Peggy Dern – Christmas Witch (1949)

Review by Justin Tate

From the depths of pulp romance fiction is Christmas Witch. It tells the charming story of Chloe, a spoiled brat who dismisses Christmas as a “racket” where you “spend a lot of money you can’t afford to buy a lot of crazy gadgets nobody wants.” And the spirit of the season? Well, “Where are you going to find men of goodwill nowadays?” But her worst insult is simply that Christmas “bores” her. She’d rather spend the holiday with her friends on a yacht to Rio.

Enter Scott Kelvin, the handsome young doctor who puts Chloe “Christmas witch” in her place. With a harsh word and a firm kiss on the mouth, Chloe is stunned into disbelief. She swears to never have anything to do with that abominable man again. That is until she runs him down the next morning in her roadster. Indebted by her near-fatal accident, she agrees to put on the Christmas presentation Dr. Kelvin had planned for the poor before being hospitalized. She even agrees to get whatever presents the children ask for—no matter how difficult to acquire: “Anything short of atom bombs and bowie-knives, they shall have.”

Written by Peggy Dern (1895-1966), this novel has not been re-printed since its debut in the February, 1949, issue of Ideal Love. Sadly it appears the entirety of Dern’s literary contributions are in this situation. She was a powerhouse of the love pulp magazines, with fiction appearing in all the major (and minor) players, in nearly every issue. But they are all lost relics of a bygone era now, inaccessible without hunting down rare surviving copies.

Christmas Witch is a tame romance, but not everything Dern wrote was so innocent. Novels like Satan’s Gal (1950) and Marriage Can Wait (1949) showcase her more daring side. No doubt she would have gotten even spicier if she’d lived (and wrote) into the ’70s.

“James Clayford” was one of Peggy Dern’s many pseudonyms

Christmas Witch is my first exposure to her writing and I am thoroughly impressed that someone so insanely prolific (she reportedly wrote 3,000 words per day) could churn out such delightful tales seemingly on a whim. Sure, the plot is no more complex than a Hallmark movie and the characters are well-established archetypes that have been around at least as long as Jane Austen. But the romantic dilemmas still come across as fresh and modern. Or at least modern for 1949.

Chloe’s journey from spoiled daughter to community leader is a classic reimagination of the Dickens narrative within the youthful gaiety of post-WWII society. Tableaus are held, dinner is served, the poor are raised up and the rich are knocked down a peg. Then, of course, there are two hunks fighting over the affection of a girl. All the ingredients are there and if that plot was old even back in 1949, Dern made it work anyway. Certainly worth the 15 cents cover price.

While not necessarily a classic on its own, Christmas Witch should at least be anthologized in a collection with other pulp yuletide tales. I’m sure there’s many more out there waiting to be discovered.

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