An Englishman remarks to a bartender in New York City that “he’d just come from New Orleans, and that certainly was a haunted city.” The doctor sitting next to him agrees and remembers …
“He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He’d seen the man with the brown eyes.”
The doctor goes on to recall his visit to a mansion in the Garden district where the woman, Deirdre Mayfair, sits on the porch in the rocker. Her mind gone mad. It is a haunting tale, and one the doctor will relate to the Englishman. But this seemingly chance meeting may very well be something more. The Englishman, Aaron Lightner, is a member of the Talamasca, a secret society, that witnesses and records such “ghost stories”. “We watch. And we are always there.”
This is how The Witching Hour begins. The tale of the Mayfair family is set in modern day New Orleans, circa 1990. This tome—the book clocks in at over 1000 pages (at least in paperback)—begins in the present day, but as it unfolds, it reveals roots—like any family tree—that stretch back centuries.
In present day San Francisco, Michael Curry nearly drowns. The near-death experience changes him, and he is drawn to New Orleans where he once lived and where he once saw the man with the brown eyes.
Rowan Mayfair, the doctor who saved Michael from drowning, will fall in love with him. She, too, will return to New Orleans to uncover her family’s secrets, and she will meet the man with the brown eyes who has plans for her. Rowan is the thirteenth descendant of Suzanne Mayfair, a naive Scottish woman who conjured a spirit and was condemned as a witch.
In mid-1600s Scotland, Petyr van Abel, a member of the Talamasca, witnesses Suzanne being burnt at the stake, and he rescues her daughter, Deborah. The Talamasca will become intimately linked with the Mayfair family through Petyr, and they will continue to observe the family as the years roll by.
So who is the man with the brown eyes? He is Lasher. A swirl of entity that obtained a sort of consciousness when Suzanne called him forth. And what he wants from the Mayfair family—and from Rowan particularly—will shock you.
Any reader—and writer—of supernatural tales must find the time to read this one. Personally, I think it is Anne Rice’s best. It was a departure from her earlier vampire chronicles, but it’s as if those concepts and plotlines came together to form an intricate and fascinating history of this family of witches. There’s the great matrilineal family tree like one seen in The Queen of the Damned. There’s the Talamasca, also introduced in The Queen of the Damned. And we have the rich historical account of the Mayfair family akin to the narrative histories told by Louis in Interview with the Vampire and Lestat in The Vampire Lestat.
And this is just the beginning. The story of the Mayfair witches continues in Lasher and Taltos. Then these “Lives of the Mayfair Witches” tie into Rice’s world of vampires with both storylines merging in later books.
I originally picked up this book to read on a trip to New Orleans in 1993, and I devoured it. The rich story, the characters, and the setting absolutely captivated me. It’s mix of family saga, historical fiction, mystery, and supernatural horror satisfied on many levels. I had to read other books by Anne Rice after this. I quickly read through the first three books in “The Vampire Chronicles” while awaiting the release of Lasher. I should point out that I thought Lasher somewhat disappointing and fairly disturbing. The former because The Witching Hour had so much depth, and the latter resulting from the horrific acts perpetrated by Lasher unleashed.
Today’s paranormal and urban fantasy writers certainly owe much to Rice who was among the first to humanize and romanticize vampires and witches. For more about Rice and her books, visit her official site here.