To Kill a Witch
Alice Brennan | Lancer Books | 1972 | 253 pages
Featuring a cover image that evokes Tippi Hedren, To Kill a Witch actually does name-check The Birds early in its text to establish an ominous sense of dread from something as ordinary as a flock of gulls.
Young journalist Laurie Brooks and her photographer husband Ted travel to isolated Gull Island to fulfill the stipulations of late horror author Agatha Gray’s will. Although previously only briefly meeting Agatha during a professional assignment, Laurie stands to inherit the writer’s entire estate by staying on the island for three months. If Laurie fails, the will directs that Agatha’s ex-husband Francis Mercer becomes the sole beneficiary.
On the ferry ride to the island, Laurie discovers that the local villagers suspected Agatha Gray, writer of such occult stories as “The Birth and Lifetime of Elisia, the Witch”, of being a witch herself. The ferry captain tells Laurie the story of a curious intruder who swam to the island following Agatha’s death, only to be found later dead on the beach, picked clean of flesh by the island’s large gull population. Upon arriving at the estate, Laurie meets the superstitious old housekeeper, Mrs. Kane, who warns her about the “Dance of the Gulls”, an ominous occurrence that foretells an upcoming death.
Shortly after arriving, Ted saves a young man from drowning in the lake. The grateful near-fatality, Giles Reed, vows to return the favor by keeping watch over Laurie during the duration of her stay, after Ted leaves her alone to return to his work. But she isn’t quite convinced of the sincerity of the scene she just watched unfold, and wonders if Giles has an agenda of his own. Laurie quickly becomes convinced that she does need protection, however, after she witnesses the bizarre “Dance of the Gulls” herself on the moonlit beach below the great estate, afterward finding a jeweled pin from her room in the sand at the center of the avian ritual.
After addressing the natural question of “Why doesn’t she just leave the island?” with a rather flimsy push-pull battle of wills with her husband, To Kill a Witch settles into a familiar but comfortable atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, with the ever-circulating gulls a reminder of the danger facing Laurie. She is unsure if the local townspeople are trustworthy, after she learns they performed a witch-killing ritual—burning a glass bottle filled with personal artifacts—before Agatha’s death, and who now seem to also suspect Laurie of witchcraft. A small creepy touch occurs when Laurie, struggling with writer’s block on her own first novel, looks down at her typewritten page to discover only one word, “Murder”.
The story works in equal parts as an inheritance drama, with the specter of Agatha Gray’s ex-husband roaming somewhere undetected on the island, and as an occult thriller, with the gulls themselves protecting the estate—or as local legend dictates, being directed by a dead witch from beyond the grave to avenge her murder.