Many of us who’ve owned/been owned by cats should be able to relate to the logline of the 1972 young adult novel The Witches of Worm as it appeared on the website of its late author: “Jessica reluctantly adopts a kitten that may, or may not, be an evil demon.” Some evil doesn’t have to come home—it’s already there, “slick and silent, worm-thin and worm-gray.”
The Witches of Worm turned 50 earlier this year, and it’s a solid choice if you’re looking for a creepy, breezy read this Halloween season. It is a book that scared the absolute shit out of me as a kid (its final line has stayed with me since the first time I read it). With a subtle hand that respects its YA audience’s intelligence, author Zilpha Keatley Snyder conjures a psychological thriller out of a goofy, commonplace practice: the act of talking to (and manufacturing responses from) one’s pet.
When we meet her at the tail end of summer vacation, 12-year-old Jessica Ann Porter is a lonely kid who has recently been dropped by multiple friends and is largely ignored by her single mother, who was 18 when she had Jessica and maintains a busy social life. The world outside of Jessica’s head matches the bleakness of the one within—even in August, days are “chilling,” and the air tastes “gray and poisonous.” In a cave within the “cliff for a backyard” outside of Jessica’s apartment building (a mind-twisting touch), where Jessica goes to hide out and read her book about the Salem witch trials, she encounters a tiny kitten with slits for eyes. Though she does not like cats, she adopts it anyway and accommodates the rigorous feeding schedule such a small animal requires. The cat is not cute. Her mom says it reminds her of a worm. “I like worms,” Jessica replies. “I like worms a lot better than kittens.” Jessica is an extremely weird child.
In that sense, she and her cat, whom she names Worm after the above-quoted conversation with her mother, are good matches. Worm is an Abyssinian, in the estimation of Jessica’s cat-lady neighbor Mrs. Fortune. But more than anything, Worm is a monster whose “ears were devil horns and his eyes hooded and evil,” and who watches Jessica “silently through slitted eyes.” Jessica has A/B conversations in her head early in the book, and then with Worm:
“Why don’t you cry?” Jessica would ask, and then she would answer for him. “Why should I cry like an ordinary cat?” she’d imagine him saying. “I am Worm, and I am different.”
Soon enough the strings stop showing and her active imagination becomes reality. Worm starts telling Jessica to destroy things—her former friend Brandon’s trumpet, her mother’s expensive dress. Worm is, to put it succinctly, a badass. When Worm gets out and ends up in the backyard, surrounded by Mrs. Fortune’s intimidated cats, Jessica rescues him and notes that the cats he just confronted will probably be too scared to come outside again for a week. Then, “Worm’s whiskers flickered, and Jessica thought he was saying, ‘They should be frightened.’”
While Snyder does a good job at keeping things ambiguous as a cat’s pout, it seemed clear in my most recent reading that Worm is not a “witch’s cat,” as Jessica, inspired by her reading about Salem, suggests. He’s her outlet for the rage that’s accrued in her isolation. And just as Jessica feigns a faulty memory after she’s confronted for his transgressions, her mother has a similar glitch in accepting accountability for her daughter’s acting out. After Jessica destroys her mother’s dress, Jessica overhears her mother talking to her boyfriend on the phone about “special schools for children with that kind of problem,” as if the mother, Joy, isn’t a big part of the problem. (Other readers have surmised that Jessica is on the autism spectrum.)
Though at its heart The Witches of Worm is a story about a pre-teen’s nascent understanding of the extent (and limits) of her own power and her grappling with a vengeful id, Snyder keeps it weird whenever she can. This is especially the case with the Mrs. Fortune character, who “looked terribly old, older than forever,” and says odd things like, “This may well be your last chance,” when Jessica decides she’ll hand raise the creature that she just found and immediately despises. Mrs. Fortune, an expert on cats and witches alike, is also at times extremely wise. She tells Jessica, “Fault is an empty word. It is a coin with only one side. It is not a reason or an excuse.”
Though bleak, The Witches of Worm never crosses over into the truly violent or dangerous, and Jessica’s arc is ultimately redemptive. She learns to love the cat who’s capable of looking “so incredibly evil.” (She also wins her friend Brandon back, though given their previous roughhousing, including an incident in which he “had very nearly broken her jaw,” I’m not sure this is the happy ending it was intended to be.) Perhaps the book is psychological to a fault—it never saw a film or television adaptation and seems to have been largely forgotten despite getting very good reviews in the New York Times and Kirkus, as well as Newbery Honor recognition (that means essentially it made the shortlist for the yearly Newbery Medal award for children’s literature). It reportedly has been banned “often” for its subject matter’s adjacency to witchcraft (and probably because the word “witches” is in the title).
But The Witches of Worm’s rather careful examination of Jessica’s interior world is uncommonly sensitive and precise for a character who does shitty things to other people on the regular, while conjuring the possibilities of supernatural activity afoot. The book’s ethos seems aligned with another of Mrs. Fortune’s pearls of wisdom: “Belief in mysteries—all manner of mysteries—is the only lasting luxury in life.”