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A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts Paperback – October 4, 2016
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“[A] lively chronicle―part travel guide, part history lesson…Ocker moves easily among the archivists, historians, and performers he interviews, and he describes the carnival atmosphere that descends upon “Witch City” with enthusiasm and vividness.” (Publisher's Weekly (starred review))
“What better place to celebrate Halloween than Salem, Massachusetts? Festivities begin with a parade on October 1 and end with Halloween parties and costumed celebrations on October 31. In between, Ocker, a travel writer with an Edgar Award, and family stay the entire month, exploring Salem’s many attractions. Although the witch trials in 1692 only lasted for nine months, Salem has been branded “Witch City,” overshadowing its maritime history. Ocker samples everything: cemeteries, museums, gift shops, performances, wax museums, and more. He talks to street performers and street preachers as he tries to understand the appeals of the city. He interviews curators, haunters, costumed tour guides, a policeman, the mayor, and cemetery caretakers. Ocker devotes whole chapters to real witches, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and TV shows and movies set in Salem. His comic asides lighten the details of haunted houses, hangings, and hysteria without disrespecting the history. The result is a fresh, fun glimpse of a town that has come to grips with its sordid history and prospered. Armchair travelers will enjoy the trip.” (Booklist)
“An entertaining and historical guide to the varied sites of Salem, with Ocker interviewing everyone from the mayor to local archivists to men in scary costumes, covering burial sites of witch trial judges, and perhaps the most awesome Halloween street party ever described in print, with Ocker’s good humor and touch of sarcasm marking his readable style.” (Library Journal)
About the Author
J. W. Ocker is the Edgar Award-winning author of Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe. He runs the website OTIS: Odd Things I've Seen (Oddthingsiveseen.com), where he chronicles his visits to various oddities of culture, art, nature, and history. His first two books, The New England Grimpendium and The New York Grimpendium are personal travelogues of his visits to deathly sites in those regions. Both won Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers. His work has appeared in Rue Morgue Magazine, The Boston Globe, CNN, The Atlantic, and other places people stick writing. He's from Maryland, but has lived in New Hampshire since 2008.
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Top Customer Reviews
This nonfictional account of a man who packs up his belonging and gains extensive support from his wife and two daughters to spend all thirty-one days of October in Salem, Massachusetts exceeds the classification of mere travelogue. The book gives history lessons without the fulsome tour guide embellishments, provides way findings to see the key spots in Salem, and delivers conversationally toned interviews with all the infamous and local figures that make the modern town as interesting as its past.
The author acts as a window between modern day Salem and the days of the witch trials, providing a well-researched glimpse into the past courtesy of interviews with those living in the present day Witch City.
And all this is done with an air of fun and adventure that will have readers turning a shade of witch green with envy about spending the most interesting month in the spookiest town in the Northeast.
Like David J. Skal, J.W. Ocker works exhaustively to legitimatize Halloween as a source of study. The candid interviews chronicle the city with a magnificent eye for detail. For instance, the interview with “Steve the Vampire” street performer may seem whimsical, yet it unearths a sociological facet reflective of society. We have a fascination with the macabre that is as undeniable as the billions spent yearly on Halloween in the United States. Ocker’s Salem works as a microsomal reflection of the greater whole, so when he studies the events in Witch City, he illuminates the modern world that refuses to shake its fascination with ghosts, goblins, and, of course, witches. Even interviews with the police chief and mayor of Salem capture the sense of identity that the paranormal mascot imparts on the people of the historically rich city.
And Ocker hides his philosophical explorations so well behind a mask of innocent inquisitiveness that readers will want to shower him with treats for his work.
My only reservation and lack of a perfect score comes from the decision to make the beautiful photos taken by Ocker’s talented wife Lindsey in black and white. The publisher did a disservice to the readers by not allowing the rich colors of Salem to come through.
And now I must go and look up flights and hotels in Salem because the book compels me to visit.
With every book he writes, J.W. seems to get deeper into the subject matter and he chooses incredibly cool, interesting subjects for his books. Some would shrug off books on murder sites, cemeteries, horror movies and phenomenon, but that's because they don't want to admit they are interested in those subjects as well. I visit cemeteries and people make remarks about how strange that is but they are always interested in seeing the pictures. JW does not glorify anything negative but he sheds an interesting light on the subject matter.
For his fourth book, JW spent an entire month in Salem in October. October in Salem is one gigantic holiday with a month filled with fun, interesting, kooky, weird, dark and disturbing events for adults and chlldren. Having been to Salem on at least a dozen times in October, I knew this was going to be another interesting travel journey by one of my favorite, coolest authors.
JW touches upon everything you can do in Salem in this book, from the initial parade to Halloween day itself and everything in between. He goes to all of the famous Salem tourist traps like the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Salem Witch Museum and all of the cheesy wax museums which I avoid like the plague. He trips through cemeteries and he visits all of the historical sites that still exist from the Salem Witch Trials, like houses that still stand, the Witch House which was owned by one of the judges and the excavation site where it all began. He spends a chapter on the Peabody Essex Museum, a place where real witch trial artifacts exist in a basement because their benefactors only care about the art work that is on display. I found this chapter to be particularly interesting because I had been to the Museum more than 20 years ago and I remember seeing these artifacts on display. I recently went back to the museum and I was disappointed to see only art (I know I sound like a moron but I really wanted to see the real witch trial artifacts).
JW interviews many important, famous and infamous Salem residents, which I found to be extremely interesting. Mayor Kim Driscoll carved out time for JW as did the new police chief, some of the characters who pose for photos when you walk the Essex Street Mall and the owner of the Lobster Shanty, which was especially cool for me to read because I visited that restaurant more than 20 years ago and I had my first Samuel Adams beer in the Shanty while a solo guitarist performed for the crowd.
I would recommend this book for anyone who loves Salem, Halloween, really cool cities, America and excellent writing. In other words, I think anybody could read this book and enjoy something that is presented. I just finished it yesterday and took a little trip to Salem today to see a couple of the sites that I missed and it was as if the book was coming to life while I was walking.
I wholeheartedly recommend any of JW's books as all four are excellent, interesting reads and I look forward to his next one.