Excerpt from The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Last Witchfinder

A Novel

by James Morrow

The Last Witchfinder
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 544 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 560 pages

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The precise metaphysical procedures by which a book goes about writing another book need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that our human scribes remain entirely ignorant of their possession by bibliographic forces; the agent in question never doubts that his authorship is authentic. A bit of literary history may clarify matters. Unlike Charles Dickens’s other novels, Little Dorrit was in fact written by The Færie Queene. It is fortunate that Jane Austen’s reputation does not rest on Northanger Abbey, for the author of that admirable satire was Paradise Regained in a frivolous mood. The twentieth century offers abundant examples, from The Pilgrim’s Progress cranking out Atlas Shrugged, to Les Misérables composing The Jungle, to The Memoirs of Casanova penning Portnoy’s Complaint.

Occasionally, of course, the alchemy proves so potent that the appropriated author never produces a single original word. Some compelling facts have accrued to this phenomenon. Every desert romance novel bearing the name E. M. Hull was actually written by Madame Bovary on a lark; Mein Kampf can claim credit for most of the Hallmark greeting cards printed between 1958 and 1967; Richard Nixon’s entire oeuvre traces to a collective effort by the science-fiction slush pile at Ace Books.  Now, as you might imagine, upon finding a large readership through one particular work, the average book aspires to repeat its success. Once The Wasteland and Other Poems generated its first Republican Party platform, it couldn’t resist creating all the others. After Waiting for Godot acquired a taste for writing Windows software documentation, there was no stopping it.

In my own case, I started out small, producing a Provençal cookbook in 1947 and an income-tax preparation guide in 1983. But now I turn my attention to a more ambitious project, attempting a tome that is at once an autobiography, an historical epic, and an exercise in Newtonian apologetics. Though occasionally I shall wax defensive, this is largely because so many of your species’ ills, from rampant materialism to spiritual alienation, have been laid upon my rationalistic head. Face it, people, there is more to your malaise than celestial mechanics. If you want to know why you feel so bad, you must look beyond universal gravitation. The ability to appropriate mortal minds accounts not only for a book’s literary output but for its romantic life as well, physical and emotional.

We copulate by proxy, and we like it. But prior to any carnal consummation, we fall in love with you—madly, deeply, eternally—despite the yawning gulf separating our kingdoms, that chasm between the vegetable and the animal. The protagonist of my tale is a mortal woman, Jennet Stearne, and I must declare at the outset that I adored her past all telling and worshipped her beyond the bounds of reason. Even now, centuries after her death, I cannot write her name without causing my host to tremble. When I say that my passion for Jennet began in her eleventh year, I hope you will not think me a pederast or worse. Believe me, my obsession occasioned no priapic action until my goddess was well into womanhood. And yet the fire was there from the first. If you’d known her, you would understand.

She was a nimble-witted girl, and high-spirited too, zesty, kinetic, eager to take hold of life with every faculty at her disposal, heart and loins, soul and intellect. I need but tweak my memory molecules and instantly I can bring to mind her azure eyes, her cascading auburn hair, her dimpled cheeks, her exquisite upturned Nose of Turk, Jennet Stearne remembered from The Tragedie of Macbeth, was amongst the last ingredients to enter a witches’ brew, hard behind the goat’s gall, the hemlock root, the wolf’s tooth, the lizard’s leg, and so many other wonderfully horrid things. Near the end came the Tartar’s lips, the tiger’s guts, and the finger of a strangled babe. Finally you cooled the concoction with baboon blood, all the while chanting, “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

The foregoing is excerpted from The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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