In The Price Guide to the Occult, Leslye Walton tell us exactly what the curse is right away.
This isn’t exactly a problem for Walton, whose 2016 novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is all the more rich for its detailed backstory and family history––we don’t meet the titular character until nearly a hundred pages in, but by then we’ve been endowed with an intimate understanding of the dismal fates of all her ancestors, and are bracing ourselves for whatever ironic/magical/heartbreaking conclusion the future has in store for her.
Walton returns to her multi-generational roots in The Price Guide to the Occult, a rain-soaked contemporary fantasy tale set (again) in the Pacific Northwest. Here, she substitutes a quick-witted prologue for chapters of setup, where a new arrival to the aptly named Anathema Island, Rona Blackburn, under threat by settlers who believe she’s a witch (she is, but that’s beside the point), binds herself to the island to take refuge in its magic, and in effect curses all her descendants, right down to Nor Blackburn, of the present day. No member of the Blackburn lineage has been a proper, spell-casting witch since Rona. Instead, every new daughter is saddled with a specific supernatural Burden: Nor’s grandmother can heal, and Nor herself hears the thoughts and feelings of plants and animals. The curse also extends to the Blackburns’ romantic lives: they’re all doomed to short-lived love stories with (mostly) tragic endings.
Things unfold rather slowly (a misstep, considering the story Price Guide is aiming for), but the book essentially follows Nor as her estranged mother, Fern, makes a very public return to magic. One day, during a routine shift at Anathema Island’s kitschy occult shop, The Witching Hour, a book offering Fern’s mystical services arrives, and within weeks, she commands an army of devoted followers, which Nor watches her amass from a distance, with horror.
But The Price Guide to the Occult‘s iffy attempts at suspense do quite a number on this plot line. For one thing, the threat, even when it arrives in the sickening perfect form of Fern Blackburn, seems distant, unreal, and superfluous at every turn. Nor, at one point, has to go so far as to duck into hiding, but even with all of Walton’s specific gory details, no monstrous thing about Fern comes to life, no part of her sway over her devoted followers is made visible, and so the reader is left not terrified, not fascinated, but baffled––baffled by the power that Fern really has no compelling reason to have, baffled by her influence, her persistent absence for the story, her framing as a villain, her vagueness.
The main ensemble, composed of Nor, her bubbly best friend Savvy, a high school crush named Reed, and his brother Grayson, is similarly sapped of narrative energy, but in a way that’s quite the opposite. They’re almost aggressively normal––Nor, the only would-be witch of the bunch, overwhelmingly so. She’s depicted as fleeing to normalcy, in response to the heavy price and corrupting qualities of her family’s magic, but beyond that, her substance is rather sparse. She just runs and recovers from things and wishes her powers would disappear. This alone isn’t a mistake for a work of fantasy to commit to doing, but there has to be something in the magic itself that truly frightens the main character. It has to show her some dark, demented part of herself she’d rather cower from all her life than see. Here, though, the fuzzy possibility of becoming like her mother is enough to drive Nor away. Away from what, it isn’t really specified, because her Burden, as it appears for most of the book, is a dull thrum too inconsequential to deserve notice most of the time, and magic as it appears otherwise is a pretty passionless affair. When it isn’t conjured in passing, it’s described in the same plainclothes terms as any other mundane task, which almost begs the reader to wonder why it’s regarded as feared or fearsome in the world at all.
Ironically, the best writing in The Price Guide to the Occult arrives in its tragically short flashbacks––the prologue at the beginning, and a few tales of past Blackburn daughters scattered through in scenes and paragraphs when there’s time. Walton is brilliant with flashbacks: she keeps just enough distance to mire the characters in their own ironies and define them with the sharp, fast strokes of a caricaturist. Against these cleanly-crafted silhouettes, details really pop––Walton can make a convincing case for love bringing her characters to their knees in a fraction of the time as it takes for most stories to do so, with just a few carefully-curated images and a discerning gaze that allows her to regard them with distant, narratorly pity.
However well this approach makes for the past, though, it almost repels the present day. Walton gets around this in Ava Lavender by making the story as much about the other residents of the town as it is about Ava, so much so that several characters get this treatment and the whole book feels vividly recounted, rather than lived in real time. But in The Price Guide to the Occult, it’s all Nor, and Walton’s ending-the-curse approach to the plot forces her into Nor’s head, dulling the power of her narration. She tells us often that something terrifies Nor, that Nor shudders to imagine something, that something makes Nor’s pulse race––and it suddenly snaps the book into the past, where it makes much more sense to tell us that a character is frightened than it does to give us the culprit.
It seems, every now and then, like concept and form are at war within these pages. Leslye Walton wants to tell a story about a girl who fights off the dark allure of magic: her choices and her ability to rise to the occasion defeat a deadly force––and she, in terms of movers and shakers, is alone. But her writing, suited to swift and well-defined portraits, and casts of characters that tug and snap at each other more than they effect disaster in the real world, seems to want to tell something entirely different.