Suffer a Witch to Die by Elizabeth Davis
Suffer a Witch to Die is, so far, the most obscure book I’ve read for ForFemFan. Goodreads only shows two ratings—and no reviews—and Amazon shows but one particularly unhelpful review about how the reader didn’t enjoy the book as much on her second read-through as much she did on her prior reading some 30-years earlier.
For this obscurity alone, I had to nerd into this.
*Book Nerd Start*
The most cursory investigation into Suffer a Witch to Die will tell you that it’s part of the Rædselskabinettet series. Book four, to be exact.
As Suffer a Witch to Die revolves around the Salem witch trials and in no way reads like it’s part of a series, I had series questions about this supposed Scandinavian heritage. That most of the books in this series were penned by different authors, and one of them appears to be exclusively in Danish while the rest are in English, seemed to corroborate my skepticism.
A fellow book nerd with a greater knowledge of Danish helped me do more digging, and we’ve come to our best guess: A Danish publisher bought the rights to a bunch of old horror-y pulp novels and published them in a collection. According to her, Rædselskabinettet roughly translates to “Chamber of Horrors” or even plain “Horrors.” So that seems to fit.
Also, the author—Elizabeth Davis—is actually a pen name for Lou Ellen Davis. Between her two (known) names, it appears only a few pieces were ever published. A cursory glance at Amazon might make you think otherwise. There’s a series title Coven of the North Star authored by an Elizabeth Davis—but as the bio pic of this woman makes her appear younger than, say, 70, and Suffer a Witch to Die was published in 1969—I have to assume they’re different people.
Unless she’s a witch?
*Book Nerd End*
Suffer a Witch to Die is a bit of pulpy-almost-horror. Jeanne Graham, a recently widowed young woman, is trying to come to terms with the loss of her liked-but-not-really-loved husband and the affections of a new fellow she’s rather smitten with. She’s also been having strange dreams, and moments of blanking out. Part of her assures her this is normal: she’s been through something traumatic. The other part of her fears it’s something more sinister.
Convinced a weekend in her and her husband’s old summer cabin will help her get square with her feelings—and settle the unusual experiences around her that have to be caused by nerves—she sets off. As events ramp up, though, the unusual around her seems to grow. By the time she reaches the cabin, the narrative is deeply eerie.
At this point I feel the need to disclose that I am not a horror aficionado. Anything legitimately labeled as ‘horror’ is so far out of my purview I can’t even comment on it. Even lighter things—riffs on horror, you might say—freak me out. Sean of the Dead was way too much for me, The Chilling tale of Sabrina occasionally freaked me out, and one episode of Russian Doll had me staring slack-jawed, my fingers frantically clutching my comforter.
I’m not made of strong stock.
So if you chase horror, you might consider this kiddy-town frolics. Even if it’s no Silent Hill (do hard-core horror people think that’s scary? The trailer alone nearly did me in), I will assert that the eerie uncertainty of these moments has both weight and value.
The flickering uncertainty of Jeanne’s life comes to a head when, in what seems almost like a fever-dream, she walks through time and ends up back in 1692 where she stumbles across a young woman who could be her twin. When they touch hands, she collapses. And when she gets up again, she no longer resides in her own body, but that of her puritan doppelgänger, Elizabeth.
Even though Elizabeth is up to something insidious that Jeanne must uncover and then fight, I would argue that anything eerie or horror falls by the wayside when she comes-to as Elizabeth. After that point things shift intellectual: how did she go back in time, and why? What’s the connection between her and her doppelgänger? Can and should she affect the events around her? You get the picture. There are still eerie moments, but they’re much less intense. The idea of the scary thing happening is the scariest thing about scary things. Once it’s happened, figuring out how to undo it is significantly less frightening.
At this point, the storytelling almost by necessity becomes rather heady. Jeanne and Elizabeth now share a body. We only ever get Jeanne’s point of view, and she cannot communicate with Elizabeth. Elizabeth seems mostly or completely unaware of Jeanne. Jeanne cannot reliably or even predictably control the body she and Elizabeth now share, so much of her time is spent, essentially, being an observer. She’s a narrator who is tremendously invested in the outcome of the story she’s telling and who can, sometimes and only with a great deal of effort, nudge the plot.
I found it an interesting storytelling device though it does, of course, have its pitfalls. There were a few pages here or there where I wanted more than Jeanne’s thoughts—but what else could she do but think and plot? It wasn’t enough to put me off, though. I think I read this book in four sittings—and one of those was quick bus ride.
As is often the case with pulp novels, I found the wrap up far too quick and just a little bit loose for my taste. It makes sense. The set-up for the plot takes some work—and some pages—and is done, in my opinion, well. Suffer a Witch to Die is only 205 pages long, and that’s with what the front-cover claims is “EASY TO SEE LARGE TYPE.” Something’s gotta give, and it was inevitably going to be the conclusion.
I liked the substance of the book enough, though, that I found myself fantasizing about ways to tease apart the plot and make room for a full-length, modern, fantasy novel. It could easily be done. There are some theological points tucked away that I’m dying to explore, and in many ways Suffer a Witch to Die felt liked it touched on themes/style/tone of The Chilling Tales of Sabrina—only, you know, without a modern cast, with a lot less humor, and with a 30-something protagonist. The next time I get writers block, I just might use this as a writing exercise. Don’t worry, if I crush a best-selling-worthy manuscript I’ll look real hard for Elizabeth or Lou Ellen Davis before I start shopping it around.
If you enjoy tales of witches and demons and folks selling their soul to the devil, this could be a fun, quick read.
It is available, used, on Amazon, but only for $224.
A more reasonably-priced version is on Abebooks, but hurry. Right now it appears three total copies of Suffer a Witch to Die are for sale on the entirety of the internet. Well, the English-speaking internet, anyway. If you speak Danish, you just might get lucky.
Cover art by R. Heindel (if I’m reading the signature correctly):