The beloved, bestselling author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure is back with her most beguiling novel yet, luring us deep inside the lives of a trio of remarkable young women navigating the glitz and grotesqueries of Gilded-Age New York by any means possible, including witchcraft...
The year is 1880. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom (Moth from The Virgin Cure) has left her life in the sideshow to open a tea shop with another young woman who feels it's finally safe enough to describe herself as a witch: a former medical student and gardien de sorts (keeper of spells), Eleanor St. Clair. Together they cater to Manhattan's high society ladies, specializing in cures, palmistry and potions—and in guarding the secrets of their clients. All is well until one bright September afternoon, when an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment.
Beatrice soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor's apprentice, but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences. She sees things no one else can see. She hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has she been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity. Working with Dr. Quinn Brody, a talented alienist, she submits Beatrice to a series of tests to see if she truly can talk to spirits. Amidst the witches' tug-of-war over what's best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving them to wonder whether it was by choice or by force.
As Adelaide and Eleanor begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they're confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?
About the author
Ami McKay was born and raised in Indiana. She moved to Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia, in 2000. Her first novel, The Birth House, is a Canadian bestseller and was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is currently at work on her second novel.
- Winner, Atlantic Independent Booksellers' Choice Award
- Short-listed, Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
- Short-listed, Sunburst Award
Excerpt: The Witches of New York (by (author) Ami McKay)
City of Wonders.
In the dusky haze of evening a ruddy-cheeked newsboy strode along Fifth Avenue proclaiming the future. “The great Egyptian obelisk is about to land on our shores! The Brooklyn Bridge set to become the Eighth Wonder of the World! Broadway soon to glow with electric light!” In his wake, a crippled man shuffled, spouting prophecies of his own. “God’s judgement is upon us! The end of the world is nigh!”
New York had become a city of astonishments. Wonders and marvels came so frequent and fast, a day without spectacle was cause for concern.
Men involved themselves with the business of making miracles. Men in starched collars and suits, men in wool caps and dirty boots. From courtrooms to boardrooms to the newsrooms of Park Row; from dockyards to scaffolds to Mr. Roebling’s Great Bridge—every man to a one had a head full of schemes: to erect a monument to genius, to become a wizard of invention, to discover the unknown. They set their sights on greatness while setting their watches to the drop of the Western Union Time Ball. Their dreams no longer came to them via stardust and angel’s wings, but by tug, train and telegraph. Sleep lost all meaning now that Time was in man’s grasp.
In the building beneath the tower that held the time ball, a mindful order of women sat—side by side, row on row, storey upon storey, one hundred young ladies in all, working round the clock to translate the wishes of men to dots and dashes. Transfixed by the steady click-clack of their task, the ghost of Mr. Samuel Morse hovered near. He’d tried to get to Heaven on numerous occasions, but could never seem to find his way past the tangled canopy of telegraph lines that criss-crossed the skies above Manhattan. What he needed was an angel, or better yet, a witch. Someone to translate the knocks and rappings of his soul, to convey all the things he’d left unsaid. Where could one be found? Were there any left?
In a halo of lamplight near the Western Union Building, a prostitute leaned her aching back against the bricks. Lips rouged, eyes rimmed with charcoal, she was waiting for a man. Puffing on a cigarette she’d begged off a stranger, she blew a steady stream of smoke rings in the air. At the edge of her sight, a shadowy figure in the shape of a fine-dressed gentleman appeared—five feet off the ground, coattails flapping in the breeze. Rubbing her eyes, the girl shook her head, thinking she’d had too much to drink. She swore, hand to God, she’d get off the booze one day, not now, of course, maybe in the spring.
As the ghost dissolved from her view, the girl flicked the stub of her cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the heel of her boot. Hand in her pocket she reached for a trinket she’d been given by her last john. “A lucky rabbit’s foot,” he’d said, “blessed by a bona fide witch.” “Liar,” the girl had complained when he’d offered her the charm along with half of what he was supposed to pay. “No, no, no,” the john had insisted. “I tell you, she was real . . . a real witch with a very fine ass.” With that, the girl had grabbed the trinket and sent the john on his way. Something was better than nothing. She needed all the help she could get.
Stroking the soft fur of the rabbit’s foot, the girl thought of all she lacked. She was tired, she needed sleep, but she wanted more booze. When she glanced at the spot where she’d snuffed out the butt, there was a shiny new dime in its place. Picking the coin off the ground, she wondered if maybe the john had been right after all. Maybe the damn foot was lucky. Maybe the witch was real. Maybe her luck had changed because the john had dipped his willy in a witch and then dipped it in her, leaving behind some strange magic. There were worse things she could catch, she guessed.
In the shadow of the Great Bridge, a young widow knelt to plead with the river. Just after supper she’d spied something terrible in the soapy murk of her dishwater, a vision she’d seen once before, and she’d just as soon forget. Each time she closed her eyes, it came to her again—a man’s face, bloated and blue, gasping for air. The last time she’d seen it, it’d been her husband’s. This time it was a stranger’s.
“I understand,” the woman said to the river, touching the surface of the water with a finger. “I know how it feels to be slighted.” She also understood that the river required payment from those who wished to cross it. Blood, flesh and bone were what it liked best. The widow didn’t have much of anything to give as an offering—a few pennies, a splash of whiskey, the cheerful tune of an ancient song—but she hoped that if she were gentle, persuasive and kind, the river might change its mind. Was it witchcraft she was plying? She didn’t care so long as it worked. Something had to be done. Something was better than nothing.
In the cellar of a modest house on the edge of the Tenderloin, a weary housekeeper lit a candle and said a prayer. Taper in one hand, glass jar in the other, she poured wax around the edge of the jar’s lid to seal it shut. The jar—filled with stale urine, old needles, shards of mirror, brass buttons, bent nails and thirteen drops of blood from her left thumb—was what her wise grandmother had called a “witch’s bottle.” While others might call it humbug, the housekeeper saw the jar and its contents as her last hope to dispel the strange darkness that’d settled in her midst. What else could explain all that’d happened since the master of the house had passed? For weeks she’d been plagued by what she thought was a ghost or, perhaps, a demon, lurking in her room, stealing her sight, shaking her bed, night after night. What did it want? Where had it come from? Why wouldn’t it leave her alone? Prayers, hymns and a desperate stint of almsgiving hadn’t driven it away. She feared the terrible thing wouldn’t rest until it saw her dead. Had she been cursed? Something had to be done. As her grandmother would say, Wo gibt es Hexen, gibt es Geister. Where there are witches there are ghosts.
In a quiet corner of a cozy teashop just shy of Madison Square Park, a magnificent raven sat on a perch, preening its feathers. As the bird tugged and fussed at its wing, three women conversed around a nearby table—one, a lady of considerable wealth, the others a pair of witches, keepers of the bird and the shop. “Can you help?” the lady inquired, worry catching in her throat. “I’m at my wit’s end. Something must be done.”
One witch answered with a confident, “Of course.”
The other humbly replied, “Leave it with us.”
The raven cast an indifferent eye upon them. He’d witnessed this sort of thing before—the woman, unable to manage her affairs, needed a witch (or two) to make things right. That was all fine and good, but he was more interested in a faint sound coming from overhead, an enchanting jangle akin to when prisms on a chandelier touch. But how could that be when there was no chandelier to be found in the shop? He was certain unexpected magic was afoot.
Tea was poured, complaints and concerns heard, sympathy given. Crystal ball and grimoire consulted. Palms and tea leaves read. How pleased the bird was when he noticed the tray of teacakes in the centre of the table had barely been touched. How pleased the lady was when the witches presented her with a small package tied with red string.
The lady was sure she felt something move within the parcel. A tiny tremor of mystical vibration, perhaps? A sign of things to come? She’d heard rumours from a friend of a friend that these women could work miracles. She prayed it was true. She wanted to believe. Lowering her voice, she said, “You swear this thing has been touched by witchcraft?”
One of the women gave a polite nod and said, “Of course, my dear, of course.”
The other replied with a smile and a shrug. “Call it what you like.”
The raven simply cocked its head. It was all he could do not to laugh.
Shortlisted for the 2017 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
Shortlisted for the 2017 Sunburst Award in Adult Fiction
“Old New York shows its magic and its darkness in McKay’s latest novel. . . . [A] remarkable cast of characters. . . . McKay has crafted a stunning work that bridges the gap between historical and contemporary women's issues. The novel is ambitious in its scope yet still delves deep into the thoughts and motivations of characters who normally exist on society's outskirts—or even beyond the earthly realm. . . . McKay's elegant prose bridges the gap between the real world and the spiritual realm with skill and compassion. A sprawling tale of persecution and hysteria set in the vivid world of New York City’s Victorian era.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Wonderful novel. . . . McKay seamlessly combines several plots and juggles a large cast with grace. Skillful worldbuilding, fascinating characters, and a suspenseful plot make McKay’s novel an enchanting, can’t-put-down delight. The door is left open for a sequel, and readers will hope McKay takes Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice on further adventures of witchery and self-determination.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“[A] magical little book. . . . Witches may be McKay’s best effort yet in the way it combines humour, the occult and history into a fascinating and fun novel of women supporting each other.” —The Vancouver Sun
“Those who have been waiting for this new novel, rejoice—it’s another fabulous story by the author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure. . . . McKay is a consummate storyteller, whose love of meticulous historical research is evident through the novel. She spent hours—days—in the city’s historical society archives, finding troves of inspirational treasure for her story, and consulted with local herbalists to get the meaning of Eleanor’s herbs correct throughout the story. The accompanying artwork, both on the covers and within the novel itself, featuring all kinds of ephemera (real and created) from the era, is beautifully created by Kelly Hill, who has worked with McKay on both previous novels. This novel goes further into the world of magic—the unexplained, the supernatural—than her previous novels, but this change in style works beautifully. . . . McKay should definitely be proud of the gifts she has, and the gift she has given her readers.” —Local Xpress
“Widely considered part of the A-list of contemporary writers, McKay has created and occupied a vital territory in Canadian letters, with scrupulously researched historical fiction foregrounding female characters and lives against traditionally masculine settings and milieus. It is an approach that has earned her novels prizes, international publication and a place at the top of the bestseller lists. That would be an impressive feat for any writer; the fact that McKay has managed to do it with only two novels is a powerful testimony both to the force of her vision and the quality of her writing. . . . The Witches of New York . . . fully embraces the fantastic side of McKay’s imagination. . . . For all its ideas, its imperatives, The Witches of New York is a keenly pleasurable reading experience, and over all too soon. One cannot help but want to spend more time in the company of these witches.” —Robert J. Wiersema, author of Bedtime Story, National Post
“Told through McKay’s signature combination of prose, period advertisements, newspaper clippings and other ephemera, her third novel offers both a compelling, fast-paced story and a peek into New York of the late 1800s.” —Canadian Living
“[The] overlap of realism and magic is the book’s charm. . . . The Witches of New York is carefully researched, and its interspersing of historical accounts gives it a gently archival feel. Descriptions of period dress are loving . . . and society types straight out of Edith Wharton pursue spiritualism for fun. Sticking to fizz would be easy, but McKay widens her scope with grimier episodes. . . . She has a nose for the Dickensian. . . . [T]he trapped ghosts of ‘scrubber girls’ killed in . . . [a] fire at the Fifth Avenue Hotel are heartbreaking and genuinely eerie. The author is at her best when tying the unearthly to the ground. . . . McKay is a fine plotter. . . . [N]ow, when governments and religions still have a tight grip on reproduction, and Trumpian misogyny has been grimly spotlit, McKay’s work takes on pointed meaning. Her women go calmly about their business in a hostile world, circumventing the system wherever they can, getting up every time they’re knocked down. Abracadabra: this is their real magic.” —Alix Hawley, author of All True Not a Lie in It, The Globe and Mail
“The Witches of New York [is] an ‘enchanting’ read that’ll leave you horrified. Fans of Victorian fiction will enjoy this outing. All of tropes of the time are present here: the glamour of the Gilded Age, the tragedy of prostitutes and Fallen Women, the suffering of the toiling lower classes, the growing power of the suffragettes and the ever-present spectres of ghosts, angels and demons. The book is richly researched, and packed with enticing historical detail. McKay’s prose is, as always, superb—the descriptions enchanting, the narrative arcs compelling, the characters dear (or deliciously sinister, as the case may be). But it is the emotion of the novel that lingers longest, the pervading horror over the persecution of women—and what this persecution has done to repress women’s talents, impede their progress and stamp out their voices.” —Toronto Star
“McKay has done her research, weaving in fascinating medical, historical and society tidbits from the era.” —CBC
“This might only be Ami McKay’s third novel, but she has already become one of the country’s most beloved storytellers.” —The Globe and Mail
“Step into an exciting and spellbinding world, brought to us by the soaring imagination of Ami McKay . . . a celebrated purveyor of intrigue, dark arts and fascinating fragments of real history. . . . [A] dark, atmospheric tale. . . . McKay’s seductive novel unfurls slowly amidst a miasma of menace, mischief, mystery and mesmerising magic. . . . This a clever, compelling story of determined, independent women fighting for a place in a man’s world of chauvinism, oppression and prejudice. . . . Using the atmospheric backdrop of New York City on the cusp of monumental change and packed with the wisdom of the ages and the authority of an author with a resonant message, this is a rich, chilling and thrilling story.” —Lancashire Evening Post
“[W]hat really stood out was the amount of research McKay did. It’s something that shows particularly strongly in the strength of the link she makes between accusations of witchcraft, and their associated punishments, and a deeply ingrained, often religiously driven, sexism. . . . The Witches of New York is a compelling, fast-paced read, with much more to say than one might expect. Benefiting from research aplenty from author Ami McKay, a Victorian New York City really does come alive within its pages. . . . It’s about more than just witchcraft, and I’d urge even the most skeptical amongst you to ignore the advice of the advertisement that caught Beatrice’s eye—those averse to magic might well want to apply!” —The Australian Review
“Ami McKay is an amazing writer. . . . McKay is at her best when subtly describing the constant barrage of discrimination that these women face. . . . I found myself wishing I could step right into [the characters’] tea shop to have a nice conversation with them. . . . The plotting is also masterful in this book. . . . [T]he minor characters introduced along the way serve to keep the plot moving and never muddle the forward-motion of the narrative. . . . I can see why McKay’s books appeal to many people, there seems to be a character for everyone to identify with. . . . This is literally the perfect book to curl up with on October 31.” —Anne Logan, I’ve Read This (Blog)
“[McKay’s] most beguiling novel yet, luring us deep inside the lives of a trio of remarkable young women. . . . Witches, ghost[s], women’s rights, 1880’s New York, what is not to love[?] . . . The mood of the story is marvelous. . . . A perfect book for reading tucked under a fluffy blanket on a cool fall night. . . . The heroines are marvelous. Likable, flawed and I felt a real connection to them. . . . Her writing is absolutely exquisite and haunting. I felt transported right into the time. . . . Just an exquisitely written tale that you can lose yourself in. . . . I wanted more . . . if [McKay] doesn’t [write a sequel] I may be disappointed.” —Jennifer Rayment, Misbehavin’ Librarian (Blog) (4 out of 5 Deweys)
“I loved the atmosphere of this book. McKay does an incredible job of evoking this time and place with something extra. Her cast of characters, the history infused into this book give the whole thing an ethereal quality that had me looking around wondering if spirits were near.” —Eva Phillipson, The Paperback Princess (Blog)