The Risen, Ron Rash

The RisenRon Rash opens his haunting new novel with a near-mythic resurrection. She is waiting, a voice tells us, she is patient. Set free by decades of rain that wear away her grave on the banks of a creek in Sylva, North Carolina, bits of bone gather in an eddy, form a brief necklace, and what remains of a long-dead girl, wrapped in a tarp for 46 years, spills into the stream and is free.

Her name is Ligeia Mosely, a Florida runaway sent to live with her uncle and aunt to protect her from “bad influences.” Seventeen years old with red hair, aqua eyes and a perfect complexion, she appears one day in 1969, a vision in a green bikini, at the favorite fishing spot of teenage brothers Eugene and Bill Matney.

The three share an idyllic summer of free love, beer, and Boone’s Farm (and Quaaludes and Valiums for the winsome Ligeia), until the end of September, when Bill puts her on a bus to Asheville. Or so he tells Eugene. Ligeia is never seen again—until the day her 17-year-old face graces the front page of their local newspaper, her body identified from dental records in the original missing persons report.

Rash, known for his fine-tuned, lapidary short stories (Burning Bright, Nothing Gold Can Stay) and lyrical novels (Serena, The Cove, Under the Waterfall), has reined in his usual style for The Risen, a spare and sinuous murder mystery unveiled through a disquietingly elusive narrative and a fast-moving plot.

The setting is a sleepy hamlet outside of Asheville where Eugene and Bill, now in their 60s, have remained though their lives have wildly diverged. In chapters that alternate between the present investigation and vivid flashbacks, Eugene recalls early life with their widowed mother and grandfather, a tyrannical World War I veteran and country MD who runs their lives with an iron hand.

Light years away from the hippie movement and its music and drug culture, Sylva’s inhabitants glimpse the Vietnam War and civil rights protests from a distance, remembers Eugene, “as if we peered into a telescope at some alien world.” Bill, “the golden boy,” is groomed to be a surgeon, while Eugene, lacking his brother’s hand-eye coordination and his grandfather’s favor, tilts toward literature, where his true talent lies.

As Eugene reviews his memories of that long-ago summer, truth and fiction overlap from the start, when “Ligeia’s ability to appear or disappear seemed magical.” Bill disputes Eugene’s initial sighting of the skinny-dipping siren at the pond, joking that maybe Eugene as been “getting into Grandfather’s closet,” where the prescription drugs are stored, a cool foreshadowing of events to come.

Piecing together the often spooky elements of his grandfather’s powerful reign, Eugene reveals the old man’s menacing legacy in the smoke and mirrors surrounding Ligeia’s disappearance. From battlefield stories to deathbed confessions, a tangled family history of lies, secrets, and blackmail attests to the cruelty he and his brother met at their grandfather’s hands, as well as what was meted out to others.

But the story emerges from unreliable sources. Eugene, once a promising writer and teacher, is now the town drunk, a man chiefly remembered for having caused the near fatal car crash that left his young daughter scarred and walking with a limp for the rest of her life. The alcohol that once enabled him to feel “braver, stronger,” Eugene recalls, brought forth a darker side: “The suffusing glow freed something in me … though perhaps summoned is a more honest word.”

Bill, who at 18 had no qualms about lying, cheating on his girlfriend, and slut-shaming Ligeia, is now a successful surgeon with a spotless reputation, “a good man, compassionate, generous,” beloved by all, including Eugene’s wife and daughter, whom he rescued from Eugene’s destructive cycle.

“Always the better brother and ever to be,” Eugene calls Bill, despite the fact that each time new evidence arises—courtesy of the sheriff who questions Eugene about his involvement in the murder—his brother offers a different version of Ligeia’s last day alive. Nor has Eugene ever told the truth about what happened one afternoon with Ligeia when Bill was nowhere around.

Not surprisingly, in this story studded with false memories, unreliable testimony, and moral ambiguity, there are no innocent victims. As conniving as she is seductive, Ligeia plays Eugene like the Bugtussle hick he is, extracting drugs and favors while flattering him and schooling him on sex and the ’60s underground music he craves.

Ron Rash (photo: Ulf Andersen)

Ron Rash (photo: Ulf Andersen)

The era is lavishly cataloged, from Ligeia’s love beads to her Jefferson Airplane t-shirt (“That’s a music group?” Eugene asks her), from head shops to commune life, from Strawberry Hill wine to shotgunning a joint. As always, Rash has aced his period homework: Ligeia throws around more authentic drug and hippie slang than I’ve heard since my junior year in high school.

Some of the author’s most enduring themes are at play here, particularly the classism that divides his mountain communities, seen in the old doctor’s refusal to treat the local welfare recipients, and in his Mephistophelian control over the less fortunate: his daughter-in-law, grandsons, secretary, handyman and anyone else who comes within striking distance of this Appalachian Mr. Potter.

The prospect of murder haunts the book in many forms, both real and metaphorical: a willful drowning in the bottle, the aborting of potential, the denial of love and erasing of second chances. “The Risen” asks thorny questions about family and freedom of choice and whether some lives are worth more than others — and if so, and if so, does the end ever justify the means?

In one of Rash’s strongest, most evocative novels to date, life offers messy, complicated truths. They appear and disappear, forcing us to look more deeply beneath the surface, to places where “the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens, and more of the bank peels off … bringing to light another layer of dark earth.”


Ron Rash appears Saturday Sept. 3 at 11:15 at the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary, 308 Clairmont Ave., where he’ll be joined by Teresa Weaver to talk about The Risen.

Miss JaneNot much scares Jane Chisholm, the heroine of Brad Watson’s eloquently homespun second novel, Miss Jane. Not snakes, disease, chickens, cows, coyotes, panthers, screech owls, wild dogs, cyclones, hail, lightning, “the hatchet used to decapitate the chickens,” not her mother’s “harsh and dark words,” or even the devil or hell.

Born in 1915 with a rare genital defect that renders her ill-suited for marriage or motherhood, the only thing that bothers Jane is “the vexation of her own incontinence.” In a community in which “she was the only one made the way she was made,” she meets life with grace and wonder, “determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could.”

Jane’s rural homestead lies just outside of Mercury, the fictional version of Meridian, Mississippi, where Watson grew up (and the setting for his first novel, Heaven of Mercury). Jane’s mother, Ida, and father, Sylvester, are nearly 40 and, having already lost three children, had not planned to have another. Jane is the result of a moonshine-n’-laudanum night of “sin and abomination” that leads them to suspect her handicap is their punishment.

Fortunately, the local doctor who delivers Jane, Ed Thompson, advises her parents on how to care for her and, when she’s old enough, assures Jane that she’s a “normal little girl” whose body “didn’t get to finish itself up and get everything right” before she was born. His support and close attention help the family accept her, and in letters exchanged with his colleague, the nature of her condition is gradually made plain. Thompson periodically arranges for Jane to be examined, but the surgery to correct her abnormality has yet to be developed.

Watson, who based Jane on his great-aunt, Mary Ellis Clay, could have written her as a hopelessly isolated child, a freakish outsider. After all, she’s not like other children. She’s surrounded by sorrow and defeat—a mother damaged by the death of a beloved son at age 3; a father whose drinking increases as the Depression takes its toll on his farm and store; and an unhappy older sister described by Dr. Thompson as a “wildcat tethered to that family and her duties as if to a tree by a pulled-taut chain.”


Brad Watson

But the South of Miss Jane isn’t the gritty, grotesque South of Harry Crews or even the afflicted, Southern Gothic world of Flannery O’Connor (although this story could be a metaphor for O’Connor’s life). Watson, also the author of two short-story collections, has more in common with writers like Ron Rash or Amy Greene, whose nuanced portraits of Appalachia illustrate the struggle between human decency and the costs of survival. His “country folk” are complex and vulnerable, their stoicism and outer coldness a response to events beyond their control.

Despite being made differently,  Jane is neither freak nor misfit. Instead, Watson paints her as exactly what the good doctor insists she is: a regular little girl. “A fairly solitary and independent little sprite” with a “prodigiously contemplative disposition,” she’s most at home in the woods and meadows, places where she feels “as if nothing could be unnatural … within but apart from the world.”

Inquisitive, resilient, and independent, Jane embraces the mysteries and marvels of nature: “mushrooms and their dry or slimy tops and delicate stems and gills beneath their caps”; the mating habits of pigs and roosters; “bone-jarring thunder, lightning that made everything for an instant like the inside of a vast glass bowl of bright blue light”; even her sister’s face as she makes love with a neighbor boy, “eyes locked on her own, looking straight to where she was hiding.”

And despite the lack of affection in her family, Jane’s young heart opens to the rare exception. A “little one-armed hug” from her father during a fishing trip is “an expression of sentiment so rare in their household” that it brings her to tears, “which she hid by walking away and picking wildflowers on the little hill above the pond and bringing them back to him.”

“How is it a child comes out like this’n?” her father asks Dr. Thompson; her mother consults a psychic, only to be told that Jane will never be “normal, like other girls,” but she’ll be happy: “Unlike you.” This investigation of normal is at the heart of Watson’s novel: The pity Jane’s fate should inspire never quite fits with her steadfast defiance of Thompson’s worry that she’ll end up “living a long life of isolation and shame.”

During an era when a woman’s purpose was marriage, sex, and children, Jane’s life is anything but barren. While everyone around her wishes she could be fixed, Jane is busy finding happiness wherever it beckons. As time goes by, she attends school, reads precociously (Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”), goes to barn dances (as Watson’s great-aunt was said to do), works in the family store, and has a boyfriend with whom she experiences a fragile but lasting love.

Significantly, few of the characters in Miss Jane fully inhabit traditional roles. Ida, “cantankerous” mother of four, has always felt pregnancy as “[her body] taking itself away from her again.” Dr. Thompson and his wife can’t have children, nor can the sharecropper couple whose lovemaking Jane spies on with such guilty pleasure. Her sister Grace spurns a future as a farm wife to work unconventional jobs; Jane herself wishes she could fix a tractor or hammer out a horseshoe; compared to sewing and sweeping, “men’s work seemed like freedom.”

Peacocks make several appearances throughout the book, “otherworldly birds” frequently depicted in shimmering, near-mythological scenes. Toward the end, these “oddly beautiful” creatures flock to Jane “as if they sensed the presence of someone they found familiar”—as strange as they are, Jane is more so. Yet her fearless acceptance of what sets her apart is profoundly human, and her lifelong struggle to understand her place in the world reflects the intricate workings of our own mysterious hearts.


Other books by Brad Watson include Last Days of the Dog-Men: Stories (2001), The Heaven of Mercury (2002), Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives: Stories (2010). A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution July 10.


Chris Offutt’s father wasn’t always a pornographer. His first book, written when he was 12, was a novel of the Old West. He completed a 300-page historical account of Rome while still in college. Before he died in 2013, Andrew J. Offutt had written and published more than 400 books, using 17 different pseudonyms. Six of his novels were science fiction, 24 were fantasy, and one was a thriller.

The rest were XXX-rated.

Shortly after his father’s death, Chris, then 54, found himself the beneficiary of a “secret will,” stipulating that he handle Andrew’s papers, specifically including “instructions about his porn, where it was hidden and what to do with it.”

While cleaning out his dad’s cluttered office space in the family home in rural Kentucky, Offutt opened a closet lined from floor to ceiling with pornography: everything from books, manuscripts, photographs, magazines, postcards, comics and pinups, to ”a pile of dusty catalogs from Frederick’s of Hollywood [that] ran back 50 years.”

It was a tunnel into a past he had never suspected, into the mind of a man he soon realized he never knew: My Father, the Pornographer (Atria Books).

Offutt’s onetime belief that his father occasionally wrote porn “to supplement his income” as a science fiction and fantasy writer — his parents claimed the senior Offutt cranked out a few dirty books to pay for Chris’s orthodontia — falls apart in the face of Andrew’s “incredibly vast and inclusive” pornographic library.

Not only had his father published three decades worth of porn titles (conveniently listed in the back of the memoir), he did so under an array of aliases, notably John Cleve, who posed as a 1970s swinger, and Turk Winter, the final persona behind his collaboration for 25 years with Eric Stanton, the underground fetish artist.

Offutt Sr.’s mass-production of porn was coolly efficient — Chris compares him to “Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with premade parts” — and included mind-boggling varieties: “…farm porn, cowboy porn, Hollywood porn, Nazi porn, swapping and swinging… pirate porn, ghost porn, science fiction porn, thriller porn, zombie porn, and Atlantis porn …” Of these “subgenres” galore, the exhausted Offutt is “thankful for the utter absence of kiddie porn.”

Chris Offutt (photo Sandra Dyas)

Chris Offutt (photo: Sandra Dyas)

Immersed in cataloging his father’s Augean and “increasingly dark” life’s work, organization turns to quagmire, and Offutt grows depressed, morose, even suicidal. He eats little and loses all interest in sex. Andrew’s shadow hovers: “The project felt less like clearing a room,” Offutt writes, “and more like prospecting within his mind.” His siblings urge Chris to destroy the pornography, worried the job will ferry him too far back into the hell they escaped.

Refusing to turn away, Offutt insists that “as a son, I wanted an opportunity to understand him further through his work.” The result is a heartbreaking coming-of-age story in which memories of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood prove just how much of a toll the father’s obsessive career took on the family.

Life with Offutt Sr. was anything but ordinary. Remembering days before his father quit his lucrative day job to write, Offutt contrasts rare moments with his once adored, playful dad with the stay-at-home Mr. Hyde he became. “Bullying and critical, angry at the breaking of his ever changing rules regarding bathroom doors, sound, laughter, talking,” his crushing presence and bottomless need for obedience and attention made life unbearable for his family.

Many scenes rival the stories of Jeannette Walls or Mary Karr for parental neglect and craziness. In one stunning chapter, Offutt describes the many sci-fi conventions his parents attended, shuttling their children off to a separate room with orders not to bother them — emergency or no — while Offutt Sr. enjoyed the swinging lifestyle he’d developed for his alter ego, the childless, freewheeling John Cleve.

Not that the kids didn’t come in handy: Andrew stole their college fund, cashed his younger son’s college financial aid check and sold Chris’ “comic book collection of 1,500 titles and kept the proceeds.” Even after Chris left home, his dad’s moody, controlling behavior dictated their communications, which didn’t improve when Chris’s work began to attract the sort of literary acclaim Offutt Sr. had always craved.

The hard-won understanding of his father’s insecurities and frailties is dutiful but damning. Offutt — the author of two short-story collections, two memoirs, a novel, and TV scripts for “Treme,” “Weeds” and “True Blood” — commends Andrew’s pre-pornographic work as “energetic, funny, concerned, serious and original.” Rereading it, he “wept for the talent [his father] had as a young man, the great writer he might have become.”


Andrew J. Offutt, reading in the 70s.

Offutt Sr.’s tone-deaf approach to his son’s talent, by contrast, shows little concern for such fine points: When Chris, a struggling writer at age 25, refuses a job co-writing one of Andrew’s porn novels, his father lashes out in a letter so vicious I agree with his friends who said it should have been burned.

He feels “a horrified sympathy” for his father and “the world he carried inside himself at all times — filled with pain and suffering.” Yet he’s often revolted to the point of nausea — especially with one of his last finds, a cache of chillingly nihilistic S/M comic books his father worked on from 1958 until his death.

It’s exactly how the reader may end up feeling, despite Offutt’s survival of his trial by fire, having sweated out the fear of his father like a plague. In the end, he makes no attempt to reconcile his father’s conflicts or his own, leaving this record of his journey into the heart of darkness — awe-inspiring, tender, gut-wrenching, forgiving — just as he found it.


Read Offutt’s original essay for the New York Times about his father here.

Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:


Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)


The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)


A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)


Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)



What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)


Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)

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Barefoot to AvalonIn the beginning, when novelist David Payne heard the voice in his head urging him to write about his younger brother who had died six years earlier, his “first thought was that it might be something wistful, elegiac, something like A River Runs Through It.”

His mother, who knew better, begged him not to.

But Payne was drowning. “My single-jigger vodka had become a double and I was often having double doubles and, on bad days, triple doubles…” His marriage was on the rocks, and worst of all, he had become his father: a manipulative, angry husband who drank.

“Everything I vowed not to repeat I have repeated,” he realized, and the life he had built in Vermont to escape his past had begun to look a lot like what he was running from. So he set to work on the story that began long before his brother, George A., volunteered to help Payne move back to North Carolina in 2000.

Their relationship was fraught with jealousy, rivalry and David’s long-standing resentment of George A.’s dependency on their mother as a result of a bipolar disorder that left him unable to work. But they had bonded again during the week of packing up David’s belongings.

“We picked it up where we’d dropped it somewhere long before, as if no time had passed at all. In the middle of a bad thing, I got my brother back.” And then, on the second day of their drive, David watched helplessly in his rear view mirror as his brother’s car and trailer jack-knifed across the interstate, and George A. was killed.

Out of that day, and the grief, guilt and desperation that followed, comes Barefoot to Avalon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 304 pages) a memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka. The story is loosely chronological, though Payne lays out much of what’s to come in the opening chapters, then goes back, relentlessly and often, to gather evidence in an attempt to understand George A.’s illness and “who my brother was and who we were together.”

Between Payne’s revisiting of the wreck, which bookends the memoir, he opens the vein of his family relationships with unswerving, bitter intensity. He examines his childhood and his parents’ marriage — a grim and violent affair marked by his father’s drinking, threats and broken promises — for clues to his brother’s madness and his own demons.

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Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob MarleySeven years after her acclaimed novel, Strange as this Weather Has BeenAnn Pancake returns with a bravura collection of short fiction, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley.

In two novellas and nine stories largely set in her native West Virginia, Pancake explores the consequences of one of the most brutal industries in America — coal mining — and its collateral damage: poverty, drug abuse, domestic abuse, suicide, child neglect, alcoholism and violence.

What a joy it is to hear her wild, true-blue voice again. Now based in Seattle, Pancake grew up in Romney, a town that in so many ways — all of them portrayed here, in these keenly felt tales about the loss of Appalachian identity and culture — she has never left.

The book opens with “In Such Light,” a novella about a troubled college freshman desperate to escape her rural background. Home for the summer, by day, Janie’s a “popcorn girl” at a once-glamorous theater; by night she hangs out with her mentally disabled uncle Bobby and his neighbor, a local bad-boy with a mean streak Janie mistakes for sensitivity.

Though she relies on Bobby for company, his freakish behavior and peculiar speech patterns embarrass Janie, who sees in them reflections of her own limitations. In both characters, Pancake hints at the damning legacy of Big Coal’s greed and waste. Janie’s impressions of the still functioning parts of her uncle’s brain, though, evoke an enduring ethos no amount of environmental devastation can wipe out:

“Some parts had melted in the heat … tarnished and clotted together like clock guts after a fire — the part that did numbers, the part that managed cause and effect, the part that gauged how funny things really were — while other parts in that dark crowded space still gleamed and whirred, unscathed — the part that could sustain a conversation, the part sensitive to her grandmother’s tireless social skill drills, the part that remembered things.”

As the weeks pass, her uncle’s poignant search for companionship and love reconcile Janie to values buried deep in their shared past. Their relationship, like so many others in Me and My Daddy, echoes the characters’ unbreakable attachment to the land and to family.

All of Pancake’s characters undergo some form of haunting. In the endearing “Mouseskull,” 10-year-old Lainey wears the still-decaying titular skull round her neck as an amulet against the ghosts that haunt her family home, with its “few rooms that comfort, many that scare” — including the one her grandfather killed himself in several years earlier. Continue Reading »

Rain, Cynthia BarnettIt’s raining as I write this, a drumming, crashing downpour that sounds like it could float the house away. In central Texas, that’s exactly what it’s doing, in a record-breaking downfall that has caused catastrophic destruction and loss while simultaneously bringing relief to the area’s years-long drought.

Which makes it an appropriate day to be reading environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett’s captivating new microhistory, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown Publishers, $25, 368 pages).

In the British Isles, says Barnett, this type of torrential rain “[comes] down in stair rods.” In Denmark, it’s “raining shoemakers’ apprentices,” in Greece, “chair legs,” or “wheelbarrows” in the Czech Republic. Here in the American South, where there are more than 170 descriptions of rain, it might be “a tub soaker, log mover, a lighterd knot floater, a milldam buster, [or] a potato bed soaker.”

Whatever you call it, the vapor that fights to stay alive in earth’s fiery atmosphere in Rain‘s cinematic prologue survives to become a fascinating player in our global history. Barnett charts its effects on civilization from the rise and fall of ancient cultures to the climate shifts that brought plague and famine to Europe, from the origins of weather forecasting and “modification” up through America’s parched Dust Bowl years, and ending with the latest urban efforts to trap rain and purify it in an era of increasing shortages.

A veritable cloudburst of everything-you-didn’t-know-about-rain make this highly readable, science-laden biography anything but dry. We learn that the scent of rain comes from the “metallic zing” of ozone; that the familiar smell of earthy streets after rain comes from a compound called geosmin. Barnett traces the development of the mackintosh back to its beginnings as a fabric coated with a soupy mix of “shredded rubber [and] naptha,” and she profiles at length that most inventive charlatan, the traveling rainmaker of the drought-ridden 1930s.

In explaining climate extremes such as the five-century long “Little Ice Age,” she describes the gruesome fate of “thousands of accused witches” held responsible for “the devilish rains, snows, freezes, floods, harvest failures … and other miseries that plagued Europe” between 1560 and 1660. Continue Reading »