Sheri Holman’s new novel, “Witches on the Road Tonight,” begins in the dangerous fall of 1940. Hitler’s army has moved with bewildering speed across the Continent, and Tucker has been drafted. He is due to report soon at Fort Dix, but before he goes, he lands an assignment with Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a six-week road trip through Virginia — a last hurrah, as it were — in the company of a provocative photographer named Sonia. They’re to create a WPA travel guide to the region, and their route takes them deep into the secretive silence and sublime vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a setting which Holman splendidly evokes in all its eerie beauty.
Tucker and Sophia’s inevitable love affair feels doomed from the start. Wearily ironic in the way of those poised at the edge of war, they are grimly prepared for disappointment or worse. The trouble around and between them leaps into focus in the impoverished settlement of Panther Gap, when a boy runs across the road in front of their car. “Had he been a second or two quicker Tucker would have missed him altogether, a second or two slower, he would have struck him head on and killed him. The math sets Tucker trembling again.”
The accident introduces us to 8-year-old Eddie Alley and serves as the spark that ignites the events of the novel. Terrified that they’ve seriously injured the boy, Tucker and Sonia get him back to the isolated cabin where he lives, but there’s no one home. Reluctant to abandon him, they tuck him into bed and wait for his mother to return. To entertain him, Tucker retrieves his hand-cranked film projector from the car. Projecting the film against the cabin’s wall, he shows Eddie a 1910 version of “Frankenstein.” “It was clumsy and old fashioned and the man playing Frankenstein’s monster shambled about like an oversized Christmas elf,” Eddie says, years later. “And yet I remember being as afraid as I’d ever been that night, sitting in the dark, watching this odd series of pictures twitching to life on my bedroom wall.”
All the themes of the novel are present in the story of Frankenstein: the fine line between human and monster, the wages of love and hate and fear. Holman makes the scene — “the flickering light on the rough chestnut planks” — an overture for the strange, sad story that will follow: the ominous arrival of Eddie’s mother, reported by the locals to be a witch; the eventual fate of Tucker Hayes; and the life of the flawed and deeply human man Eddie grows up to be.
Seduced by the example of the glamorous young couple who nearly ran him over, Eddie escapes the backwoods of Virginia. He marries the daughter of a man who owns a small TV station, where he becomes Captain Casket, the popular host of a campy horror movie show. He has a daughter, Wallis. His life, despite the corny, gothic figure he cuts as Captain Casket, looks touchingly normal. And then, when Wallis is 12 years old, an orphaned young drifter who has been hanging around the TV station, enamored of “Captain Casket’s Creepshow,” moves into their lives. The most frightening monsters always trail a sad story behind them, and Holman makes this young man both a victim and an agent of fear. In the chaos that follows, Eddie is revealed to be both more and less than the man he appears to be, and Wallis’s life is turned upside down.
“Witches on the Road Tonight” moves both forward and backward in time, with the principal voices, Tucker, Eddie and Wallis, speaking in an alternating and often lyrical chorus. Holman’s previous novels — among them the best-selling “Dress Lodger,” a spellbinding account of a prostitute in England during the cholera epidemic of 1831 — are distinguished by splendid writing, and her gifts are dramatically evident here. She is as eloquent about the physical landscape of her stories as she is about the internal terrain of human emotion.
“There is the fear of failure and nuclear annihilation and snakes, of getting up in the morning, and then, of course, there is the fear of the dark,” Eddie says, “which is, as they all are, the fear of Death, which we dare not examine too closely while in life, lest it ruin all the more pleasurable fears of living and loving.”
This novel has some seductive and hallucinatory scenes involving Eddie’s mother and Tucker Hayes that take place at night in the wild landscape of the mountains, but the magic here rests a bit uneasily against the story’s more solid, less ambiguous events. At its core, “Witches on the Road” is less about monsters and witches than it is about people whose fears and failings are profoundly and recognizably human.
Brown is the author of several novels — most recently “The Rope Walk” — and a collection of short stories. She teaches at Sweet Briar College.