Written by Matt Molgaard
David Bernstein’s Witch Island is what I can only label a paradox. There are excellent moments in the novel. There are wretched moments in the novel. I genuinely liked it… and genuinely didn’t. In fact, I’m not certain I’ve ever experienced this. There’s a really cool idea at work here, but Bernstein repeatedly steps into pitfalls, leaving him forced to climb back out and attempt to reestablish what momentum he had going. Witch Island is a really, really weird novel.
Let me give you the gist of the story: About 100 years ago a woman was burned alive, local townsfolk terrified due to the fact that the general consensus was that she was a witch. When they string her up, she makes the expected curse upon her attackers and their family generations to follow. Fast forward a century and a group teens plan to visit Witch Island, the very place they burned the old lady. It isn’t long before presences not typically encountered make themselves known and these rambunctious kids are about to learn that maybe there’s a little truth to ghost stories that float about the town.
I enjoy ideas like this. We basically know the general direction things are headed. And who doesn’t love egomaniacal teens being torn to pieces? That’s gratifying stuff. I fancy witches as well; I married one. So, respect to David, he’s got a fine foundation laid. Unfortunately that foundation wilts and explodes under the novel’s deficiencies. And there are quite a few paucities to contemplate.
There are two things that can completely bury a novel for me. One, neglecting the minute details, and proceeding to get them wrong. Two, Following the formulaic path and playing it safe from first page to last. Bernstein happens to do both. First, he seemingly scoffs at what some may consider myopic details, but I do not. Early in the story we get the very clear idea that nothing lives on the cursed island in which the witch was burned. Nothing. Not a peep from a bird echoes across the chilly sky. Not an ant makes move for a fresh farm. Nothing lives on the island. Until 70-percent into the book and one young individual feels mosquitos on her arms, worms and critter under her feet. At one point in the story a character refers to a joint as a “marijuana cigarette”. In real life, this real life, I’ve never once heard someone refer to a joint as a marijuana cigarette. Is that a really minor issue? Yes it is. But I think David needs to read these things, because he’s a talented writer who (in my opinion) has a few small holes to seal up (I had an extended run of really hard years, if you want 411 on self-destruction by way of toxin, you’re welcome to ask me, for goodness sake!) before touching down on true brilliance. Anyhow, I’m on the cusp of full blown digression. My other issue, as noted, stems from a general lack of creativity. Witch Island defines formulaic. Reading the novel, I literally saw every single step in the story, two steps before they happened. Deviation is absent, completely. I’d liken to reading Witch Island to watching a Friday the 13th film. You know what’s about to happen, constantly. There isn’t a surprise in store.
And you know the strangest element of all of this? I liked the book! It held my attention firm. It was effective, relayed a clear message and was executed in succinct fashion (I don’t think the novel exceeds 250 pages). Stories like this float my boat (I won’t be in a boat headed for Witch Island any time soon, however). Perhaps it is the old school vibe of the story, and the nostalgic impact that punches me in the gut. Maybe it’s the strange reminiscence of early ‘80s camp flicks. Whatever the case, I like this old vinage-eque work. And at the end of the day, I did indeed dig this particular tale. It may have its problems, but I’d encourage others to check it out.