THE WITCH IN THE WELL by Camilla Bruce (BOOK REVIEW)
“They will come to the well whether we want them to or not, pulled by the power of our misery. Like calls to like, and there will always be the lonely ones who see in me – in us – a most enchanting reflection.”
The witch is having something of a cultural moment, appearing as the subject of numerous popular books, films and TV shows as a subversive site of feminist power. Camilla Bruce’s excellent The Witch In The Well (2023) strides effortlessly into this crowded landscape and shows that in the right hands, the witch can still be a potent source of terror, whilst engaging thoughtfully with both the original folklore around witches and our attempts to reimagine and recontextualise the witch for a modern era. As in her previous novels, including the historical horror western All The Blood We Share (2023) which came out earlier this year, Bruce shows herself again to be a master of character and voice. The Witch In The Well has two protagonists, both flawed but deeply compelling, and Bruce expertly captures both characters’ perspectives and foibles. As well as being a compelling and thought-provoking character study, The Witch In The Well is also scary as hell, and as a hardened horror fan I do not say that lightly. With her second great book of the year, Bruce confirms her position as one of the most exciting authors working today.
Almost two hundred years ago, a young woman called Ilsbeth Clark was drowned in the local well by the townspeople of F– who believed her to be a witch. Catherine Evans has been an outsider all her life, and has always secretly related to Ilsbeth. Following her divorce, she sought solace in the town archives and has made it her mission to write a book restoring Ilsbeth’s reputation and shining a light on the way this innocent young woman was victimised by the townsfolk. But her childhood friend Elena Clover returns to F– following the success of her hugely popular influencer’s book The Whispers Inside: A Reawakening of the Soul. Seeking inspiration for that difficult follow-up book, Elena also decides to write a book about Ilsbeth Clark, leading to a flare up of the two ex-friends’ bitter rivalry. As the two women fight over what Ilsbeth Clark and the legacy of witchcraft means to them, it becomes clear that Ilsbeth was involved in something far more sinister than either Cathy or Elena could ever imagine.
The Witch In The Well is told through a series of documents. The occasional newspaper article and email provide context, but the majority of the book is made up of Cathy’s open letter to the people of F– , which she is publishing online in instalments following Elena’s death to try and win back public opinion before she is tried for her friend’s murder, Elena’s private journal, and the much older and more sinister transcript from the Nicksby Documents, which purports to be from the perspective of Ilsbeth herself. Through these documents we get the story of Cathy and Elena’s rivalry over who gets to tell the story of Ilsbeth and how that story should be told, whilst in the background something much more sinister is happening. Bruce proves herself to be a master of the unreliable narrator. Both Cathy and Elena are excellent characters, compelling because of their many flaws. Cathy suffered from a childhood car accident that meant she was restricted to crutches for many years, and lived in poverty compared to Elena, whose rich family inherited the grand castle and the Nicksby estate. But Cathy has grown bitter and paranoid over the years, quick to alienate everyone in her life, including her son and her ex-husband, over perceived slights and long-held grudges. Elena, on the other hand, is charismatic and well liked, but is also utterly self-absorbed and narcissistic, making her unable to connect meaningfully with family, friends or lovers. Both are in their own way deeply troubled and lonely people, and there is much tragedy in how if they only realised this they could go back to the closeness that defined their childhood friendship. However their bitterness, self-hatred and self-absorption leads them both open to being preyed on by what’s left of Ilsbeth and the horrifying creature she serves.
Bruce expertly shows us the perspectives of both of her characters, with each section demonstrating their rivalry with the other whilst they inadvertently highlight their own personal flaws. The Witch In The Well recalls Christopher Priest’s superlative The Prestige (1995) in its compelling depiction of two destructively obsessive personalities that mirror each other’s flaws. As with Priest’s novel, as Bruce’s narration progresses, both Cathy and Elena tell the reader more about their own selves as they ostensibly talk about each other. The novel also has echoes of Arthur Machen’s terrifying short story ‘The White People’ (1904), in which a faux naïve voice is used to imply truly horrific events behind the scenes that the story’s narrator is oblivious to until it is too late. Similarly, much of the almost unbearable tension in The Witch In The Well comes from how both Cathy and Elena have absolutely no idea about the malevolent forces that they are inviting in, and when they do realise it it’s far too late to do anything about it. Bruce is in masterful control throughout, and the reader can only look on in horror as events draw to their inevitable conclusion.
The Witch In The Well explores several perspectives on witches. Cathy’s book represents the historical perspective, with Ilsbeth being an innocent woman unfairly victimised by superstitious townspeople. Elena’s book represents a sort of woo woo white feminism, in which the historical truths of the people accused of witchcraft are erased in favour of an anodyne, hippy-ish notion of earth magic and girl power. Ilsbeth herself though is something much darker and stranger. In Bruce’s novel, the uncanniness and the strangeness of the original folklore surrounding witches is something vital and real that prevents the witch from being either reclaimed or recontextualised into a safer, less troubling modern idiom. Ilsbeth and her ghastly mistress laugh in the face of both Cathy’s attempts to see herself as a modern day Ilsbeth persecuted by the townspeople for being different and Elena’s attempts to integrate Ilsbeth into her Mind/Body/Soul philosophy. In Bruce’s hands, the witch remains raw, intractable, frightening. Bruce has crafted a modern horror masterpiece, one that will be troubling my sleep and influencing how I think about witches long after the final page.
The Witch in the Well is available now. Pick up your copy HERE