Remembering Charlee Jacob: Season of the Witch

Cover of Season of the Witch by Charlee Jacob

Season of the Witch was nearly the last Charlee Jacob novel to be published (only one more, Containment, was to follow), yet it was the first that she wrote. She penned it in the ’80s, after which it remained a “trunk novel” until 2016. Jacob evidently revised the manuscript to some extent prior to its publication, as shown by its references to such post-eighties cultural phenomena as Internet porn, Scream, and the Black Eyed Peas, but it nonetheless has the feel of a throwback about it. In many ways Season of the Witch is closer to Jacob’s 1997 debut novel This Symbiotic Fascination than to anything she published since then.

The novel’s two main characters are Goth television presenter Renae Hawthorne and horror-loving teenage misfit Marty Hardisty. Each protagonist has a spider-web of associates: through Renae we meet her various co-workers and interview guests, along with her police officer boyfriend Eddie Poe and his colleague in the force Tom Larson. Marty, meanwhile, is friends with a boy named Chaz and is attracted to a girl named Rosie; these youngsters in turn have respective parental figures. The major plot points in the novel tend to impact both sets of characters in one way or another, even though Renae and Marty seldom cross paths directly.

Cover of Season of the Witch by Charlee Jacob

While Jacob uses variations on this bifurcated structure in almost all of her novels, her later work did a neater job of tying things together. For example, Still from 2007 is split between the story of a detective (later replaced with his reincarnation) and that of the killer he tails; while the characters often appear to inhabit two separate worlds, they are ultimately bound by the unfolding cop-and-killer narrative. With Season of the Witch, the overall narrative is much softer in focus: the one thing the various characters share is a collective nightmare that permeates the city’s collective subconscious.

Thematically, Season of the Witch has a significant overlap with the rest of Jacob’s bibliography. For example, the novel shows a seeming obsession with people lacking arms or legs, something that manifests variously as Rosie’s amputated veteran father Frank, Marty’s fetish for limbless women, and references to truncated stone age fertility idols typified by the Willendorf Venus (notably, each one of these motifs – scarred army veterans, amputation fetishists, and the Willendorf Venus – is itself a recurring image in Jacob’s work). Ghosts of burned children likewise haunt Season of the Witch just as they haunt many other Jacob stories. The novel often feels like her ur-text, displaying themes and motifs explored in more detail elsewhere in her career.

Most intriguing is the novel’s handling of one theme in particular: the mysterious broadcast. This concept can be seen in some of Jacob’s other books – consider the weird murder video in This Symbiotic Fascination that shows a different scene each time it is played, or the bizarre game show dream sequence from Dread in the Beast – but in most cases, it plays only a small role in the narrative. In Season of the Witch, however, enigmatic broadcasts are a major plot device.

The main example involves an erotic chatline called X-IS-THE-DARK, references to which exist seemingly everywhere and, at the same time, nowhere. Characters witness billboards promoting this service, only to take another look and find a different, utterly innocuous product; elsewhere they see the chatline being advertised in a commercial break, even though they are watching a DVD. Even the line’s presence on printed telephone bills turns out to have a similar now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t quality.

The X-IS-THE-DARK chatline is focused specifically on snuff sex, and the influence it has on its customers is profound. Renae and Eddie call the line together for some kinky enjoyment, but Renae soon becomes disturbed by the sexual fantasies that her cop boyfriend begins sharing. He roleplays the part of a child predator, and later regales X-IS-THE-DARK employee Claire with a description of brutally murdering Renae – a description that inflicts physical pain on his girlfriend as she listens:

“Guess what I have in my trousers? Her most explosive part—“
A final jolt of torched up Renae’s arm. Her imagination? She shook hard. Was I really shocked…? No, she was just caught up in it. Wait… There were blue sparks. And a sulfide smell. Brimstone bride.
“I cut it out and packed her pussy with gunpowder, a nice dick of a firecracker. Exchanging one fuse for another.”
Claire laughed. “One she could hardly re-fuse, huh?”
Renae shook again, She felt as if her body were a series of floors. There was a cataclysmic pain between her legs, and then each level collapsed in turn, shoving upward. She smelled a rust-rancid smoke. Before it reached her heart, she dropped the phone, jerked the plug from the wall jack. “Eddie, hang up!” she screamed.

The chatline and its adverts are not the only form of macabre media influencing the world. At the centre of the novel’s plot is necrOmania seXualis, a compendium of twisted stories and disturbingly graphic photographs. The book was never published, and yet copies inexplicably turn up in the local bookstore – rather like the appearing and disappearing adverts for X-IS-THE-DARK. Once again, it has a mind-warping effect on those who consume it. One twelve-year-old boy, we are told, mutilated animals and “performed a strange circumcision on himself with a scout knife and a pair of tweezers” after reading the volume – and this is just the beginning of its influence on the public.

The stories in necrOmania seXualis are credited to an author named Pirsya Profana, although this individual is something of an enigma. One character claims that she is dead, another suspects that she never existed in the first place: “Just an urban legend about a horror writer who’d tapped into Hell for inspiration and was herself butchered. Pirsya Profana was a modern myth, a feminist version of Lovecraft’s mad Arab, Al-hazred. Standard literary device.”

Readers familiar with the author’s work, meanwhile, will suspect that Pirsya Profana is – at least in part – a stand-in for Jacob herself. We learn that necrOmania seXualis contains “a story about a shit goddess” – a description that fits Jacob’s novella-turned-novel Dread in the Beast. The fictitious book is also said to include a short story entitled “Cognoscente”; Jacob’s final collection, The Myth of Falling, contains not only a story called “Cognoscente” but also one by the name of “Necromania Sexualis”.

If this was not connection enough; the story establishes that the only publisher to show interest in the necrOmania seXualis was Necro Publications – which, of course, is the company that published Season of the Witch. Jacob even includes the company’s owner David G Barnett as a minor character in her narrative, as he explains that publication of Profana’s book was thwarted by a series of quasi-Biblical disasters: a postal truck carrying the first run was struck by lightning, while subsequent runs were wiped out by vast hailstones, a hurricane and a plague of locusts. “I mean, if I were to try a fifth time, I’d be afraid I may father some poor first-born bastard only to see him drop dead,” remarks the fictionalised Barnett. (This is, incidentally, more evidence that Jacob revised the book since the eighties, as David G. Barnett did not establish Necro Publications until 1993).

As well as the stories of Pirsya Profana, necrOmania seXualis includes the photography of Thelonious Spunk, a serial killer who uses victims as models in macabre tableaux. A large portion of the novel’s plot involves Spunk’s efforts to create a sequel, something that will require further slayings.

Spunk’s modus operandi involves putting parts of his victim’s bodies in brown paper bags and leaving them to be discovered by passers-by. Each bag bears an arcane message along with the letters XXX OOO. He is dubbed the Triple X Slayer by the media, and when a sizeable reward is offered for information as to his identity the public begins eagerly searching for the latest paper bag (“Looking for packages became a scavenger hunt. Find one of the grisly gifts, get your mug on television. ‘Hi, Mom. Do I have veins between my teeth?’ Get your name in the pot for a chance at part of the fifty grand chunk-o-rama.”)

Before we meet Thelonious Spunk we are introduced to Calia Abrams, one half of a lesbian relationship. In the first chapter Calia is attacked and gang-raped by a mob of homophobes, women as well as men: “Dicks and sticks, bones and stones. Broken bottles and broken brick throttles.” Not long afterwards, Seuter – son of Calia’s partner Robin, and best friend of Marty – commits suicide.

At first, the jump from the story of Calia to that of Thelonious seems like another example of Jacob’s characteristic tendency to hop between different characters with very different perspectives. But when the police track down Thelonious, we learn that the two are connected: Calia Abrams is Thelonious Spunk’s previous identity, the character having transitioned from female to male after her ordeal. This is revealed when Eddie Poe tries to apprehend the transgender culprit:

Ed grabbed as he fell and—aw, shit!—made contact with the erection inside the man’s jeans. Ed snatched back his hand, freaked out. He was even more frazzled when the dick slid down a pant leg and came out onto the floor. A dildo.
Spunk’s shirt ripped, almost as loud a noise as his high-pitched shriek. They wrestled him still, then stared at two ragged circles where breasts had been removed.
Later, Ed and his colleague Tom discuss this turn of events:
“To think of a woman, doing this.”
“Doc says it was self-amputation,” Tom explained. “She couldn’t afford a medical sex-change. Most insurance won’t pay. So she mutilated herself and has been using illegal steroids.”

The figure of the gender-bending serial killer is a familiar one in horror. Norman Bates, who made his debut in 1959, is the ur-example, with Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs his most famous successor (given the long gestation period of Season of the Witch, it is unclear whether The Silence of the Lambs – published in 1988 – could have been an influence). Such characters are hardly the most flattering portrayals of gender-nonconformity; and considering that Season of the Witch finally saw publication in 2016, a very different time for transgender discourse than 1959 or 1988, it is worth analysing how the character of Thelonious Spunk stands up.

It would be missing the point to ask whether Thelonious is an offensive portrayal of a transgender person: Charlee Jacob was never an author to walk on eggshells for fear of offending her readership. What is notable about this character is less the potential for offense and more the lack of cynicism. Jacob’s perspective on Thelonious is not that of a privileged bully jeering at a person on the margins, but one that shows clear empathy. Thelonious Spunk is both a monster and, as the narrative voice puts it, “Just a regular guy-who-used-to-have-breasts”; while he may be an exhibit in a freak show, Jacob gives every indication that she includes herself – along with her expected readership – in the same tent.

Jacob’s stories often include a distinct male archetype: the apex predator, a monster-man whose appetites cannot be bound by mere reality (see Harry Tyler in Soma, Jason Cave in Dread in the Beast). But they also tend to depict the opposite as well, a sort of apex prey – a female character who suffers hellish abuse and responds through transcendence and transformation (see Dorien in Dread in the Beast, Jett in Vestal). In Season of the Witch, the character of Calia Abrams/Thelonious Spunk embodies both archetypes.

Like a number of Jacob’s other works, particularly Still, Season of the Witch spends a substantial amount of time analysing horror media and the appeal that it holds for its admirers. This lends the novel a degree of accessibility despite its unrelenting strangeness: any fan of horror will, in some way or another, see themselves reflected within the novel’s cast.

A reader who felt a guilty thrill at enjoying transgressive horror as an adolescent may well empathise with Marty, who – we are told – first bonded with his schoolfriend Chaz over a mutual love of illicit publications. Their friendship began when Chaz accidentally dropped a copy of an extreme horror magazine called Maggot Lunch, prompting Marty to share the weight of social embarrassment:

Marty’d smiled, saying, “Let me help ya there.”

Deliberately dropping his own books, a well-worn copy of Shitflag slid from his German text. The virgin mutilation cover by artist Sextant Blud alone guaranteed this as an item no regular book store would stock. Then a Hot Stumps tumbled from concealment in a library book of Rugmaking: A History. Chaz’s jaw had dropped at the anthology for lovers of the maimed and mangled form. The story illos were quasi-photographs of real human abbreviations by an up-and-squirting artist named T. Spunk, combination photograph (surely intended to resemble the work of a novice—for effect) segueing into grotesque line drawing (also done after the dilettante’s fashion). Chaz’s mortification disappeared behind instant bonding.

A cheerleader going down the stairwell saw the magazines and said scornfully, “Deviants.”

The story portrays Marty and Chaz as merely being unusually upfront about an interest shared by many people their age:

[Chaz] knew by experience how scenarios outside the norm, especially those mixing sex with death, appealed to the rebellious nature in the young. They’d do it in meatlockers, cemeteries, morgues. Squiring buttermilk seed in the Reaper’s eye to show they were unafraid. True of even the so-called good kids who wouldn’t touch the sort of material Chaz read but who thought Scream was, like, ooh, the most terrifying film ever made. Sheesh.

This youthful love of horror is opposed to the conservatism of an older generation. Chaz’s mother, we are told, has little time for him, instead being focused on her religion: “this reborn status mattered much more than the other ‘born’ state, out of a nasty meat cave betwixt sweating thighs, sort of equidistant between the piss and shit holes.”

While Marty’s relationship with the transgressive is tied to adolescent experimentation, the other protagonist – Renae, hostess of the Goth Channel – has taken things a step further by shaping her entire lifestyle around the macabre and morbid. She is attracted to a different type of horror than that consumed by Marty, however, being interested less in shock and viscera and more in the intangible atmosphere of dark dreams.

Like Jacob herself, Renae is a horror poet: “There were those – even in the profession – who claimed there was no such thing as horror poetry, insisting it was an oxymoron. She believed that Coleridge, Byron, and Baudelaire would rise from their graves to argue the point.” Her love of horror has a sexual aspect, albeit one rather different to the teenage porno-consumption favoured by Marty. Instead, her fantasies are focused upon the “helplessness that caused girls to swoon over Dracula, fucking them with phallic symbol fangs, turning them into fawning corpses with no wills of their own. The opposite of the old joke, now old enough to breed, old enough to bleed.” Naturally, Jacob shows us Renae’s erotic dreamscape head-on:

A true Goth, she was always enamored by Dracula’s story. How darkness, beautiful and eternal, swept you into a starry grave. But the fantasy she passed into was impalement by the historic Prince Vlad, set upright with the rest of the Saxon victims at Brasov, writhing if still alive or sagging on slippery stakes if dead. Vlad had the points rounded so that the original impalement didn’t immediately kill the victims, but let them slowly grind downward. When she shut her eyes and concentrated on Eddie’s thermal hardness and the shrieking of her own incinerating vaginal atoms, she saw Vlad Dracul [sic] enjoying his breakfast beneath where she suffered on her wooden stake.

As with many other Charlee Jacob heroines, Renae has issues with her self-image (“When she looked into a mirror there was a dark blur. She’d had her eyes checked. No defects. The problem was psychological”). The implication is that this personal problem fed into her desire to become a Goth. Notably, Marty’s love interest Rosie considers becoming a Goth herself following a trauma: “They loathed themselves, so they re-invented themselves. Could she do that? […] Dye her hair blond hair black, paint her nails ebon, get herself pierced in a dozen strategic locations, have some transvestite in fishnet stockings tattoo the portrait of a dead baby on her shapely ass.” In Season of the Witch, transforming into a Goth is more than making a fashion statement – it is a voyage of self-discovery.

An affinity for the Goth subculture is apparent in Jacob’s early work but fades over the course of her career: Tawne in This Symbiotic Fascination aspires to become a Goth, but by the time of Jacob’s 2005 novel Vestal, the portrayal of the subculture has become noticeably more detached. Season of the Witch, a throwback to the beginning of her career, is sufficiently enamoured with Goths to dream up an entire television channel for them, showcasing the strangest corners of their community.

In one chapter Renae interviews representatives of various Goth gangs – subcultures within the subculture – who have taken their aesthetics to extreme levels: Simmy Rare has dyed his skin a deep violet, allowing him to vanish into shadows; Genevieve Engoulevente’s body is covered with neatly-aligned, maggot-filled slices; Michael Ether’s jaw is wired open in a permanent scream; Tarynn Pix has transformed herself into a catgirl, complete with retractable claws and four extra breasts; and Tlatlauhqui has had a gaping hole cut out of his chest and replaced with a glass window to show his beating heart. The interview ends in an all-out fight, complete with thrown maggots, broken chest-glass, and popping breast implants.

Renae’s connection to television grants Jacob more opportunities to dream up weird broadcasts, as when the hostess interviews a director whose film, clips from which are shown in the studio, turns out to bear an inexplicable similarity to Renae’s childhood as though her dream-memories have been captured on celluloid (this sequence reaches a visceral climax as the pregnant director disembowels herself on air, her unborn child slipping out onto the studio floor). At the same time, the role of television allows the novel further scope to analyse the topic of horror and violence in the media.

In one scene, Renae and her boyfriend Eddie watch a television series called Death See that broadcasts samples of Thelonious Spunk’s murder-photography:

He turned on the loft’s television and choked. Strips of sequence shots taken of Sandra Dickens. Spunk/Abrams had used a second camera to take a stream of 1/500 second pictures for the Rube Goldberg-ish machine built to strike off Sandra’s head. The photograph Spunk took of the head flying forward had been done separately. Death See ran the strip quickly to create a sort of video of the machete swinging out and decapping the vic They ran it forward, backward, forward in excruciating slo-mo, hair and blood acing. A camera-tech computer trick about thirty or forty years old. They indulged it by showing it for a good minute in replay.

Faced with this horrific imagery, the couple debate what sort of people could find value in such material:

Eddie knew these jerks were also grinning. Death was ultimate product. He considered Goths being into grief, wondering if this might be superior to those who seemed incapable of mourning anything.
He felt defeated. “What the public wants, sitting in living rooms, getting a taste of what it’s like to kill by seeing at the ends of their snotty noses.”
Renae rolled onto her stomach in a way so she could reply but still see the TV. “To kill? You don’t consider it a taste of what it’s like to die?”

The characters in Season of the Witch come from different walks of life and embody a spectrum of traumas and anxieties, but all have something in common: they have each been touched by the supernatural phenomena occurring across their city, which has led even the most sheltered resident to confront death head-on.

This phenomena is shown spreading like a disease. Thelonious Spunk’s sometimes partner Robin calls it an infection of dreams: “See, with history’s plagues, it’s a biological thing. This other plague, it’s a dream virus in germ symbols. Contagious, sure. It got away from some Lord of the Flies.” This could be termed a meme, in the Dawkinsian sense, and Robin cites media theorists and anthropologists (Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, W. Lloyd Warner) as discussion points in her analysis.

Like all infections, the weird broadcasts and other nightmarish goings-on have a source, and this turns out to be necrOmania seXualis author Pirsya Profana. We find that Profana is a supernatural being who has existed at various points in history (shades of the “gateway to Aralu” from Dread in the Beast). Her earliest recorded incarnation was an eleventh-century nun secretly involved with the worship of a pagan goddess, the symbols of her religion being X and O.

A later manifestation of Pirsya Profana lived at the time of the Revolutionary War, when she and her fellow witches were raped and mutilated by the redcoat soldiers of Captain Walch; the witches responded by unleashing the power of their mother goddess in her darkest aspect. In nightmares and as apparitions, both Walch and Profana are depicted as haunting the city built on the location of past atrocities: once again, we see the figures of the apex predator and apex prey.

Jacob’s writing shows fascination with the margins of religion, although the witchcraft-faith of Season of the Witch is nowhere near as outrageous as the scatological goddess-worship of Dread in the Beast. The maiden-mother-crone trinity; eggs as reproductive symbolism; the Abrahamic God as patriarchal oppressor — all of this is standard fare for pagan feminism. That said, the novel’s spirituality has a more idiosyncratic aspect in its strong association between the feminine divine and sexual transgression: Jacob does not so much reject the virgin-whore dichotomy as wholeheartedly embrace the symbol of the whore.

Rosie, a character involved with sex work, is the most eager to join the ways of the goddess. She wonders if there is a goddess of working girls, and decides that the most viable candidate is Ishtar, “the Sumerian deity in whose name the temple whores did the holy wild thing to fill the coffers with gold.” Sex, like death, is inseparable from the novel’s vision of the supernatural; this is graphically depicted in a scene near the end when Marty and Rosie are subjected to a bizarre procession of horror in a hospital ward. First, a doctor and nurse enter the room and commence an orgy of sex and mutilation:

The couple on the floor changed places, the nurse on top, hovering over the doctor. She’d split his abdomen with frosted razor-peach nails. She rubbed the twists and cords of his spilling organs over her face, hair festooned with steaming bulbous ribbons. The doctor writhed, hips thrusting as he bleated from a cavernous mouth hole, his hands reaching up to squeeze the nurse’s pale saggy highlands. He started digging into her rectum with first one finger, then two, then his entire hand. With a triumphant howl, he pulled out the colonary lining, wrapped like a delicate caul around inches of tarry stool. The nurse grinned through the hole in the jaw, shuddering with impossible pleasure.

Marty forced himself to look away. What would Rosie think if she saw this getting him off? What would he think if it actually did?

As the sea of blood fills the ward, more figures enter the scene: limbless women, victims depicted in necrOmania seXualis, swim mermaid-like through the red tide – nymphs of the sex-goddess whose anger has spilled onto the earth.

When it was published in 2016, Season of the Witch did not bring a great deal of new subject matter to Charlee Jacob’s oeuvre – hardly surprising, given that it was the first novel she wrote. But in its rawness and unpolished nature, it has plenty to say about her evolution as a writer and the development of her recurring themes.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.
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