Out of the Broom Closet

The neighborhood is teeming with witches.

You didn't notice? There's a parallel world operating alongside us Muggles in which bad traffic implies a close call with a turbo-powered broom. Contemporary paranormal heroines are more likely to have magical powers than the archetypal blonde hair. What I want to discuss in this column is the particular stress placed on a romance when the heroine is a witch -- but the hero is your average Joe. He's not a mind reader, in any sense of that term, and to him a broom has nothing on a Porsche 911 Turbo.

The very structure of romance adds spice to a Muggle/witch pairing. He's logical; she's magical. He believes in pensions, and she believes in charms. He needs to suspend his disbelief or she will never allow him into her bed -- i.e., get with the magic or you skip the pleasure. Of course, there's nothing like desire to short-circuit a man's logical abilities, and it's truly funny to watch men trade "reality" for love.

Annette Blair's The Scot, the Witch and the Wardrobe seems like a good place to start, given its titular homage to C. S. Lewis. Blair has a startling original voice; her witch series reads like the script of a play, all zingy one-liners. This novel features Victoria Cartwright, a witch who doesn't want to acknowledge her powers. When her friend Melody asks her if she's coming out of the "broom closet," the answer is a firm no. Yet Victoria's inadvertent rhymes have powerful effects. For example, she teases her gorgeous Scottish visitor, Rory, with "You don't trash the occasional hash?" and his pan of eggs promptly bursts into flames.

Romances like these take on a challenge: Will Rory fall in love with a woman he thinks is crazy? Will he believe her long enough to enjoy himself? This kind of hero could be seen as a stand-in for the reader and her own need to suspend disbelief. That's a term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who basically said that readers suspend their disbelief in return for enjoyment -- i.e., we don't fuss about the aerodynamics of brooms in the midst of a good read. For example, if you were in tenth grade and noticed that a choice rhyme would trip up nasty cheerleaders, wouldn't you start composing verse? But like Rory, the reader has to make a decision to go with the plot -- or lose out on the enjoyment.

Blair's Sex and the Psychic Witch is just as much fun. Part of the deliciousness here is watching a thoroughly modern hero come to terms with the fact he's falling in love with someone who belongs in a sitcom: "Are you a hocus-pocus witch?" King Paxton demands. After a mind-blowing kiss he sensibly asks, "Hey, witch. Am I under a spell?" Harmony (Victoria's half sister) is disgusted: "The Denialator strikes again!" These books allow the Denialator in each of us to giggle while we read.

Unlike the sisters in Blair's novels, the witches in Jenna McKnight's Witch in the House spend a good deal of time doing witchy activities like making potions and candles, not to mention prancing around half dressed in the moonlight. The hero is an investigator hired to find out whether the heroine, Jade, killed her husband six years ago. Mason is suspicious -- of magic and murder. He's the archetypal Denialator reader because he doubts Jade before he even realizes there are pentagrams all over the house, not to mention cauldrons, censers, and seven-knob candles. Jade tries to get rid of Mason by putting cotton balls in his pockets and various herbs in his bed. These flimsy charms get about as much traction as you would expect, given that a pair of candles representing the two of them has already melted together. The whole thing sounds improbable, but the novel's a lot of fun, in large part because Mason is so resistant. It's only after great sex that his logic melts: "Had she bewitched him? Did he care?"

Vicki Lewis Thompson's Over Hexed rings changes on the Muggle hero since he actually is bewitched. The framework of this novel is a witch and a wizard banished to Big Knob, Indiana, by the Grand High Wizard. Dorcas and Ambrose are oversexed middle-aged magicians (Dorcas's broom is carved with figures from the Kama Sutra). Lines such as "You fill the cauldron while I light the gas logs" turn suspension of disbelief to pure laughing pleasure. The romance plot involves Sean Madigan, a man so sexy that women line up to ask for dates, until he begs for help. After Dorcas and Ambrose whip up an anti-eroticism potion, his hair starts growing in wild abandon, he needs glasses, and his willy shrinks. Now this was the part that gave my finely honed ability to suspend disbelief its biggest test. Most red-blooded men would be at Dorcas's house with a double-barreled buddy, demanding every precious inch back. However, Sean doesn't seem to mind, until Maggie shows up. She's a scout for a Wal-mart-like chain, planning to buy his childhood house. He needs to seduce her out of the sale?except he can't, given his limitations. You have to be in the right mood to enjoy lines such as "Let's move the skunks so we can start having more sex," but if the stars are aligned, this one will keep you laughing right to the point when Sean comes back into his own, Dorcas tames a teenage dragon, and Wal-mart loses its newest location.

My final paranormal is Terri Garey's Dead Girls Are Easy. Nicki Styx isn't a witch, precisely. After an accident she ends up in the uncomfortable position of having dead people chatting to her. Before she knows it, she's tackled a couple of nasty witches and learned how to shape charms from cornmeal. Her doctor, Joe, is the perfect Denialator -- he's a doctor, after all. Halfway through the novel, she finally demands to know if he believes her. He says, very sweetly, that he believes in her. His response to the paranormal is to suggest that he run a tox screen on her. What sort of doctor would ever accept that his girlfriend chats with dead people? Med school has taught Joe that talking to invisible friends is treatable with major drugs.

Back in the day, when Samantha was reigning on Bewitched, and Darren was begging her not to wiggle her nose, the pleasure was watching Darren deny his own senses and command reality to take the shape he preferred. In these revisionary novels, the pleasure is seeing a magical world through Darren's eyes, but also watching him get seduced into acceptance and joy, into being a man who knows his way around a Kama Sutra broom. The new Darrens end up celebrating strangeness even if, in Terri's inimitable phrase from Dead Girls Are Easy, their lovers are "flypaper for freaks."

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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