The Witching Stone tells the story of Alfie, a teenager who’s in a bit of a slump and doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s recently broken up with a long-term girlfriend after she left him for one of his friends and needs to get away from home. So when his father is commissioned to travel to the village of Woodplumpton for several weeks to update the offices of a local business, Alfie jumps at the chance to go with him.
When exploring the village Alfie comes across a strange grave in the local churchyard, a huge boulder with a plaque saying that a witch is buried beneath it. Not sure what to think, Alfie is told the local legend of Meg the witch by one of the local girls, Mia, along with the story that you can summon her spirit if you walk around her grave three times saying “I don’t believe in witches”. Being something of a non-believer, and wanting to show off a bit to the pretty girl, Alfie does what he’s warned not to do. And of course, it works.
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Alfie begins to suspect that the spirit of Meg is following him, leaving muddy footprints in his hotel bathroom, and leaving bruises on his skin where she’s grabbing him in his dreams. Desperate and unsure what to do, he turns to Mia for help, and the two of them set out to find a way to break the curse that seems to be hanging over Alfie, and solve a three hundred year old murder.
I was expecting this book to be a scary story, as the set-up seemed like this was going to be a very tense and creeping horror of a boy being haunted by a ghostly witch; and to be fair, it does do this for a little while, giving readers some very creepy moments. But then things change. This becomes less a horror story and more of a mystery when Alfie just straight up confronts the witch and asks her what she wants. And this was such a good choice.
This story could have very easily been about a malevolent spirit that needed to be stopped, but instead Meg is presented as a victim, a woman who was unjustly killed hundreds of years ago, and now needs Alfie’s help. Not only did this change the expected horror formula, but it also broke with tradition of having witches being evil figures. So many innocent women were murdered for being witches when they’d done nothing wrong, and over the centuries since people have come to understand that the victims of witch trials were ordinary, innocent people; but horror seems slow to adopt this view. Danny Weston’s decision to present a more realistic view on witches, that they were unfairly victimised, is so refreshing.
That’s not to say that Meg is completely toothless, however, and over the course of the book she proves to be a being with a lot of power and the willingness to use it against others. Her ability to appear and disappear on a whim, to cause destruction and chaos around Alfie, prove to make her threats of worse feel real, and justifies Alfie trying so hard to get her what she wants. Whilst I wouldn’t call her a villain by any means, she certainly makes for an interesting and engaging foe for our protagonist.
The other characters are equally as engaging, and Alfie proves to be an interesting protagonist. He’s going through some tough stuff at the beginning of the book, and these issues are only compounded over the course of the narrative, but he always seems to try and do the right thing. There are moments where he loses his cool in situations where he should probably have stayed a bit calmer, but when the ghost of a witch is threatening people he loves you can’t really blame him. His reactions make sense, and are relatable, and this makes him one of the better YA protagonists I’ve read in a while.
Weston also manages to make the central mystery play out at a great pace, and doesn’t spoil things by giving away too much too early. He knows to draw the reader in with the slow horror before turning things on their head and setting Alfie and the reader out on this mission. And there are enough clues given along the way that things don’t just come out of nowhere. There was a small mention of something earlier in the book that proved to be the answer that Alfie needed, and it was obvious enough to pick out for me, but made sense that Alfie could have skipped over it in his panic. Some writers have great ideas for a mystery story, but stumble a little in the execution, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.
The Witching Stone wasn’t what I was expecting when I went into it, but I think I enjoyed it more when it broke away from horror and became a mystery. It had some engaging and interesting characters, all of whom had moments to shine and stand out, and the story moved at a well crafted pace. Definitely a book worth picking up, and I’m going to be looking through more of Weston’s work because of it.
The Witching Stone is out now from UCLan Publishing.