When I was a teenager, I became addicted to a late-night horror movie host named Bestoink Dooley. Based in Atlanta, Bistoink came on at midnight, and I can still see his stark-white face and his silly grin, complete with bloody fangs as he crawled out of his coffin and lurched toward the camera. Interspersed between ads for used car lots and factory rebate furniture, Bistoink and his assistant, a Vampirella clone, sang, delivered bad puns about graves and ghouls, and hosted a black-and-white horror film – things like “The Mummy’s Curse” and “Cat People.”
I was addicted to Bestoink Dooley, and I have no sensible explanation for my steadfast loyalty. Eventually, I learned that there was someone like Bistoink on every major television station in American during the 1950s through the 1970s. Many of them had clubs, membership cards and autographed photos.
One of the major characters in Witches on the Road Tonight is Eddie Alley, better known as Captain Casket. At one time, Captain Casket had hosted a popular midnight show, complete with a theme-song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Disney’s Mouseketeers:
Who’s the digger of the grave
For you, and you and me?
It is all innocuous fun, of course, but Captain Casket’s show has been cancelled and now, his alter-ego, Eddie Alley, has decided to chuck it all. He has swallowed a mega-dose of sleeping pills, and as he lies in his old prop coffin in his New York apartment, he muses on his life, his loves, his tragic mistakes and Wallis, his famous daughter, who is the celebrity anchor of a major TV news channel.
The mistake he doesn’t want to remember is the boy named Jasper. As Eddie dozes, remembering his life in fits and starts, Witches on the Road Tonight occasionally becomes reminiscent of another great pop horror classic, The Late, Great Creature by Brock Brower.
Eddie’s origins are fascinating. Born in a remote cove in the Blue Ridge mountains, Eddie’s mother, Cora Alley, has a reputation as a witch. The local folks tell stories of the men who visited Cora and were never seen again. Eddie tells us that the stories are true and that he has watched his mother through a keyhole in her bedroom door and has seen her strip off her skin, hang it on a peg and fly away through an open window.
A turning point in young Eddie’s life came during WW II when he is struck by the car of two WPA workers, Tucker and Sonia Hayes, who are working on an illustrated book on Appalachia. Eventually, Tucker reveals that he is a frustrated, alcoholic playwright, and Sonia – a gifted photographer – is not really Tucker’s wife, but she is pregnant with his child. In an attempt to entertain the injured Eddie, Tucker shows him a film: a 13-minute silent version of “Dracula” on a hand-operated projector.
Witches on the Road Tonight is an intricately woven tale with frequent twists that lead the characters in unexpected revelations. Eddie’s chance encounter with Tucker Hayes (and “Dracula”) will provide the prime motivation for Eddie Alley’s decision to find his way to New York where he will find work at a television station where he graduates from a “gofer” to Captain Casket. (Of course, his marriage to the daughter of the station owner helps a bit.)
But what about Cora Alley, who appears to be a gaunt, malnourished mountain woman one day and a vigorous and robust siren the next? Does she truly “ride men” over and through the foggy mountain coves at night? Does she really have a curious rapport with a mountain panther that does her bidding? What happened to Tucker Hayes? Are his bones scattered through the mountain undergrowth, or does he reside in the strange cabin on the crest of a distant (an unapproachable) peak?
Of course, this is not the story of a single witch but three witches: Cora, Eddie and Wallis. The dark powers that Sheri Holman finds in a mountain cove where a woman supports herself by searching for the elusive herb ginseng also abide in the DNA of the whimsical, bisexual Captain Casket and his frustrated and guilt-ridden daughter, who also finds night-time solace with one-night stands.
However, there remains another character: his name is Jasper, and he is a homeless waif that shows up at the television station where Captain Casket’s show originates. Remembering his own childhood, Eddie gives Jasper the role of his assistant on his show. Essentially, he rationalizes his action by casting himself as a “father figure” for Jasper. To make matters worse, Wallis is drawn to the troubled young man. Thus begins a conflict that will eventually bring tragic consequences.
At one point in Witches on the Road Tonight, the successful, middle-aged Eddie returns home to his mother’s abandoned dwelling. Eddie has a momentary wish to return and stay, and with the assistance of Jasper and Wallis, he sets about making his mother’s rustic shack a possible home. It doesn’t work, of course. For this witch-boy, there is no going home again.
In addition to producing a compelling tale that blends the supernatural with the unacknowledged darkness in the human heart, Sheri Holman’s novel is packed with tantalizing bits of information about witchcraft, herbs and Appalachian superstitions. I was pleased to learn that a poison oak rash can be avoided by scrubbing your body with jewel weed (I live in the heart of Appalachia, but I missed that one). There is also considerable information on the history of ginseng, that marvelous plant that allegedly makes “old guys dangerous again.”
As for the fate of Tucker Hayes, Holman gives you multiple choices, but I think the panther (painter) got him, even though he tried to evade it with the same tactics that Granny Pop used in Cataloochee. Granny Pop took off her clothes and threw them behind her. Eventually, she ran out of clothes, and so did Tucker.
Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 263 pages.