A tradition Haitian veve for the Ghede loa.

A traditional Haitian veve for the Ghede loa.

First off, a disclaimer. The author has no first-hand knowledge of voodoo theology or practice. Neither has he been to Haiti. He researched it the way most people do — by reading books and articles — and claims no special expertise.

However, the author has quite a bit of first-hand experience with Western magical systems. As a reporter in 2003-04, he spent 12 months “embedded” in a loosely knit community of witches, participating in numerous ceremonies and rituals. Along the way, he got to know Gardnerians, Odinists, a taxi-driving practitioner of African shamanism, Druids, garden-variety Wiccans and all manner of fascinating people with non-mainstream — but fundamentally coherent — belief. And while he certainly met a few people who could stand to get back on their meds, most of the “alt-religion” faithful he encountered were no more screwed-up than the rest of population. He’s proud to count many of them as friends, and hopes the feelings are mutual.

Ultimately, what fascinated the author about voodoo — as described by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his classic 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow — was its ethics. The notion of the responsible houngan (clergy) and the freelance bokur (sorcerer-for-hire) co-existing as part of a larger system of community-based ethics is radically foreign to most Americans. But it’s also an immensely practical way of dealing with the conundrums that often arise when we try to impose abstract rules to solve real-world disputes.

The magic portrayed in the book is based on accounts of voodoo practice and various magical rituals witnessed by the author or described to him. It is, however, purely fictional.