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The Kiss Curse: A Novel by Erin Stirling

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It's time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don reviews "The Kiss Curse: A Novel" by Erin Stirling.

In 2021 I enjoyed reading Rachel Hawkins’ “The Wife Upstairs,” a clever novel based on “Jane Eyre” but set in Mountain Brook. In 2022 I enjoyed “Reckless Girls,” a thriller set on a remote Pacific Island and inspired by Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Almost by chance I learned that Hawkins, writing as Erin Sterling, was the author of a dozen other novels, including some concerning witchcraft. In this category there were two—"The Ex Hex” and “The Kiss Curse.” Although, or perhaps because this is not my usual fictional territory, I decided to have a look.

“The Kiss Curse” is a real novel—no question about that. There are complicated characters and a plot. It is, however, a novel in which witchcraft is an acknowledged part of the social fabric. It’s set in Graves Glen, “a quaint little pocket of serenity tucked into the gentle blue mountains of Georgia, with an old-fashioned main street running through its downtown.” The dominant local witch family used to be the Penhallows, but now the Joneses, Gwynnevere and her mother and cousin, have the most powerful coven. Gwyn runs a witchcraft shop, catering mainly to tourists. The local school of higher ed, Penhaven College, has a department of witchcraft which is understood to teach only white magic—nothing evil. There are rules about what, when and where to perform. A kind of Hogwarts, Penhaven functions in a perfectly normal way—not in some parallel dimension. In fact, there is a kind of, pardon the expression, “magical realism” in “The Kiss Curse.” The really odd is accepted as everyday behavior.

Into this calm village comes Llewellyn Penhallow. Why has he returned from Wales? Does he mean to contest the Joneses for supernatural dominance? In any case he opens up a competitive witchcraft shop across the street from Gwyn’s, selling borderline forbidden crystals, etc. They are wary competitors but, alas, they kiss, perhaps under the magic spell of “sex dust,” perhaps not. In any case, the kiss is electric, explosive, and they cannot stop thinking about one another. They are, it seems, in love, but both resist it. After all, they are the Capulets and Montagues of Graves Glen. Llewellyn, although a witch—the term warlock is not used—is, like the other men in this novel, a heterosexual. Gwyn, like all the female witches in town, is bisexual. Her previous partners were mostly women and she often runs into exes around town. We are told she even attended a wedding where both women were exes.

There is sex in this novel, adventurous well beyond that approved of by missionaries, and language, casual and amusing, that cannot be uttered here. The witch characters here have real powers: They can appear and vanish, travel through space. Gwyn has a cat that talks, mostly uttering insults. They treasure their powers but Gwyn is losing hers. Is Wells sincerely in love, or a manipulating evil witch himself? If Wells is not the new source of bad vibrations in town, who is?

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.