How to Start a Coven, a surrealist chapbook by Deirdre Danklin, reviewed by Stephanie Bohland

Deirdre Danklin’s How to Start a Coven is a collection of haunting flash fiction that takes us through a fever dream of skeletons, banshees, and an ancient earth that hasn’t forgotten magic. This surrealist chapbook is comprised of previously published pieces, all powerful on their own, but it is in bringing together this assortment of short and hypnotic vignettes that we are completely subdued under Danklin’s spell. Hers is a magic rendered through story—her spells words and the works united in a trance-inducing coven of their own. Woven through the thirteen assembled works, thrumming just beneath the surface of Danklin’s visceral worlds, are threads of magic, lust, love, loneliness, identity, modern womanhood, and survival as How to Start a Coven asks, again and again, what does it mean to be human and alive?

The question will continue to haunt the stories, and us, with pieces that explore the heartache of trying to belong and to find oneself—or perhaps even more difficult, to know oneself. None of Danklin’s narrators have names, and not all are explicitly gendered. They search, as we all search, for identity, and their longings and needs saturate the pages. Though Danklin offers few details for her main characters, she spares them nowhere else. Her prose is vivid and her axillary characters are wild and absurd; such as Juan, the “salt-eaten and fish pecked” skeleton who befriends our child narrator in “Wild Horses,” or the man made of moths, “white satin moths” to be precise, in “Attraction.”               

There is something irreverent in Danklin’s handling of genre though the word “humor” can only be used in the darkest sense. Her stories do, however, subvert expectations with imaginative and original premises. Her faceless characters explore wild worlds casting prisms of both their foreignness and their familiarity into ours. “All of My Friends Believe in Ghosts” portrays a person, implied to be a woman, and her (their) group of spirit friends. Though the narrator claims, “I can tell that being dead is better than being alive,” the ghosts soak up as much life through their human as possible, asking for descriptions of her beers and the feeling of the ocean water she stands in. As the ghosts romanticize life and the narrator romanticizes death they share bathroom stalls because that’s where ghosts go “when the urge to let out a hollow moan overtakes them” and their human companion doesn’t want to be left out.

The lead in “Does Your Tattoo Mean Something?” finds themselves hosting errant tattoos who visit in the night for long chats over tea. The narrator listens to their stories, eventually deciding that the risk of pretentiousness and broadcasting one’s own emptiness is too heavy a deterrent to get a tattoo of their own: “I don’t want pieces of myself peeling away in the night to tell insomniacs that I feel bad about my body or that I’m worried I will ruin every good thing I get from wanting it too much.” The first and titular story, “How to Start a Coven,” centers on a narrator we presume is female, and her unsuccessful attempts at convincing her friends to form a coven. We rattle around our heroine’s city apartment with her as she hopes for a sign, “waiting for revelation” in a world devoid of the magic she wants to surround herself by.

She’s not the only one searching for a sign in How to Start a Coven, though the tenderness and melancholy of this first piece is contrasted sharply with more shocking and absurdist works such as “Father Whatawaste.” When a group of Catholic girls are taken on a camping trip one will venture into the woods in hopes of hearing God: “looking for a bolt of lightening or a burning bush.” Instead she comes upon the handsome priest, dubbed Father Whatawaste by the women of the church, who has failed in his efforts to walk on water. Wet and disappointed, Father Whatawaste looks to the sky. Danklin’s precise and troubling prose is at its finest as the girls band together and attack him, leaving the priest bound and naked, decorated with flowers, a bird’s nest, and blood. The children are never seen again, concluding their story with a warning: “We wait, teeth sharp, for the next group of children led by a beautiful man to the forest, looking for a sign, trying to get closer to God.”

Some of Danklin’s most cutting pieces center on motherhood and the terror of bringing life into a world bent on destroying it. In “Mother Love” Danklin shows a couple who visit a fertility clinic which offers the ability to custom-build their child. Eventually the couple opt for a lichen baby—“half algae, half fungus,” giving their child strength and inexhaustible resilience. “‘Is there still a part of us in her?’ my husband asked. ‘She’s what she needs to be to survive,’ I said. So, we loved her.” If this story is not proof enough of Danklin’s remarkable skills with evocative, original imagery, How to Start a Coven concludes with a piece called “Worry” in which mothers protect their children by stitching books full of anxieties and possible disasters from their own flesh.

The sacrifice and suffering of love, however, is juxtaposed in How to Start a Coven against its rewards. Our beautiful lichen daughters live on, and there’s a possibility that humanity’s redemption can be found in the fragments of our lives we’re able to share with another soul. “Tortoises” is a story about soulmates; about two giant Galapagos tortoises who shared “slow love and warm sun for one hundred years,” and their less impressive reincarnations. Still in love, still together, the human couple shuffle through Home Depot in search of a new toilet seat.  

“The Saddest Thing About Magic” follows on this theme of celebrating life and love despite death, or perhaps because of it, all while displaying a mastery of compelling emotional characterization. We follow a woman at a “witches’ brunch” she’s attending amongst her “smart women friends,” When she draws, as always, the Death card from the tarot deck she defies her fortune with a reading of her own: “An alternative reading in the event that the Death card is reversed: When I followed my husband’s wet footprints to the bedroom, he was on our bed. I climbed on top of him, covered his body with my body, and breathed.” This story is a fine display of the author’s ability to fit entire worlds into paragraphs, to render a devoted couple and characterize their relationship—showcasing the profound love the narrator holds for husband, the strength, purpose, and comfort she derives from his presence, and the value their marriage has given to her life—all in twenty-nine words.

How to Start a Coven is a testament to Danklin’s wit, imagination, and minimalist prose. Danklin utilizes stark brevity with pieces as short as two hundred and thirty-three words, but still developed enough to engage in the search for meaning she explores in her book. Despite consisting of tales too bizarre and fantastical to possibly be relatable, the chapbook resonates. It’s something much more than realistic, it’s authentic. Danklin’s tales of magic, ghosts, and crowns made of bloody teeth create a beautiful and bizarre cabal, a literary coven ready to hypnotize, horrify, and enchant.

How to Start a Coven, by Deirdre Danklin. Variant Literature, December 2022. 48 pages. $12.00, paper.

Stephanie Bohland is an LGBTQ writer from Florida and a graduate student currently studying creative writing at Winthrop University. This cat-mom’s greatest joys are writing and traveling and she’s excited to finish her education at the University of Sussex in 2023.

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