A Season and a City: My New Book on Salem

October 4, 2016 — As of today, it’s out, officially. My new book, A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been linking to reviews, posting excerpts, exhorting you to preorder, making general statements about Salem and the book. But I haven’t pitched it to you. Not seriously. Now I will.

This book is about a season and a city. It’s about colonial America and the modern U.S. It’s about the rise of a holiday and a genre. It’s about civic survival. It’s about witches. And Witches. And witches.

The basic premise of the book is that Salem, Massachusetts, doesn’t make sense. Not even a little bit. It shouldn’t exist. And yet it does. Maybe you’re thinking, “Of course, it makes sense. The most famous witch trial in the world happened there, and the city turned its unique tragedy into a marketable asset. Now it’s a giant Halloween party with both real and fake witches.”

No. That’s not the story of Salem at all. And it’s only barely true.

That’s what I learned in writing this book.

And this is how I went about learning it.

On October 1, 2015, I took my family of four and moved to downtown Salem. Like steps away from ground zero of all the Halloweenery. I could see masked crowds pass by my windows and almost smell the incense from the Witch shops. We lived downtown for 31 days. All of October. All of the month-long party that Salem calls Haunted Happenings.

I interviewed some 40 people—the mayor, the chief of police, haunters, attraction owners and managers, restauranteurs, street performers, horror actors, museum curators, historians, authors, residents both new and life-long, street preachers, and there’s a whole chapter on my many discussions and experiences with the Witches of Salem.

I visited all the historic sites connected to the Salem Witch Trials, from the hole in the ground where two tween girls started it all to the rock ledge where an credulous Salem court ended it all with some lengths of knotted rope, from the still-standing home of a judge to the graves of the event’s many players. And all of its memorials.

I hit up the attractions, the monster and wax museums, the haunted houses, the tours, the theater plays, the gift shops, the fairs, the parades, the Halloween-themed cocktails, the Halloween-themed cocktails, the Halloween-themed cocktails. I pre-Salemed for you.

I was there for the six-digit record-setting crowds on Halloween 2015, and recorded every single moment of it for the climax of the book—the Witch rituals, trick-or-treating, the Halloween balls, the crowds, the fireworks, the carnivals, the costumes.

I jump in the fray of its unholy wars, the ones between the Witches and Christians, historians and entrepreneurs, high culture and low culture. The forces in Salem that hate its reputation. The forces that revel in it. Today it’s more of an unholy cold war that could heat up at any time.

This book is a history book. It’s a travel guide. It’s a Halloween book. Barnes and Nobles is shelving it in the paranormal/occult section, and that’s fine, too. It’s a lot of things because Salem is a lot of things, and it took a lot of improbable things for it to become Witch City.

It took the witch trials. It took the death of three major industries in two different centuries. It took a city-wide fire. It took the unlikely rise of a holiday. It took the weird, evolving etymology of a single word. It took murder from poisoned pills. It took internal friction. It took a TV sit com. It took a single mother practicing an esoteric religion. It took a lot of surprising twists.

Did you know that in Salem were the country’s first millionaires? That today it has the 9th largest art museum in the country? That it has a national park right in the middle of it? That Parker Brothers started there? That it has impacted the course of the founding of the American voice in literature? That the Revolutionary War almost started there? That its witch trial wasn’t the largest, oldest, last, first, or most unique witch trials in the country or the world? That the Salem Witch Trials didn’t start in Salem? That the execution site has been wrongly pinpointed for centuries?

A Season with the Witch is the story of Salem. One that’s never really been told quite this way.

I hope you buy it. I hope you dig it.

Most of all, I hope you make it to Salem at some point yourself.

PS—If you do buy it, and you do dig it, consider dropping me a review on Amazon. Your words are invaluable in getting the word out there about this book.