Let’s Go On a Pond-cation is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond that celebrates and highlights worldbuilding in stories! In our Pond-cation posts, the Pond friends and authors team up to take all of us on a virtual vacation through the real life places in books or the places that inspired fictional places and worldbuilding. Find out more information about this guest feature here.
Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.
We’re going on a trip! It’s always such a joy to be able to do more creative features here on the Pond, and I’m delighted to be hosting Alexis Henderson, author of The Year of the Witching, here today to guide us through the spooky village of Bethel, where her story is set. The Year of the Witching was one of my absolute favorite books of 2020—and if you love witches, dark fantasy horror featuring religious allegories, and unsettling stories with a mounting sense of dread, you absolutely do not want to miss this book. Now, let’s go see what Sprout is up to…
“Friend! Friend! We found a map!” Sprout practically barrels over towards you as you step into the Pond today, wings outstretched in excitement. They brandish a worn piece of parchment in front of you, before slowing down and carefully spreading it across the ground.
You lean over to inspect it. The parchment is scratched over with the map of a small village. The illustrations are rudimentary and simple, but functional. You note the name of the location, tilting your head at Sprout. Bethel?
Sprout nods enthusiastically, gesturing to their left. Out of seemingly thin air, a lilac-colored jellyfish materialises into your vision, luminous and translucent. They smile kindly at you. You notice that in one of their tentacles is a single tarot card, golden ink faintly glowing.
“This is Alexis!” Sprout explains. “She’s here today to give us a tour of the village on this map. The tarot card she holds is magical, and will allow us to really visit the place without being in it! Kind of like…” Sprout wracks their brain. “Like visiting it in a dream!” On cue, Alexis holds the card above the map, and flips it over in one swift motion. A shower of golden sparks bursts from the card and settles onto the map. As the three of of you stare, the map begins to hum with faint magical energy.
You are a little awed—what fantastic magic! As Sprout rolls up the map, a mist begins to settle in at the edges of your vision, obscuring all but a single path forward through the trees. A small chill runs down your spine. “Are you ready?” Sprout asks, their face determined. You nod. Even though the village does seem a little creepy, you know you will be safe in the Pond, and you have Alexis and the map as your guide! Sprout hops onto your shoulder, the map tucked safely under their wing, and you both follow Alexis into the mist.
Hello Quiet Pond Readers! I’m Alexis Henderson, author of the dark fantasy/horror novel THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, which takes place in Bethel, a theocratic colony where one girl’s dark power threatens the ruling Prophet and shakes his Church to the very stones of its foundation.
Because THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING is a second world fantasy novel, I had to build Bethel from the bottom up. During the writing process, I devoted so much time and energy to the monumental task of trying to create a world that felt as tangible as our own. Today, I’d like to take you on a tour of a world I built brick-by-brick, and visit three of my favorite locations in Bethel, giving you a behind the scenes look into the process behind their creation.
“As the wind’s voice seeped through the trees, the shadows blurred before her eyes, moonlight and darkness smearing together like paint. A kind of alertness came over her, and she tasted metal at the back of her throat. But somehow, she felt no fear. It had been stripped from her, as though she’d become a little less than whole, a half a girl existing between what is and isn’t.
She wasn’t just Immanuelle now. She was more. And she was less.
She was in the Darkwood. And the Darkwood was in her too.”
I’ll begin with the Darkwood, because it was the seed that spawned THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING. I still remember the day the first image of the Darkwood popped into my head. I saw a girl, Immanuelle, in the Darkwood crouching at the feet of the witch Lilith—an entirety with the boy of a woman and the head of a deer skull. Immediately, I was struck by the eerie thrall of the forest and I knew, almost immediately, that I wanted to uncover its secrets.
Of all of the locations featured in THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, I researched the Darkwood the least. I think this is because I spent much of my childhood in heavily wooded (and sometimes rural) areas, and thus I had no shortage of real-life references. One of the biggest sources of inspiration behind the Darkwood’s landscape, are the live oak trees that grow in Savannah Georgia, where I spent my childhood. These trees are among some of the largest, and the oldest, in the continental US. Standing under the canopy of their branches, you almost get the impression that the trees are sentient. That they possess a sort of soul. So, when it was time for me to develop a forest of my own making I drew a lot of inspiration from that. I knew I wanted the Darkwood to have the same presence, and the eerie feeling of human sentience. That’s why, on several occasions, Immanuelle seems to confer directly with the woods.
“Immanuelle squinted. In the distance, she could just make out the crude shadow of the cathedral, breaking above the ways of wheat. Immanuelle started toward it, crossing through the empty pastures, traveling east by the night of the moon.
When she arrived at the cathedral, she faltered, standing motionless in the shadow of the bell tower. The doors swung open slowly, and even from a distance, she caught the stench of something raw on the air, all blood and butchery.”
In the same way that the connection between the Darkwood and its witches is almost intrinsic, to me, the Prophet’s cathedral is Bethel. The entirety of Bethelan culture—its religion, its vices, its long history— is encapsulated and symbolized by this single structure. It is a tangible replication of all of the prophets, apostles, and saints who have come before. It’s a sacred space, and I wanted every facet of the setting—from the aisles, to the pews, to the stained-glass windows—to portray that.
When it comes to developing the cathedral, I spent hours and hours researching gothic architecture. It was important for me to expand my vocabulary and educate myself on the specific names of the architectural features I was attempting to describe. I can’t tell you how many cathedral coffee table books I acquired during the height of my research.
The Prophet’s Library
“Immanuelle had never seen so many books in one place at one time, and she was sure she never would again. This was not some one-room study tucked into the back of a schoolhouse. It was a full cathedral, but in place of the pews, there were bookshelves, rows and rows of them, from the altar to the threshold where she stood.”
The Prophet’s library is easily my favorite location in all of Bethel and I had such a fun time building it from the ground up. Because Bethel is a strict theocracy, literature is heavily censored and regulated. In light of that, I wanted the library to possess a sort of ancient, if rundown, beauty. As if the books it housed were once the treasures of some long-vanquished empire of old.
To achieve this, I spent a lot of time researching the libraries and collections of 15th century monks. I became obsessed with hyper-specific book-related bits of history, like the process of making vellum, ancient texts like the Book of Kells, and the monks and scribes that devoted their lives to the creation and keeping of ancient texts. While none of the people who authored the books housed in the Prophet’s Library appear in the pages of the novel, I wanted the space to feel haunted by their presence, and the history that preceded the events of THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING.
Thank you so much for taking this tour of Bethel with me! I hope this post inspires you to explore some new worlds through books, and perhaps take a stab at building some worlds of your own invention too.
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.
About the Author
Alexis Henderson is a speculative fiction writer with a penchant for dark fantasy, witchcraft, and cosmic horror. She grew up in one of America’s most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia, which instilled in her a life-long love of ghost stories. When she doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, you can find her painting or watching horror movies.