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Author waltzes with the weird

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Christine Wicker is not a bloodsucking bat, a werewolf, a witch or an elf. But some people don't know that.

In the course of writing her new book, "Not in Kansas Anymore" (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95), the Brookfield resident was asked, "Are you a vampire?" She admitted, "no," but it would not be the last weird experience she's had since becoming a bestselling author.

That's because Wicker has placed her name on a signup sheet for the danse macabre. Her previous book, "Lily Dale," investigated a New York town full of mediums happily talking to the spirit world; the well-received volume hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Now "Kansas" teleports her and her readers deeper into the world of the paranormal, arguing that "magic" encounters with ghosts, clairvoyance, synchronicity and other snippets of the supernatural is a growing force in mainstream American belief and life.

The title of her new book reflects Wicker's point.

"We all live in Kansas in our minds," Wicker says. "We're the first people in history living at a time when we're asked to accept an utterly mundane world, with no patterns, no forces. Where things are arbitrary and there is no ultimate meaning in our lives. But these magical things come up, and we realize we're not in everyday Kansas' anymore. The number of magical ideas in our culture is increasing."

She defines magic as "all those things that science doesn't allow: mysticism, paranormal, meaningful coincidences and premonitions." Though "it's hard to get numbers" about Americans connecting with the supernatural, she quotes the 2000 U.S. census, which reports 300,000 respondents who listed themselves as "pagans."

Werewolves and vampires

It's a phenom other Wisconsin experts have noticed. Richard Hendricks, creator of the Weird Wisconsin Web site and co-author of the book "Weird Wisconsin," says: "I've seen a huge increase in magical thinking.

"Weekly I get letters from people who believe they are werewolves or vampires or half-elves. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of magic texts and pagan spell books. In the past you had to drive to Milwaukee or Madison to find a New Age or magic shop. Now shops selling charms, amulets, love potions and elixirs have popped up in small communities across the state."

But it's not like Brookfield is a national center for ley lines of psychic power, and Wicker's own background hardly summons ghosts.

Raised in the South, she worked for 17 years at The Dallas Morning News as a columnist and religion writer, but her first book, "The Eyeball Killer" was a true-crime tale. Her second book, "God Knows My Heart," examined her Southern Baptist roots.

She moved to Wisconsin with her husband, Philip Seib, when he accepted the post of Lucius W. Nieman Professor of Journalism at Marquette University.

So what brought her to the topic of magic?

"Even in Brookfield you hear people telling stories from their lives that I define as magical," she says. She collects anecdotes from friends who won't move into a new house before "cleansing" it with sage smoke.

"Even feng shui is mystical and would have been laughed at 20 years ago. Every day you hear people say, There are no such things as coincidences.' "

Dragon ladies?

"Kansas" really took off as a result of Wicker's "Lily Dale" research and a memorable trip to the witchcraft capital of America Salem, Mass. There she encountered a wizard with impressive magical credentials. He would not, however, be the strangest person Wicker met while researching her book.

The "Otherkin" she writes about include "Mistress Tracy, Queen of the Vampires," Silver Elves, hoodoo men and voodoo priestesses, and Ken the Quaker Mortician, the ghoul behind "Myrna the Death Puppet." (Myrna has a carved mahogany head with hollow sockets for eyes.)

And the weirdest of all?

"The people who think they're dragons are pretty strange," Wicker muses.

Along the way, Wicker tried her hand at magical works herself. She wrote out two spells, one with a trivial purpose and one with an important goal. The important one that her husband return safely from a trip to Saudi Arabia came true. But it may have been the trivial spell that had more of an impact on her.

She asked to see a woman in a red hat. The next day, indeed she did.

"It was that Twilight Zone' feeling you get: dee, dee, dee, dee. . . . "

Wicker reports, however, that she focused on writing about "good magic," and she was never really frightened doing her research (despite an episode when she said a "vampire" fed on her psychically).

So has this hard-nosed reporter morphed into a believer?

"I don't want anyone to start talking to the toaster. But these incidents are gifts of hope and meaning that can help us believe in our own lives. Nobody is going to give up the scientific world view. But we have to take these things into account."

Copyright 2005, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

(C) 2005 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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