For a novel that purports to be about female rebellion, Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York is uncomfortably twee. It tells the story of Adelaide Thom (who figured, as Moth, in McKay’s previous novel, The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair, two “strong-minded women” who, we’re rather bluntly told, “refuse to conform to society’s expectations.” They run a tea shop that is a ladylike front for their more subversive business providing tarot readings and herbal remedies for women whose needs (whether for sympathy or abortifacients) are ignored – or worse – by the patriarchal world they live in. Like those they help, Adelaide and Eleanor suffer from the small-mindedness and violence of that world. “I don’t know why I even agreed to rent to a pair of petticoats,” says their landlord as he contemplates their front window, shattered by a rock wrapped in a note saying ominously, “I know what you are.”
What they are, of course, is witches. They practice magic, and young Beatrice Dunn, who answers their advertisement for an assistant – and thus launches the novel’s plot – communes with spirits. The rock-thrower is mistaken only in viewing such supernatural activities as evil: McKay’s witches are not Satan’s servants, they are the carriers of special skills and wisdom. Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice’s adventures in New York’s Gilded Age reflect the vitality and resilience of this tradition in the face of the skepticism, fear, and outright hostility, which, in the novel, are embodied most conspicuously in the puritanical and sadistic Rev. Francis Townsend.
Against the Reverend Townsend’s misogynistic malevolence, McKay sets the scientific curiosity of Dr. Quinn Brody, “a man who believes women.” Along with Eleanor and Adelaide, Brody supports Beatrice as she grows into her powers. Using Brody’s “spiritoscope,” Beatrice spells out messages from the dead; at a séance he organizes, she channels their voices. It’s a risky process: Beatrice has to learn to control, rather than be controlled by, the forces that speak through her. “You are Beatrice Dunn,” Adelaide instructs her. “You’re not to be trifled with.” When the predictable confrontation with Townsend comes, Beatrice discovers both her own true strength and the power of her bond with the dead.
The Witches of New York is entertaining, and often charmingly fey. The incorporation of excerpts from Eleanor’s grimoire – and from advertisements, cartes de visite, flyers, and other period paraphernalia – gives it a clever documentary air, and McKay’s serviceable prose nicely conveys the sights, sounds, and attitudes of her story’s time and place.
But for all its ghosts, The Witches of New York has no mystery and surprisingly few chills. Townsend, in particular, is a caricature, his menace without subtlety or surprise, and the novel’s other disparate elements never coalesce into any dramatic revelation. Moreover, in trading so jauntily in its witchy tropes – celebrating magic as empowering, rather than rejecting the premise that strong, smart women are inherently unnatural – The Witches of New York undermines its own subversive potential.