Alice Blanchard’s macabre, engrossing mystery Trace of Evil follows homicide detective Natalie Lockhart as she investigates three possibly interconnected crimes in her spooky little town of Burning Lake, which has a gruesome history of killing supposed witches. We talked to Blanchard about her childhood experiences in Salem, Massachusetts, how her work in group homes informed her new novel and whether she believes in the supernatural.
Witchcraft plays a large role in this novel. I remember going through my own Wiccan phase in high school. Why do you think Wicca/witchcraft appeals to teenage girls?
Personally, I was at my most confused when I was a teenager—naive and cynical, still a child and yet perched on the brink of adulthood. As I saw it, the adult world was full of status seeking, compromise, emotional bartering and hypocrisy. My uncertain future fed into a sense of absolute powerlessness. So it makes sense that teenage girls will turn to witchcraft as a way of gaining some measure of control over their chaotic lives. It’s a coping mechanism. My coping mechanism became writing.
Did you base the town of Burning Lake on a specific place?
Burning Lake, New York, is a mashup of Salem, sheer imagination and the town where I grew up. My hometown has an abandoned asylum that looks haunted, deep sprawling forests and its own hidden history. There’s a Back to the Future feel to the old clock in the town square, the chipped art deco redbrick buildings and the struggling businesses. You can love a place for its failures, as well as its successes.
"Burning Lake, New York, is a mashup of Salem, sheer imagination and the town where I grew up."
Burning Lake has a history similar to Salem: teenage girls accuse others of witchcraft, which is a pretty significant subversion of their power within the community. Were you inspired by the Salem witch trials, and what role do you think those accusers played in their community?
When I was 13, my family visited Salem, Massachusetts, and I fell in love with the ancient cemeteries and Victorian boutiques selling everything from Tarot cards to witch hats to Ouija boards. I was delighted. Halloween seemed to be a year-round event. The merchants were dressed up like monsters, and the police cars had witches on broomsticks painted on their doors. Who could ask for anything more?
But after a visit to the Witch Museum, which explained how 19 innocent people were falsely accused of witchcraft and executed 300 years ago, everything changed. We found Gallows Hill and stood in the spot where the witches were hanged. It was a rocky promontory overlooking a Walgreens pharmacy. Such an ordinary place for such an extraordinary event.
I took a deep unease home with me that day and tried to imagine what it would be like to live in such a town. Years later, it became part of the inspiration for Trace of Evil.
Natalie is investigating a cold case in which nine homeless people have disappeared. People who are homeless don’t often get the same attention as others who go missing. Was there a reason you chose to focus on this community?
As Trace of Evil opens, BLPD detectives are trying to solve the case of the Missing Nine, forgotten individuals whom their families, friends and government-services personnel have lost track of or given up on. What the police need is a fresh pair of eyes. So they pass the case along to the rookie, Detective Natalie Lockhart.
In the past, I’ve worked in group homes, and I’ve seen people recoil from these kindhearted, imaginative and generous individuals. Sometimes they use gestures or even songs they invent as a form of communication. I’ve seen people laugh at them as they try to express their emotional needs. They need to be understood, not ridiculed. They need to be remembered, not forgotten.
In Trace of Evil, Natalie befriends a homeless woman named Bunny, who knows that Burning Lake was built on terrible secrets that won’t stay buried for long.
There’s some ambiguity in the book about whether people can be influenced by the occult or if it’s really madness or peer pressure. Do you believe that supernatural evil exists and can influence people to do harm?
I used to play with a Ouija board when I was little, and I’d never do it again. I grew up in a haunted house, but whether it was haunted by ghosts or my imagination is unknowable.
If you’re asking whether I believe in the supernatural, the answer is—yes. However, what the supernatural is is anybody’s guess. If you’re asking whether evil exists and can influence people to do harm—human beings can be loving, brave and heroic, but they can also be territorial, jealous, spiteful and self-destructive. The potential for evil exists. Good versus evil is at the heart of great literature.
"I grew up in a haunted house, but whether it was haunted by ghosts or my imagination is unknowable."
With three mysteries unfolding simultaneously, how did you keep track of everything during your writing process?
I usually do an outline, but I tend to keep it loose. I don’t want to answer every question before I begin, since that would take all the fun out of it. I let my subconscious lead the way. It’s a mysterious process I don’t quite understand and probably never will.
There’s a focus on sisterhood, whether by blood or friendship, in this novel. What inspired you to write about these female bonds?
Sisterhood is rich soil for fiction. Female relationships are deliciously complicated.
Can you talk a little about the symbolism of crows in this book?
I was walking with my husband one winter day, and we witnessed a “murder of crows” in the park. That’s what they call a flock of crows—a “murder.” And I suddenly understood why. There were hundreds of them, all crying out loudly and swarming menacingly from tree to tree. They covered the bare branches with their jet-black silhouettes and dominated the landscape with their presence. That inspired me to include them in Trace of Evil as metaphorical messengers of impending catastrophe.
What’s in store for Natalie Lockhart as this series progresses?
Natalie will unearth ever darker stories involving black magic and betrayal deep in the woods of Burning Lake. Midnight trysts and invocations. Whispers of bizarre rituals. Dueling loyalties and deadly turf wars. Human monsters attracted to the town’s troubled history. Once she starts to peel away secrets, more deadly truths will reveal themselves to her.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Trace of Evil.