Half Spent was the Night
In southern German tradition, Rauhnacht refers to the period corresponding with the 12 days of Christmas, between December 21 and theEpiphany in early January. In these waning days of the old year, legend has it, the souls of the deceased, in league with dark forces, return to the Earth to wreak mischief and mayhem. Various practices evolved to combat the unwelcome visitors from the dark side: frightened folk in masks and costumes held noisy processions in the streets or smoked out their houses with incense to cleanse them of the pesky spirits.
The name means literally “rough night,” but may also be related to Rauch, smoke. This carnivalesque limbo period of spiritual upheaval is the setting for Ami McKay’s latest offering, Half Spent Was the Night, a sequel to her popular 2016 novel, The Witches of New York.
The novella opens with the crisp evocative prose that has become McKay’s signature style: “Strange things happen Between the Years, in the days outside of time. Minutes go wild, hours vanish. Idleness becomes a clever thief, stealing the names of the days of the week, muting the steady click of watches and clocks. These are the hours when angels, ghosts,demons and meddlers ride howling wind and flickering candlelight, keen to stir unguarded hearts and restless minds.”
The year 1881 is drawing to a close and the three witches, Eleanor St. Clair, Beatrice Dunn and Adelaide Thom, are restless during these “dead days” between Christmas and New Year. Eleanor longs to join her lover, Georgina, in Paris, but fears for the safety of witch-in-training,Beatrice, who is, in turn, “ravenous with longing” for the Stranger who has been visiting her dreams. Adelaide, haunted by memories of her traumatic childhood, is mulling the pros and cons of marriage to her landlord-suitor, Dr.Brody.
To pass the time, the three perform divinations using roast chestnuts, until Mrs. Stutt, the housekeeper, introduces them to her method of Bleigiessen, or lead-pouring. Their house is immediately visited by mysterious, anachronistically attired messengers, bearing invitations for a masked ball to be hosted by the fabled Baroness Weisshirsch (“white deer”) at the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel.
Beatrice and Adelaide are thrilled to accept the invitations and to meet the enigmatic, larger-than-life Baroness, who seems eerily to know significant things about their past. Eleanor, less enthralled by the prospect of the gala, suspects Weisshirsch may possess powers greater than that of a society hostess. The invitations set off a flurry of preparation for the big night, but no adult fairytale is complete without the presence of dark forces.
Adelaide encounters the abhorrent Mr. Wentworth,the man to whom she was sold as a child. Beatrice finds herself stalked by the creepy Gideon Palsham, who sends a servant in the form of a cat to monitor her whereabouts and activities. The presence of predatory males gives the story a topical frisson for readers in the “Me Too” era.
Followers of McKay’s work will recognize some of the cast here. A younger Adelaide, then named Moth, is the heroine of her2011 novel, The Virgin Cure. Other minor characters, including Perdu the raven-familiar and the predatory Mr.Wentworth, appear in The Witches of New York. McKay is adept with evoking the prosperous “Gilded Age” of late 19th-centuryNew York, a time of intense fascination in the occult and spiritualism.
Half Spent Was the Night continues McKay’s commitment togiving voice to women’s history and experiences through the portrayal of headstrong,complex characters. Her dedication of the book to “Grandmothers who carried winter’s magic in their hearts” underscores this preoccupation with female power and traditional knowledge.
The novella includes recipes for a special curative elder flower syrup for tea and the German festive confection Engelszopf, “angel’s braid.” The slender novel feels a bit dashed off and leaves the reader wanting to spend more time with these resourceful and congenial witchy women. McKay is not stepping outside her comfort zone here; nonetheless, Half Spent Was the Night is a spirited romp, a good versus evil fable, in which the forces of feminist feistiness ultimately prevail—an engaging read and a timely one as the darker days of the year approach.