HISTORY OFFERS FEW subjects as endlessly fascinating or as intellectually frustrating as witchcraft. The word itself evokes images so diverse, ultimately so contradictory, as to defy definition. It is associated with old age, frightful ugliness, and female wickedness on the one hand, with youth, beauty, and female sexual power on the other. Most difficult to reconcile is the complacent sense of witchcraft as something quaint and faintly amusing, like the makeshift goblins who come to our doors on Halloween night, and the horror of its all too real violence, the implacable encroachment on human life that characterized much of its history.
The fascination with witchcraft is perhaps especially pronounced in the United States, where its most dramatic episode took place too late, and among too educated a populace, for us to dismiss it as mere "superstition." Since the moment almost three hundred years ago when the Massachusetts community of Salem went into a paroxysm of accusation and counter-accusation, confession, denial, and death, witchcraft has compelled the attention and challenged the ingenuity of a long and almost continuous line of American writers—