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A War of Witches

Timothy J. Knab

HarperSanFrancisco / Harper Collins

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-06-251264-1

Publication Date: 06-1995

224 Pages; $22.00

Date Reviewed: 07-22-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Non-Fiction, Horror, Mystery


Non-fiction works about witches usually tend to be re-assuring. Witches are not the frightening crones of childhood nightmares, we are told. They are benevolent old men who tell the peasants when to plant the crops. In 'A War of Witches', Timothy J, Knab shows us that witches, too can be human. That is, witches can be vicious territorial backstabbing murderers, just like the rest of us. The witches that Timothy J. Knab encountered as he wandered the back road of Mexico are grittily rendered old men and women, clinging tenaciously to an ancient religion that helps them hold power. It's a subtle, well-written and terrorizing account of the survival of ancient beliefs at the edges of the modern world.

Knab sets his story firmly in place and time, thus evading the namby-pamby vagueness that turns other accounts of witches into unbelievable fairy tales. He's an anthropologist, who in 1974, was collecting stories from San Martino (name changed to protect the innocent and guilty), a small rural town located southeast of Mexico City. He is told that his source, Don Inocente, is not the innocent healer he appears to be. Inocente is still a practicing sorcerer, who can kill as easily as he can heal. Two years later, Knab's chief informant, Dona Rubia, falls sick with a bat-borne disease. She informs Knab that he must fight for her survival, and battle otherworldly powers to do so. Knab is reluctant to participate in these types of events. He's a scholar who wants to study, not do. Knab's journey in the present leads to a revelation about the past of San Martino.

The small gathering huts was once known as "a town full of witches". A blood feud once reigned there, resulting in a series of murders both natural and supernatural in origin. Through a very down-to-earth 'otherworld' guide, Knab learns of a seedy dispute centered on a demand that the farmers of the town stop growing subsistence crops and start growing coffee. He learns that his kindly old friends were gunmen and women who turned to sorcery because it was easier to kill with magic than with bullets. Knab does a superb job telling the story of an economically based dispute that leads to a religious war. Crucifixion, poison, shots in the back and stabbings leave a tide of dead bodies across the small town, which naturally gains a rather dark reputation.

Knab tells his story almost as if it were a novel, carefully constructing flashbacks and fill-ins, building his characters and then turning to startling revelations. His combination of realistic details and excellent narrative skills keeps this book constantly gripping like a work of fiction and utterly realistic like a work of journalism. The unexpected combination of criminal and sorcerous activities gives the work a feel of gritty authenticity. The clever collapsing and plotting of the events gives the work the feel of a tension-packed thriller. 'A War of Witches' is an unexpected and pleasant surprise in the field of weird anthropology. In the field of books you might want to read, it's simply a pleasure you won't want to miss.