You Must Read This

This 20th-century lesbian writer wrote the ultimate queer Halloween tale

If you’re like me, you’ve been spending this October catching up on horror classics. And you’ve probably been seeing a few themes show up throughout: for instance, why does every iconic horror film—from The Exorcist to Rosemary’s Baby to The Amityville Horror—take such a dim view of Satan? After all, Satan can be a pretty cool guy. Sure, I get that living next to a coven of elderly witches destined to turn your womb into the site of the Antichrist’s return might not be an optimal situation, but hear me out: sometimes, Satan is a cool guy who just wants to make sure all his witches are living a fun, wholesome existence without having to buckle to society’s harsh dictates for single women.

How do I know this? From reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s witchy masterpiece “Lolly Willowes.”

In Warner’s slim 1926 novel, a single woman escapes her oppressive family (and the expectation of heterosexual marriage) by moving to the country and becoming part of a witch’s coven. But The VVitch this ain’t—though it can certainly be said that Lolly Willowes does make a case for living deliciously. If your sense of the delicious consists of brewing tea and wandering out on the heather of an evening.

In Willowes, Satan is a friendly character. He loves single women and doesn’t see why they can’t be free without having to shoulder the burden of the “spinster” label. When Lolly decides to leave her family home and head out to an obscure, windy village in the Chilterns, she’s relieved. She can finally live life on her own terms. But when her meddling nephew shows up, she finds she’ll need all the powers of Satan just to get the guy to go to where he came from.

What made the book so bold in 1926 wasn’t just that it took a kindly view of witches; the book dared to tell a story about a single woman that didn’t end in marriage or suicide. And believe me, that’s kind of huge. Single women tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to classic literature, and Warner, a lesbian, wanted her heroine to break the mold and show the virtues of a life lived on one’s own terms.

So I know what you’re thinking—is “Lolly Willowes” scary? Well, not really. It’s oddly cozy, for a book about joining a coven and pledging allegiance to Satan. The more important thing is that it rules; it’s a gorgeously written book about a woman who wants her life to be more than what society prescribes. Even more dating, it’s about a woman who dares to think about her life and future outside the confines of the family unit.

That’s exactly what Warner did in her own life, too. She rejected the teachings of the Church (hell yeah) and spent most of her life dating the (very likely trans) poet Valentine Ackland. She remained prolific, writing novels and stories from the early 20s until the late 1970s, including 1936’s openly-lesbian “Summer Will Show,” about a woman who starts up an affair with her husband’s mistress.

What makes “Lolly Willowes” a Halloween classic isn’t its spooky content; it’s the reminder that witches, for a long time, were just what people called single women out of fear. Being single and daring to not have a family was considered shocking up until very recently, and even today it’s hard to find stories about people choosing singlehood (and witchcraft) over the boring, proscribed, usually heterosexual path everyone else wishes they’d take.

So if you’re in the mood for a very queer October read, give the brisk, hilarious, and genuinely empathetic “Lolly Willowes” a try. ♦

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