If I only had a week in this glorious beach town, I wanted to catch up with sleep and plunge into as many escapades as possible—even bewildering, outlandish ones.
We walked in, to the jangle of Mr. Dune’s door chimes. I skated around, ogling the floor-to-ceiling shelves brimming with leather-bound books on cosmic mysteries, spiritualism, and witchcraft. Two immediate standouts were Ten Ways to Practice Mentalism and Dona Bella, Memoirs of a Southern Witch. These were my fare, similar to a favorite book at the public library—a tome on dark magic. The most stirring part was about each witch dynasty having its own grimoire, a sort of magical recipe book. I had no clue as to why dark tales tickled me so, and often wondered about my taste.
Still, I read everything I could get my hands on, even boring books that drifted me right off to the Land of Nod. At my nanny job, I was so desperate for stories I even read the tedious articles about cooking and how to throw a proper cocktail party in Mrs. Cuthbert’s Reader’s Digest and Home Arts magazines.
Mr. Dune strode toward us. His handsome aura and towering presence intimidated yet thrilled me. He was dressed in crisp, charcoal gray pants and a vest with a double-breasted pinstriped jacket. “Are you lovely ladies here for the séance?” He held out a long, elegant hand, studded with a silver ring. I barely collected my wits enough to shake it and nod. Dulcie’s hand whooshed out and hardly touched his before she clamped it protectively back to her side.
No doubt about it, he was the most striking man I’d ever seen. His thick mop of dark hair tapered into long sideburns, rendering his jawline a tad dangerous. I guessed he was in his mid-twenties. When his coffee-brown eyes gleamed at me, my breath caught, and a heat greater than any moonshine fired through me.
We paid the dime admission. He escorted us to a round, wooden table with lion-footed legs where we joined a heavyset older couple and a reedy gentleman with thin, blond hair. His lime-fizz eyes darted over to Dulcie, and then away. Two empty chairs still beckoned.
Dulcie looked terrified, so I smiled at her. She calmed enough to take a seat.
Mr. Dune strode to the window, loosened the crimson curtains, and lowered their heavy velvet over the windows, lending the already-pensive storefront a mystical aura.
The allure of creepy, ramshackle beach towns as settings for dark fantasy:
What is it exactly that makes edgy beach towns the perfect setting for sinister fantasy and historical suspense? I’ve always been attracted to the dark side, and particularly to strange beach towns. So far, I’ve set two novels in them.
When I first moved to New York City after college and a stint out west, you couldn’t tear me away from the dilapidated boardwalks of Coney Island. This was back before the arcade was renovated, back when the sideshow by the sea with its sword swallower and human pincushion were on full display. It was when a hungry, dirty capybara was caged in a box that read: Only $5 To See the Biggest Rat in the World! This poor critter was a plot point in Dorianna, my paranormal twist on Dorian Grey. And no surprise, I set Dorianna in Coney Island, and installed a sexy villain in Wilson Warren. He was an agent of the devil disguised as a videographer who prowled the beaches, making girls into viral Internet sensations for a very high price.
Fast-forward to my novel Witch of the Cards, set in 1932, about Fiera, a sea witch who has a special talent with Tarot (and not just reading the cards). Of course,I set it in a shady shore town, in this case, Asbury Park, NJ. You see, I’ve been coming to this gentrifying coastal town for years and know it well—its sunny moods but also its spooky, moody shades.
Around the turn of the century, and up until around 1945, Asbury Park used to be the stomping grounds of the glitterati. There were grand concerts in the art deco Convention Center, and people dressed to the nines would stroll on the boardwalk at night. Then came the race riots of the 1960s and the economic crash, and the place fell into major disrepair. Its only remaining claim to fame was The Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen rocked into the limelight.
About twenty-seven years ago, when I first ventured into the Asbury convention center, there was a huge hole in its roof that seagulls flew in and out of. And there was only one lonely saltwater taffy store on the boardwalk run by an ancient lady who seemed to have stepped out of a Stephen King novel. In Witch of the Cards the taffy sold in the shop has very odd effects, and I installed an illegal speakeasy in the taffy store basement. I turned the (actual) Paranormal Museum on CookwellAvenue into a place to hold séances that often went horribly wrong.
In Witch of the Cards, even the ocean hides terrible secrets.
There’s something about the scent of saltwater and hotdogs, the splintered, salt-dried boardwalk and the scream of people hurtling down on the arcade rides that gets my blood charging and my imagination firing. What about you?
Here’s a snippet of a scene when Fiera and her date Peter venture down to the basement speakeasy in the taffy store:
“Perhaps I was far too gone, but I didn’t care. Peter and I danced and danced. The room filled with the overflow from the convention hall dance—young lovers, bootlegger types with wide ties and cigars, older women with twinkling earrings and heavy bosoms, even a prostitute or two. I thought so anyway, because they wore way too much rouge and came alone to sit brazenly up at the bar with the gin rummies.
This time I couldn’t say whether or not I stepped on Mr. Dune’s polished wingtips. This time, he probably couldn’t be sure if he knocked his bony legs into mine. We had many more nips of absinthe, and I wolfed down another green-swirl taffy and before I knew it, I was leaning provocatively against Peter and laughing like a wild banshee.
I remember gaping up at him to see his black hair all disheveled and him mumbling indistinctly. And I, thinking that he was the most gorgeous human being I’d ever seen. I remember Dulcie grabbing one of my arms, and Peter grasping the other. I remember all of us howling at the crescent moon over the ocean, and the shocked sideways glance of the hotel proprietor as we all stumbled in.
I recall pulling out the Tarot he’d given me, and laying them out on the bedroom rug. I recall babbling at him—about a witch and a swindler and a boat—not necessarily in that order. I can still picture his expression of shocked surprise but not at what.
And I remember Peter’s lips branding my forehead—how could I ever forget that—while shocks of his lush black hair dangled deliciously on my burning cheeks. The last thing I recall before things went dark was kicking off my shoes.”
Happy Season of the Witch,