The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

I’ve never heard another reader mention that Shirley Jackson wrote a nonfiction book about the witchcraft trials in Salem. Horror fans focus on We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. This isn’t my first nonfiction work by Jackson, however. I reviewed both Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, Jackson’s foray into writing women’s magazine articles about her home life, cleaned up, of course, to be consumable for 1950s housewives. Not much is made of witchcraft in Jackson’s semi-artificial memoirs, but in her biography by Judy Oppenheimer, friends and family note that Shirley Jackson was fascinated by witchcraft, made voodoo dolls that appeared to work, but also brushed off witchcraft, as if she didn’t believe. Weird. Yet, here is this short book about the Salem hysteria and trials.

When a group of girls, led by a twelve-year-old bully, start claiming to be pestered, tortured, and under the control of witches, they are forced by religious leaders and courts to point fingers, leading to nineteen people hanged and hundreds jailed (where some folks also died), despite the illegality of using unfounded evidence like “I feel the witch about to bite so-and-so’s arm!”

Because it’s Jackson, I had hoped she’d write a fictionalized version of what happened and add all her lovely twisted flair, but The Witchcraft of Salem Village is completely informational. The audiobook (3 hours, 10 minutes) is easy to follow, though I didn’t keep track of all names. Stand out people, such as the invalid elderly woman and a five-year-old girl both accused of tormenting these original Mean Girls, were hard to forget. Instead, people seemed faceless despite being named, which emphasized the mob mentality. It wasn’t until someone’s wife or husband or child was accused that they thought, “Now, wait a minute.”

The hysteria went on for sixteen months, and any girl who recanted her claim that a village woman was tormenting her and signed the Devil’s Book was accused of being won over by Satan. Had these girls been loving the attention they got as tortured innocents and carried the game on for too long? Isn’t sixteen months forever in adolescent time? But they kept it up.

Gabrielle de Cuir reads clearly, though makes the mistake of raising her voice to be more dramatic, which I have a problem with simply because the buzz of speakers is like witchcraft on my ears. I’m coming to realize that a book read to me rather than performed is preferable for hearing health, even if the performative readers like Bronson Pinchot make the experience more engaging.

Was anything added to the experience by choosing the audiobook? I don’t think so; thus, either physical or audio copies are acceptable. If you want an informational book about the Salem witchcraft trials that doesn’t delve into loads of historical and societal context, keeping the book from getting bloated, then Shirley Jackson’s the author for you. Some argue that The Witchcraft of Salem Village belongs in juvenile fiction for its clarity and focus, but I found it acceptable for adults who aren’t hardcore witch enthusiasts who’ve already read basic information about the trials.

12 comments

  1. Hmmm I think I’d like reading this one, especially because it is short! IRe; classics though, keep meaning to read The Monkey’s Paw, which I have bookmarked on my computer. I’m considering starting an online book group to read through a few things on Project Gutenberg while everyone is in isolation, perhaps on FB live? Are you on FB?

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  2. Ooh, interesting! This sounds like it might be a good fit for me (though perhaps in the physical copy); I’m sort of interested in the Salem witch trials, with most of my knowledge coming from The Crucible. It might be beneficial to read a bit of actual nonfiction about it, and the brevity of this one really appeals, since I don’t feel the need to know EVERY detail. Plus, it’s Shirley Jackson! Great review! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Emily! I know there is a lot of information about this subject, but I find that a lot of books, especially nonfiction, try to include to many tangential people, places, and details. I’m finding this with some of the biographies I’m reading. I stopped Brad Gooch’s bio of Flannery O’Connor because he kept sliding in people who had little to do (that I could tell) with O’Connor, and the same thing happened with the bio of Shirley Jackson. How much do I need to know about her great-grandparents, you know?

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  3. I actually wonder if you would have kept better track of people if you read the physical book. I find that I have to read fantasy sagas in written form so I can keep track of everyone. Too many people and I need to “recognize” them by their name being visible on the page. I lose track of large groups in audiobook form.

    Well, now you know why no one has really mentioned this book. While it has an interesting subject, it sounds fairly unremarkable. Shame.

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