic imagination. The sex is all rather pleasant, but the scenes of violence and other-worldly horror are done up with such ghastly relish that by the end of the book I found myself suspecting something unhealthy. Granted, an effect of extreme ugliness or terror is far easier to achieve than an effect of genuine beauty or inspiration. Nonetheless, I feel worked over by the nasty descriptions that go on page after page without a break. Stephen King, who is no mean hand at horrible imagery, always seems to connect what's going on to something real and important in the human spirit. Unfortunately for us, he's not Wiccan and writes from an almost-Christian point of view. Strieber tries for a Pagan outlook, but his terror is gratuitous, overdone and ultimately sadistic. The sadism turns to masochism when matters turn to the fate of the Earth in general and Witches in particular. The authors seem convinced that the world is coming to an end, and that we Wiccans will probably go first. Their evidence isn't too good - the anti-Wiccan tax bill that they have passing in the Senate got laughed out of Congress in 1986 and the Fundie Senator who proposed it was elected Windbag of the Year by his peers the following Autumn. Worst of all, I get the feeling that Strieber likes the idea of burning times to come, as if it makes Witches somehow more valid and important. Embracing suffering is a part of the other religion, not this one. There are a lot of thrills in the book, especially of the heart- stopper variety, and some small moments of genuine beauty in the Rituals. The past ten years it's been common to publish parts of Books of Shadows on one flimsy pretext or another; this writer does what any competent Witch should do ... he invents rituals of real beauty and power for the tale that could, and perhaps should be repeated. The author has a genuine love and concern for the Craft that excuses a great deal in the way of excess in other areas. A second work might be far better; particularly if it happened on Earth, which is quite exciting enough in Her own right without the embellishments of fevered imaginations. There is a lot of literary talent here, despite the liberal use of shock tactics. And the cats are, well, magical.

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