A good ghost story leaves you spooked, reconsidering a nighttime bathroom trip in the dark. A good drama has you gripping your seat and turning page after page–maybe skipping that bathroom break again. As I read my way through Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch, I felt the pleasant mingling of both–and I really needed to pee.
A descendant of influential player to the Salem Witch Trials Cotton Mather, the author uses her family history, personal experience from a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, and the greater culture of high school bullying as the bases for her novel.
With her father in a coma, Samantha Mather–also of relation to Cotton–and her stepmother move to Sam’s grandmother’s house in Salem. Before even sitting down in her homeroom on the first day of school, Sam finds herself shunned and scorned by her peers. For years, she’s believed she was cursed, with a string of bad luck affecting those who dare to get close to her, but these suspicions and experiences come to a head for her when townspeople of Salem begin dying. Sam soon finds herself as the prime suspect, named both a murderer–and a witch.
The novel dives into the world of high school and being an outsider, with a thrilling tinge of ghost story and witchcraft added into the pot. Mather does a fantastic job of making both Sam and the reader second guess the people around her. Throughout the novel, I found myself carefully eyeing a number of characters after certain suspect circumstances arose, wondering, Who had betrayed Sam? Who was the real murderer? It often feels like I can guess the answer to a whodunit early in most novels (an experience I had while reading In a Dark, Dark Wood several months ago), but with How to Hang a Witch, I was almost surprised by the reveal, guessing the answer only at the last minute.
Even after the true antagonist is revealed, the story doesn’t slow down, with a spectacular fight sequence I never expected from the description on the book jacket. In fact, it felt like much of the book wasn’t what I expected and managed to exceed my original assumptions. While I was excited at the prospect of the novel, the inclusion of a ghost in the plot made me suspicious; for the most part, paranormal romances have gotten stale in the young adult genre, and I was anticipating getting stuck with that kind of mess. Mather, however, manages to keep the novel interesting without dipping far into the trope of will they/won’t they between teenage girl and (insert monster of your choice here).
To be honest, my only remote complaints would be the occasional simplicity of the writing style, with an abundance of “I ____” sentences that at times made reading feel abrupt and interrupted; and the boy-girl-boy love triangle, a trope that, much like girl/monster romance, wore me out by the end of the first Twilight novel when I read it many moons ago. For a long time I’ve been of the firm belief that there can be excitement, drama, and even romance without the need for a love triangle. However, Mather’s was nicely wrapped up and well-handled overall, so I have no interest in holding it against her.
This was a novel I found myself eagerly awaiting when I learned about it because I just had to give its premise a chance, and it’s one that did not disappoint. Adriana Mather handled her story well enough that I look forward to more ghost stories in my young adult reads, as well as seeing what else she has in store for us in the future.