The Witch of Hebron is a largely disappointing sequel to Kunstler’s World Made by Hand, which, despite a few inconsistencies, haunted me for months after I first read it several years ago. The immediacy of World Made by Hand mingled with the tantalising unknowns to create a plausible and frightening future in which the world economy and national government itself had broken down, to be replaced by a quasi-mediaeval world haunted by echoes of greater days. At least, it did that until it started introducing the peculiar supernatural elements, which detracted from the story.
One of the interesting things that we do learn along the way, however (accidentally or not I cannot tell) is the date for which all of this could come to pass: one character mentions in passing that “the full moon falls on Halloween this year”. Of course, this is an event which doesn’t often happen, and a quick check of the internet reveals two possible dates, those being either 2020, or 2039. I’d choose 2020, if it didn’t seem as though that would mean that everything was going to go to hell rather quickly… but then it would, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on what might come following such a breakdown in the systems on which all Westerners depend – the electrical grid, the internet, government, petrol and food distribution, and everything else that we don’t make or do for ourselves – Kunstler elects to mingle the story of a boy running away from home with the peculiarly supernatural once again. It’s like reading a book about geology, only to find that the author really believes that fossils were placed in their correct positions in the stratigraphic column by some Zoroastrian devil – jarring, discomfiting, and ultimately undermining.
The tension between the native inhabitants of Union Grove, New York, and the self-styled “New Faith” community of proselytising god-botherers is one of the cornerstones of The Witch of Hebron, but again, with peculiar mysticism thrown in for good measure. No one seems to want the god-and-jesus double act that Brother Jobe and his lot are selling, and even the most disagreeable characters ask what is to me the most sensible question, given the circumstances of the world as presented: why should anyone believe in a god who lets what is effectively Doomsday happen? But again, the mysticism and the muddled story subsume what might otherwise be an interesting philosophical discussion. This is not the christianity of the educated and learned, but rather that of the simple, the anti-intellectual, and the ultimately unconvincing.
And then there’s the sex. Oh, sweet shade of Twain, the sex. Let me put it this way: don’t. Please. Just. Don’t. Apart from the underage encounter between the eleven year-old runaway Jasper and the thirteen year-old temptress Robin, which is not only unnecessary but quite possibly the most abhorrent thing that I’ve read in years, there is the whole plot revolving around the Witch herself, who apparently makes her own unlicensed form of Viagra in a post-pharmaceutical world – and therefore entirely without FDA approval – and yes, it involves opiates and “magik”. Basically functioning as a cross between village strumpet and a mediaeval commodities broker, Barbara – yes, the witch is called “Barbara” – lives quite well off the back of her witching trade. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that witching is a good way to set yourself up comfortably when the world ends.
Add to that the youthful and murderous minstrel idiot Billy Bones, a nasty little shop-keeper who keeps boys as slaves, the katana-wielding lord of the manor who puts corpses out as a warning to marauders, a whorehouse with a doomed transexual, a boy who is so upset by the death of his dog that he runs away, yet who is mature enough to perform an appendectomy by the book’s end (scarcely two weeks later, in book-time), and so much more, The Witch of Hebron is a shambles. The more I think about it, the less I’m inclined to give it in ratings terms. Barely two stars, for having kept up the premise, but I suspect that by the third book – if there is one, and if I bother to read it – all will come crashing down. Ultimately that’s a pity, because it could have been so much better.
Originally reviewed 13 March 2012.
Find your copy of The Witch of Hebron (if I haven’t managed to persuade you otherwise), available from booksellers around the world who will be glad to get the thing off their hands, at AbeBooks.com.