An Origin Story of Sorts

The first book on witchcraft or magic that ever entered my life was way back in the year 1989. The first Gulf War hadn’t even started, gas was a whopping 97 cents a gallon, and all I cared about was listening to The Dead Milkmen and eagerly awaiting the Marvel Universe trading cards soon to be released.

I was in my second year at Middle School in Greenfield, Massachusetts.  Noticing that I had a ridiculously massive love and hunger for any book I could get my hands on (partial quest for knowledge/partial escape at any cost) one of my teachers suggested that I help out in the library for study/free period. I loved the idea and jumped at the chance to actually be “behind-the-scenes” at the library. It was to be the first library I had direct contact with. It was wonderful. I had access to the restricted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue box that had collected these particular “naughty” magazines for years. I was also left alone to enjoy the library when my work was done.

It was there that I encountered my first peek into the world of witchcraft and magic, potions and spells. I have recounted before that Scott Cunningham’s ‘Magical Herbalism’ was the first book to get me into all the wonderful stuff I currently love. This is not entirely true. I usually default to Cunningham’s book due to the fact that I could never remember the actual book that I first laid eyes on. To be sure, ‘Magical Herbalism’ changed my life. I carried an ultra dog-eared and marked-up copy in my backpack all through High School. However, the book that started it all, revved up my curiosity, and caused me to actively seek out a book like Cunningham’s was this:

“The Book”

I refer to it as “The Book” (capitol “T,” capitol “B”) because for 20-some-odd years I couldn’t remember the name of it at all. I remembered that it was the color of the hard cover book was the same green and purple that my beloved, also Massachusetts-based, Dinosaur Jr used on each and every one of their album covers (at the time, excluding the ‘Dinosaur’ debut album) and t-shirts. I vividly remembered the art on the cover as being amazing…and now after seeing it again I realize that the illustrations for the book had formed my current artistic tastes.

I happened to randomly stumble upon it while looking through a popular book-buying site we all know and love/loathe. It all came rushing back to me. Just seeing the cover made me creep very close to “tears” territory. The book is called Witches’ Potions and Spells. It was written/edited by Kathryn Paulsen and illustrated by Maggie Jarvis. The book was published in 1971 by Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York and was not reprinted. There is an alternate blue and red hardcover version as well.

It is a 62 page book filled with spells that go from utterly charming to chillingly horrible. The book is divided into sections titled Love Potions, Transvection, or Flying Ointments, For Jealousy and Conquest of Rivals, To Break a Love Spell, For Deceit, For Good Fortune and Favor, For Strength Courage and Fear, Preparations of Mandrake Root, To Cause Discord, To Cure and Prevent Illness, To Cause Sleep or Wakefulness, To Compel True Speech, For Prophecy and Raising Spirits, To Cause Illusion, To Harm Enemies, etc, etc.

I was 11 going on 12 years old. I was captivated. I had seen magical things on television and in movies and video games, but this seemed real. The book was powerful and scary. I did not want to go and do anything that had to do with the killing of animals for ingredients (and hoo-boy, there is a LOT of that in this book) but I still recognized that this was much different from the faerie tales and kid’s books I had read. The spells were OLD sounding. Some mentioned the Devil! Eye of Basilisk is even mentioned a few times! In between the fantasy, I was introduced to a world where herbs and roots could heal and harm, protect and help with deeds. I wasn’t about to get the brains of a bear to soak in wine, but I was interested in these old ways I was reading about.

I decided to take the book home and, too afraid to officially check it out of the library, slipped it into my bag and hurried out. That week at home I poured over the book endlessly. I admired the illustrations, or “decorations” as the book describes them, staring at them for as long as I could. I read, re-read, and re-re-read each page over and over again. That is, until my mother found the book.

She had been “cleaning my room” and came across it. I came home that day, from school, to a flipped out, hysterical mother who waved the book in my face and started to scream at me. This was different, as I usually had little-to-no parental input. My Mother was 28 at the time and was very much into a new band called Guns N’ Roses. Whitesnake, too. Usually she was cool; MTV, pizza, Wonderful World of Disney, Ozzy worship, and Atari’s Star Wars: Death Star Battle were all very common in our house. She was not having this though. Not at all. She started yelling at me that she had known a kid when she was younger who was “into all of this stuff” and had “killed cats and hurt animals” and did I think that that sounded fun or something I would like to do. She must have forgot my extreme love for birds, our cats, and pretty much all of the animals I helped care for on my Uncle’s farm that we had previous lived at. I assured her I wanted to do no such thing.

At this point she stormed out of the house and walked across the parking lot to one of those GIANT blue trash dumpsters that are always sighted in apartment complexes. She tossed the book into the open “window” of the dumpster and walked back into the house, grounding me for some allotted amount of time. Here’s where things get magically delicious. About two days after this happens I was ordered, at the top of my Mother’s lungs, to “come down these stairs right this instant!” I thought she was upset because I had been listening to her cassette copy of Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’ without asking her again. I was chilled and goose-bumped to see her pointing to the back patio concrete where the book was laying in the lightly falling snow. It was on our back steps, as though it wanted to be let back inside the house. I had to swear to her and yell that, “I hadn’t gone after the book…and if I had, why would I leave it outside in the snow to get ruined…and where she could see it!?” None of my friends knew about the book or that she had thrown it away and, even if I had wanted to, the dumpster door was too high up for me to climb into. I didn’t want to go rooting around in a huge, smelly dumpster anyway.

I was re-grounded for an even longer time. My boombox was taken away along with my comic books and Weird Al cassettes. The book was taken to the dumpster and thrown away AGAIN. After that I hadn’t seen the book again until about a month ago…and I’m in used bookstores/browsing books online constantly. My Mother swears she was not behind this, in an attempt to try to scare me and she barely even remembers the entire incident.

This single book from a small Middle School library (Sara and I speculate how the hell it even ended up in a school library in the first place) in Western Massachusetts formed an idea in my brain that never went away. I may have turned my full attention to comic books and music for my teen years to come, but I never dropped the witches and magical spells entirely. So I say a belated Thank You to Kathryn Paulsen, Maggie Jarvis, Peter Pauper Press and everyone involved with getting ‘Witches Potions and Spells’ into my 11 year old hands. I am forever indebted to you.

2 thoughts on “An Origin Story of Sorts

  1. Shane says:

    The best part about this post is the fact that I am too from Western Mass and I bought this book at a library sale in Belchertown MA. I have been looking for more information on it, etc and never seem to find anything but Im happy someone else found it in a strange place.

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