Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery
Publisher: Titan Books | Release Date: Oct. 1, 2019 | Pages: 384
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some anthology editors out there don’t feel it’s their job to seek out, or perhaps don’t believe it’s important enough to find, diverse voices for their books, relying instead on a stable of old reliable white men whose names routinely appear on multiple tables of contents each year. And then there’s editors like Amber Fallon, whose all-women roster for Fright Into Flight came about in direct response to Stephen King’s all-male anthology of largely (and widely) reprinted stories for Flight or Fright, and Christopher Golden and Rachel Autumn Deering who give us here eighteen brand new stories about witches and witchcraft in a women’s-only table of contents.
Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery is a great collection, and the stories themselves are as diverse as the voices represented within. There’s a good amount of elasticity in the concept of witches and witchery and the authors here give us contemporary tales of urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic witch burnings, historical dramas, noir, slow burn horror, and revenge. Whatever your preferred mode of magic, odds are you’ll find something to satisfy. I was quite pleased at the organization of this book, too. No two consecutive stories are alike, and Golden and Deering assembled this antho in such a way that each successive narrative is different enough from the preceding effort that it really keeps things fresh and makes you wonder what’s up next. It’s a nicely unpredictable read.
Kat Howard kicks off the anthology with a short story about Merrinvale, a town that needed witches, even if the locals don’t exactly want to admit it and take pains at eliminating these women. Kelley Armstrong delivers a really fun PI-styled story involving a recovered grimoire and a double-crossing client. Sarah Langan issues a slow-burn horror about the stress of motherhood colliding with witchcraft in “The Night Nurse,” and good lord is it ever effective. She does a sublime job nailing that sense of creeping dread and growing paranoia.
One of my early favorites, though, came from Mary SanGiovanni. She’s a wonderful author that made her way onto my own personal Must Read list with her cosmic horror book, Chills, a few years back. I rather expected her to deliver in a big way here, and I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. “The Memories of Trees” is a really cool near-future, post-apocalyptic story where witch trials are all the rage again. The woods hold far older secrets, though, and SanGiovanni does a wonderful job playing up the aspects of ancient paganism. I loved this one!
Another standout came in Hillary Monahan’s “Bless Your Heart.” A mother fed-up with the bullying of her gay son by her town's supposedly-Christian neighbors takes matters into her own hands. Of course, we get a nice little spin on what this entails since Mom is a descendant of a swamp witch. This one had one hell of a damn fantastic ending that was supremely satisfying to read, and gave me a few jitters, too.
Ania Ahlborn serves up a Grimm-like fairy tale about a young girl lost in the woods in “The Debt,” and while Tananarive Due covers a similar concept of youths lost in the woods, “Last Stop on Route Nine” couldn’t be more different. I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t read Due’s work previously, but this was a heck of an amazing introduction and I absolutely must read more from her! Her writing is so freaking evocative and she built up an incredibly rich atmosphere of dread that had me on pins and needles. The story’s witchly focus stemmed from racial tensions and animosity in the South, and this socially relevant and timely tale was just superbly told. This was an easy favorite of mine.
Rachel Autumn Deering, however, is an author I have read several times in the past and she never fails to impress. She’s an author who just gets better and better with each successive story. “Where Relics Go To Dream and Die” is an excellent work of death and romance, and so eloquently written, too. I’m eager to see what she comes up with next, but this was a nice little fix after her contributions to two of last year’s standout anthologies, Lost Highways and Welcome to the Show.
One of the joys of anthologies comes in finishing a story and immediately looking up an author to see what else they’ve done. Such was the case with Chesya Burke, whose “Haint Me Too” had me scrambling to Google and adding her book Let’s Play White to my wishlist. I’m gonna be buying that one soon, and Burke is a fantastic writer whose voice I expect to become a regular staple in my reading diet.
In terms of introducing me to several new writers, or at least giving me an opportunity to finally read some I’ve been meaning to make time for, Hex Life is a definite win. I was a bit surprised, even, at just how much I ended up enjoying this book as a whole, although I’m not quite sure why that is. Editors Golden and Deering are wonderful storytellers in their own rights, and Hex Life had several talents involved that I knew would meet or even exceed expectations. A few of the stories were a bit too cozy for my tastes, while some others were just a bit shy of the mark for me, but overall this was a really rewarding read. It’s always good to see strong women at the forefront, in both the table of contents and in the narratives themselves, and Hex Life wins big in both regards. Even better, I’ve now got some new novels in my TBR pile that might not have been there otherwise, and that’s a special magic all its own.