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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Books to Scratch that Seasonal Practical Magic Itch

What to read when you want witchy vibes for Halloween, from Erin Sterling, author of The Ex Hex
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The opening line of the new romance The Ex Hex is a simple injunction: “Never mix vodka and witchcraft.” The protagonist, Vivienne, immediately ignores it.

To be fair, she is a freshly heartbroken 19-year-old when she chooses to curse her newly ex boyfriend, a rakishly handsome visiting student at the local university. It was a classic miscommunication: Rhys is from a fancy Welsh family of witches and had neglected to inform her that his high stickler of a father was back home arranging a betrothal, because Rhys had absolutely no intention of cooperating. Vivienne wasn’t impressed by this excuse and immediately broke it off, then under the influence of sadness and alcohol, using the only candle they can find, she and her cousin hex him, specifically so that his hair will never do That Thing, and he’d always be a third of an inch off any given clitoris.

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Image: Harper Collins Publishers

Harsh, but not life-threatening. Cut to several years later and Rhys is back in town, dispatched to recharge the town’s magical energies, originally established by his ancestor. Only the curse has taken hold much stronger than expected, and it quickly spirals into magical disaster for the entire town that Rhys and Vivienne have to work together to fix—realizing, of course, that their connection is still there. (And also that the curse has affected neither Rhys’s hair nor his ability to find the clitoris.)

The book perfectly hits the same sweet spot as the 1998 cinematic classic Practical Magic, without the dark plot elements about the abusive ex; it’s got a hint of Bell, Book and Candle charm without the casual midcentury sexism. It’s cozy and cute and Halloween appropriate, and Rhys is extremely attractive.

The Ex Hex was, in short, a blast, and so I asked the author—bestselling YA author Rachel Hawkins, writing as Erin Sterling—to recommend some witchy, Halloween-inspired reads for the Jezebel audience. Her suggestions are below!


Erin Sterling’s Reading Recommendations

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

This is, hands-down, the book I recommend the most often to people. Deeply eerie and compulsively readable, it’s told as an oral history tracing the rise and fall of a fictional acid-folk band (trust me, they were a thing in the 70s) called “Windhollow Faire,” and the summer they spent at the titular house, composing their most famous album. By the end of the summer, they’ll have composed a rock masterpiece—but their lead singer will have gone missing under eerie and mysterious circumstances. With its shifting viewpoints and narratives, Wylding Hall is a story about the stories we tell both to others and to ourselves. It also happens to be one of the best pieces of folk horror ever written. Trust me, after you finish this one, you’re never going to look at feathers the same way again.

Payback’s a Witch, Lana Harper

When Emmy Harlow comes back to her deeply charming and witch town of Thistle Grove, she’s hoping to get revenge on the man who broke her heart years ago, Gareth Blackmoore. And given that Emmy has come back to participate in the town’s spellcasting challenge, it seems like she’s going to have the perfect opportunity to get just that. But when she meets another ex of Gareth’s, Talia, sparks fly, and this book becomes the Queer Witchy RomCom of your dreams. This book is perfect if you’re looking for something on the lighter side of Halloween (although Harper in no way skimps on the Spooky Vibes, trust me!), featuring a cast of delightful characters and a cozy town I desperately wish were real. 

The Hacienda, Isabel Cañas

This one is a bit of a cheat since it won’t be out until May 2022, but you need to go ahead and put it on your radar now. The Hacienda is pretty much the perfect Gothic novel—a heroine you root for, plenty of dark secrets, horrible murder, a mysterious (and sexy) priest, and a very real, very terrifying vengeful spirit. Set in the years just after The War of Mexican Independence, it’s also a book that really uses its setting and its time period in fascinating ways, meaning it reads like a brilliant piece of historical fiction and a, “Okay, I’m gonna need to sleep with the lights on now,” horror novel. Best of all worlds in my opinion!

The Witches: Salem, 1692, Stacey Schiff

Like any Slightly Weird Little Kid, I was obsessed with the Salem Witch Trials, and have vivid memories of reading pretty much any book I could find on them in my school library (and given that said school library was in small-town Alabama, I possibly got put on some kind of list.) So, of course I was delighted when Stacey Schiff, who also wrote a biography of Cleopatra that I loved, turned her scholarly eye to this time period. Schiff does an amazing job of really getting into the weeds of this particularly bizarre piece of American history, separating truth from fiction and presenting a clear-eyed portrait of just how something like this happened. Also, she dismisses the “ergot theory,” my most hated Salem Witch Trials Conspiracy Theory, so this book gets extra points for My Personal Vindication.

These Witches Don’t Burn, Isabel Sterling

This YA debut features so many things I adore—Women Working Together, Girls In Love, Magical Hijinks, and also Centuries-Old Blood Magic (okay, so I don’t adore that last one in real life, but in fiction? Good stuff!) Hannah is a teenage witch living in modern-day Salem, and when a magical ritual goes wrong at her school’s end of the year bonfire, she has to team up with her coven and her ex-girlfriend to undo the terror they’ve unleashed. This book is honestly so much fun it should be illegal, and if you’re a fan of the mix of Supernatural Drama and Teen Angst, you need to put it on your TBR immediately.

My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwait

Not all spooky things are witches and ghosts! Sometimes your Halloween reading can require monsters of the all-too-human kind, and Oyinkan Braithwait delivers in this delightfully twisted read. Korede is a nurse in Lagos, forever cleaning up her sister Ayoola’s mistakes. And here we mean “cleaning up,” very literally because Ayoola’s mistakes tend to be of the homicidal variety. This book is a scream in all senses of the word. Ayoola is a fascinating villain, but it’s Korede’s wit that keeps you turning pages. Funny, bloody, feverishly paced, it’s the best book about twisted family loyalties I’ve ever read.

HEX, Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Hi, can I interest you in never sleeping again? Then pick up HEX, easily one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. In the 1700s, settlers in a small town in upstate New York killed a woman they believed to be a witch. Now, hundreds of years later, the witch is still there, a shuffling figure who appears on Main Street, in the school, and, if you’re really unlucky, at the foot of your bed. The townspeople have their own unique ways of dealing with this resident, but it comes at a particularly steep cost. I’ve never read anything quite like this book, and there are images from it that will stay with me forever. Very excited to pass that nightmare on to all of you!

The Witching Hour, Anne Rice

With the caveat that this book is very much Of Its Time—i.e., it’s a little too long, it goes to some really out-there places, and there are some elements that are a little startling to 21st-century eyes—this is, for me, the Ultimate Witch Book. Following the lives of the Mayfair Witches from their beginnings in Scotland to their eventual home in New Orleans, it’s a twisty, epic, scary, and truly, “Oh, Wow, She Is Really Going For It!” read. There are witches (obviously), there’s a family demon, there’s an entire secret society dedicated to tracking the history of this family, there is Ghost Sex…I’m telling you, The Witching Hour truly has it all.