Non-fiction review: Cursed Britain by Thomas Waters

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I was very excited when I saw Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times by Thomas Waters — the cover speaks of folk magic and whilst the book is published by Yale University Press, I was hoping it would be legible and not too academic.

As a proviso, I did find the PDF galley hard to read with additional annotations and footnotes/endnotes not linked. It did affect my reading experience and for that reason, I didn’t complete the entire ARC. However, I did read enough I feel I can provide a fair review. I used the “look inside” feature on Amazon and the layout of the book in paperback form is far more legible so I recommend this rather than a digital version.

The author is clearly passionate about his subject and can articulate it well. The text is dense and full of references but it’s surprisingly easy to read. There are long introductions and it did feel like some information was repeated, however, for a new-to-me topic, that worked well. There were a lot of examples of tales that feel well-trodden and those could have been better used to highlight rather than the longer swathes of exposition.

As with other reviewers, I found the weighting of the book to be in the past, rather than more present, which is a shame because witchcraft is something that will always be present. Whilst the author made clear at the start he wasn’t talking about modern day Paganism and instead makes his focus on malevolent/harmful witchcraft, or as he defines it, “mystic interpersonal harm” I do wish there was more about current practice.

He further describes the modern witches he knows as “[…] dedicated to exploring spirituality, folklore, landscapes, aesthetics, and the rich history and anthropology of magic” which sounds respectful but there’s also threads in the book of dismissal of certain folklore and — when discussing the far more modern era — rejection of acceptable, scientifically-proven practices such as acupuncture. This provided a somewhat incongruous perspective for me.

I did enjoy the more historical parts with regards to not just Britain, but the British Empire, particularly as I recently attended an online talk about the origins of Haitian Vodou so this gave me a different perspective on how superstition and spirituality combine.

This is a really difficult topic to write about but I feel as a foundation text and acknowledging where there are gaps or improvements, it’s a solid, well-researched piece of work. Where it fits into the market, I’m less sure. It’s too casual for academia in places yet too dry for people wanting a more ‘fun’ read.

Book Details

Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times by Thomas WatersPublication Title: Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times
Author: Thomas Waters
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 29th September 2020

The definitive history of how witchcraft and black magic have survived, through the modern era and into the present day

Cursed Britain unveils the enduring power of witchcraft, curses and black magic in modern times. Few topics are so secretive or controversial. Yet, whether in the 1800s or the early 2000s, when disasters struck or personal misfortunes mounted, many Britons found themselves believing in things they had previously dismissed – dark supernatural forces.

Historian Thomas Waters here explores the lives of cursed or bewitched people, along with the witches and witch-busters who helped and harmed them. Waters takes us on a fascinating journey from Scottish islands to the folklore-rich West Country, from the immense territories of the British Empire to metropolitan London. We learn why magic caters to deep-seated human needs but see how it can also be abused, and discover how witchcraft survives by evolving and changing. Along the way, we examine an array of remarkable beliefs and rituals, from traditional folk magic to diverse spiritualities originating in Africa and Asia.

This is a tale of cynical quacks and sincere magical healers, depressed people and furious vigilantes, innocent victims and rogues who claimed to possess evil abilities. Their spellbinding stories raise important questions about the state’s role in regulating radical spiritualities, the fragility of secularism and the true nature of magic.

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