The Lady is a Witch, 1950

Norman A. Daniels’s “The Lady Is a Witch” is a complete novel that was published in Startling Stories (March 1950), 11–87. I will say something about the story in a minute, but first the artwork that accompanies it: according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Earle Bergey (1901–52) provided the above colour illustration for the cover, and Virgil Finlay (1914–71) provided three pen and ink illustrations for the interior of the magazine, below.

Bergey has really let his imagination run wild, and his witch is stunning. She is riding side-saddle on a broom, seemingly fleeing from some terrible pursuer, who she is watching with a fearful expression on her face, and at which she hurls lightning bolts. A twister roils below her (at left) and the howling wind throws back her hair and cape. Our witch is wearing a strapless fishnet body stocking and a lace glove.

The detail, and her figure, is amazing, Startling even. Unfortunately, Bergley’s artwork bears no relation whatsoever to Daniels’s story.

Daniels’s story concerns an unsuccessful doctor by the name of William Wilson; Bill comes from a long line of successful Boston doctors. He lives in the ancestral mansion, alone. Bill discovers that the first of his line—Ezra—had “been a male witch—a wizard” (13); soon afterwards he is approached by a mysterious man, Thaddeus Link, who wishes to examine Ezra’s coffin because he wishes to establish whether Ezra had been interred alive, shackled in irons, in a hermetically sealed coffin as contemporary account claim and, if so, whether any of Ezra’s “radiations” are still detectable. All of which is “highly irregular” (24), as Bill notes. Nevertheless, Bill agrees, they open the coffin, there is a whirlwind, Bill is knocked unconscious, Thaddeus takes his measurements of Ezra’s radiations and that is that.

The real story begins in Chapter 4, which is where the reader is introduced to Priscilla, a seventeenth-century witch who was interred with Ezra. She is invisible, but speaks in Bill’s mind. Her voice “was completely feminine, alluringly low and warm and vibrant, with the unmistakable timbre of youth” (28): the “loveliest voice [Bill has] ever heard” (30). Priscilla wants to “join” Willy (as she calls him) and offers to help him to fame and fortune by using her powers to help him work great cures. Meanwhile she is wants to become stronger to fight Ezra “who worked for Beelzebub himself” (30).

Priscilla describes herself as “the fairest maid between Portsmouth and Nieu Amsterdam” (30), and a good witch, before she was entombed in April 1692. The “girl” has the “voice of the sirens” and Bill’s “only wish” is to “see what goes with it” (33); he “longed to embrace the fair young body that was not there” (34); he says to her I “wish I could see you and —”, breaking off “embarrassed by his own trend of thought” (37). Priscilla cures a crippled boy, an old woman with cancer and a deaf, dumb and blind invalid and brings Bill a fortune by curing a degenerate rich man. Meanwhile Ezra curses, blights, causes train wrecks, sets fires etc.

I won’t detail Priscilla’s jealousy of Bill’s love-interest, Natalie, the suspicions held by Bill’s rival (for Natalie) about Bill’s new-found success, and how everyone eventually teams up to prove that Ezra was not a wizard, that only Priscilla had been entombed, that Priscilla has been doing Beelzebub’s work under Ezra’s name and, most important of all, she is hideously ugly. The group confront Bill, he comes to his senses, banishes her from his mind, gets the girl (Natalie) and discovers that he has witchy powers of his own.

So, the stereotypes are upheld. Bill is tricked by hideous, old, evil hag into believing she is a pretty, young, good witch. At no point do we see Priscilla, except in a 1692 description and an engraving:

[Pricilla] possessed rare ugliness of form and feature and indeed, by the latter, might have been nigh onto a century old … Her eyes were small and black and suffered from a cast and her nose was so thin and hooked that it was difficult for those who attested against her to look upon her (81) If I look at it [an engraving of Pricilla] more than half a minute my stomach turns. Did you ever see such a dreadful old hag? (81)

Moreover, modern witchcraft is elided with the historical witchcraft:

Witchcraft, as you must know, is a mockery of every virtue known to Christianity. And Walpurgis Night is the unholiest celebration. Every witch, modern and ancient, living and dead, who is not under the seal of Solomon or any other leaden barrier, gathers in conclave to ridicule faith and virtue. They perform the Black Mass, they plot evil for the year to come, they indulge in what scholars like to call orgiastic rites—some of us have less academic words for that sort of thing. And your Pricilla is there with the rest of them, indulging in their horrid pastimes (78)

So, to return to Earle Bergey’s cover-art, it is clear that he did not read the story at all, and had practically no idea of what went on in it. He has produced a sexy witch painting that is far more progressive than the story it is supposed to illustrate. Our blond beauty in a body-stocking is not Pricilla, not even Pricilla as “Willy” imagines her, on the basis of a sexy voice.

Virgil Finlay on the other hand, clearly had read the story. His image of Bill and Pricilla show the latter as a hag.

Finlay’s two-page spread of the Walpugis Night celebrations has an Evil Ezra (at far left, with demon in tow), a few male witches flying in (above Ezra), a young witch and Pan figure at front.

On the second page there are three more demons and and a hag at left. The hag is probably Pricilla.

However, the main action in this image—the figures that everyone are watching—are the young witch and Pan who are about to demonstrate the “orgiastic rites” for which Walpugis Night is famous.

The opening image is classic Finlay: it shows a naked Pricilla is a burning laboratory—Thaddeus Link’s—being licked and partly clothed by flames. Finlay shows Pricilla as Bill imagines her to be, young and stunningly beautiful.

Clearly, it was impossible to resist the urge to depict the “fair young body” that features in the text; and in a story that depends on Bill’s mistaken belief in Pricilla’s beauty, it is probably necessary to show Bill’s fantasy, though Finlay does not make it clear that it is a fantasy.

Whatever the logical or narrative inconsistencies indulged in by Bergey and Finlay, we can only be grateful that they were commissioned to illustrate this story, and that they produced such memorable images despite the stereotypes are upheld in Daniels’s story.

5 Responses to “The Lady is a Witch, 1950”

  1. In all fairness to Bergey, I’m sure he was just working under what seemed to be the ongoing editorial mandate, and put sexy ladies on the cover no matter what, in order to get attention and sell more copies. I don’t think he would have done any differently even if he had read the story. It’s the old art v. commerce thing.

  2. Chooks'r'us Says:

    But what of “Men Must Die” from the cover? Very amusing – clearly, they must! Love the 50s cover art – worth having regardless of the story.

  3. Chooks'r'us Says:

    But what of “Men Must Die” from the cover? Very amusing – clearly, they must! Love the 50s cover art – worth having regardless of the story.

  4. Chooks'r'us Says:

    But what of “Men Must Die” from the cover? Very amusing – clearly, they must! Love the 50s cover art – worth having regardless of the story.

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