book club guide – Cackle by Rachel Harrison

You’ve found the book club guide for Cackle, by Rachel Harrison. Gather your coven and pour some wine for your next great book club read. We should exchange spells sometime!

Title: Cackle

Author: Rachel Harrison

Date first published: 5 October 2021

ISBN harmed in the making of this Book Club offering: 9780593202036 (it doesn’t matter if you use a different version, this just makes it clearer if/when pages/sections don’t perfectly align from whatever version you may be using) Published by Berkley.

Book jacket blurb:

A darkly funny, frightening novel about a young woman meeting a witch – who might be too good to be true…

All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, she seeks a fresh start. Annie accepts a new teaching position and moves from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy, too, aside from the oddly persistent spider infestation.

Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie and wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how she lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie and begins to spend more and more time with her despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem… a little afraid of her. And, like, okay – there are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a bit unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…. But she couldn’t be – could she?

WHO are the main characters? The story is told to us in the first person by Annie Crane, a 30-year-old recently single teacher trying to get over a break-up with her boyfriend, Sam, whom she thought she’d be with forever. The secondary main character is Sophie, a well-known resident of Rowan, the small town where Annie is attempting to restart her life.

WHAT happens (no spoilers)? In a nutshell, Annie got dumped by Sam and decided to leave New York City for the peace and change of scenery of a small town upstate. She takes a teaching job in a town called Aster, and finds a super awesome apartment on the second floor of a house in a nearby community called Rowan, where her landlady is never around. Annie is miserable and insecure on her own, and doesn’t think anything good can happen without Sam… yeah… she’s kind of pathetic, right? She meets a bunch of people in her new hometown, including Sophie, who everyone seems to know and to be leery of. Annie’s students and coworkers at Aster High are basically a bunch of assholes, the townies in Rowan are keeping secrets, and Annie is forced to face some truths and all of her fears. There are several spiders.

WHEN does the story take place? Cackle is set in modern times (early 2020s), complete with text messages and a hip farmer’s market.

WHERE is the story set? Things start off in Manhattan, and then shift to upstate New York in a fictional town called Rowan, and neighbouring (also-fictional) Aster.

WHY SHOULD YOU READ THIS BOOK? Rachel Harrison’s sense of humour vibrates throughout the book, which is a lovely antidote to some of the creepier tension that builds from start to finish. Cackle is a fresh take on old-timey stories of witches living in the woods, townsfolk who may be equal parts suspicious and complicit, and the young innocent – our Annie – facing a moral dilemma. The story is as delicious as a poisoned apple pie. I mean, you know… one where you can’t taste the poison. You get it.

FOOD AND WINE PAIRINGS for Cackle, by Rachel Harrison:

  • Roasted chicken sandwiches on artisanal rye bread
  • Apple crisp oat macchiato – not wine, I know. Too bad! Get a Bordeaux, if you must.


  • Pretzels with cheese dip
  • Mushroom tea

Careful now, there are spoilers beyond this point! It is strongly recommended that you read the book before you read the corresponding sections of the conversation guide for your book club. Sections below each include several chapters, grouped together into somewhat manageable chunks.

*It is only fair to mention that the edition of Cackle used for this book club guide comes with its own readers guide with eight questions for you to consider on the very last page. So you could use that for your discussion, but we’re going to have to insist that the noises above guide will be more fun. Just saying.

Fortune – The Arrival – Bird Noises – pages 1 to 45

  • Do you consider yourself an Annie – introverted, and questioning your own identity? Or are you a Nadia – extraverted, secure in your own skin, and born knowing what’s what? Do the book club members agree on your personal self-assessment?
  • If you were a fortune teller with a crystal ball and an impressive assortment of silk textiles and tassels behind your velvet curtains, would you buy your parlour furnishings at IKEA? If not there, then where would you go for that gypsy tent aesthetic?
  • When Annie gets into her cute little new place in Rowan, it seems like each spider she finds is bigger than the last! What is that all about?
  • Remember that part where Annie thinks someone might be on her stairs, so she opens the door holding a frying pan? But she sees her shadow and it isn’t holding any frying pan? REMEMBER?? I don’t know about you, but that was CREEPY! What are some of the creepiest images you’ve come across in horror fiction that you just can’t forget?
  • After a rough first day at her new job, Annie loads up on junk food and then goes through the self-checkout to avoid being judged; this is right after she tells us how being around teenagers is a particular form of torture, and that being subject to their judgement can be too much. How could you convince Annie to start caring less about what others think? Is that a trait you’re born with, or is it learned?

Charming New Friend – New Day with Pancakes – A Coincidence – pages 46 to 101

  • Annie’s first weekend in her new environment stretches ahead, and she doesn’t want to be alone. Any self-respecting introvert would commit crimes for the prospect of a weekend alone. Is Annie being honest with herself about what she wants?
  • The book blurb tells you essentially nothing about what happens in Cackle beyond about page 66. If you went into this book blind – like I did – where do you suppose things are heading? Let me tell you, I had ideas and they were wrong wrong wrong.
  • Did you ever see that episode of the old Twilight Zone tv show where a family does whatever the kid wants, and they’re terrified of him because at any moment if he’s displeased he has the power to fuck shit up for them? That’s the feeling I get from Tom at the diner being so solicitous with Sophie, but unable to make eye contact. What is up with the vibe between Sophie and the townies?
  • Sophie and Annie have only been acquainted for about 24 hours, when Sophie clearly starts kicking Annie’s ass to get her to stop wallowing over Sam, and get over her constant need for external validation. How close do you think friends should be, to be so frank?
  • Do you find Annie to be relatable? Do you find that you identify with the serial relationships, the hesitation to join in on group activities? What about the negative self-talk? Annie seems to switch drastically between sunshine and rainbows to nihilism at the drop of a hat. Does Annie just need to give fewer fucks through the magic of modern therapy, or would you say this is healthy and normal?
  • Annie makes a conscious decision to not debase herself by grovelling or making small talk with Jill, her vice principal, after the cryptic conversation about Chris Bersten transferring out of Annie’s class. Is this a turning point for Annie?

Honesty – Convenient, Inconvenient – The Picture – pages 102 to 152

  • Sophie’s vibe is getting a bit dark. I don’t know about you, but when something feels “wrong” in a spooky book I’m enjoying, alarm bells start going off in my head. Fight or flight, bitches! What winds you up when you’re reading horror and the story is hitting all the right notes?
  • Annie accepting Sophie as a friend, even knowing that Sophie might be some kind of ancient spider hag, was extremely satisfying somehow. Would you want a friend like Sophie? What other types of supernatural or fairy tale creatures would you like to have as a friend?
  • Following yet another instance of being spooked in Sophie’s house, in an aside on page 124, Annie tells us “Suppression is a useful tool. Honestly, it’s underrated.” What is suppression useful for?
  • The end of “Convenient / Inconvenient” feels a bit sombre. Annie is wearing clothes and the ring Sophie gave her, and <gasp!> she decides to ignore yet another text from Sam! How do we feel about this development?
  • When Annie is devastated that Sam has a new girlfriend, she believes she is a burden to anyone with whom she gets too close, and that they all eventually buckle under the weight of her reliance on them. Sophie declares “that’s what friends are for”. How important is it to have friendships where you feel free to completely unload on them?

Bad Reaction – Hope is Stupid – Bone to Pick – pages 153 to 193

  • Sophie says belief in fate inspires complacency, inaction, passivity. In what way does society encourage those same attitudes? In other words, do things in general suck because there are forces in play that want them to suck? Who could be behind such forces?
  • Annie tells us that she’s not brave enough to be who she is. Who is she? Does she even know?
  • The yellow dress that Annie found in her closet gave her a massive mood and attitude boost. Do you think Sophie put some kind of witchy charm on the dress, or can clothes really make a person feel that transformed?
graffiti from bathroom wall in Cackle, by Rachel Harrison
  • That was a cool trick with the bathroom graffiti conversation. This is the kind of shit I’d want to do if I had certain special abilities. What would you like to be able to do if you could make just about anything happen? I mean, other than winning the lottery.
  • Annie’s characterization of Jill’s husband Dan as a huge godzilla thing with a tiny brain, and her assertion that monsters can’t be unmade, is a great visual for how assholes become assholes. What did you think of Dan’s behaviour at the restaurant? Did he deserve what happened to him?

Ralph – Interlude – Resolutions – Valentine’s – Developments – Some Deception – pages 194 to 247

  • Ralph seems fun. If you had an unconventional, uncannily perceptive and able non-human companion, would you be ok with it being a spider? If not, then what?
  • When Nadia calls to tell Annie that the psychic they went to had been right about everything, Annie starts to spiral. She notices her window is being blacked out with spiders, but when she tells them to stop, they disperse. What was happening there?
  • When Annie overhears the townies talking about her, and Tom saying “there can’t be two”, why would he say that? Are these people any better or different than the ones who used to burn women they suspected of witchcraft back in the day?
  • Holy shit, DEVELOPMENTS: Annie and Sam are missing each other on Valentine’s Day?? Were you worried that Annie was going to run back to Sam, leaving Sophie behind and maybe just maybe pissing her off a little bit?

Some Deception – Toil & Trouble – Happily Ever After – pages 239 to 279

  • Was Annie feeling a sense of dread just because she’s not sure if there’s anything left to salvage between her and Sam, or is the dread because she’s afraid of how Sophie will react?
  • Our BFFs, Sophie and Annie are having a disagreement, but Sophie seems impressed when Annie stands up for herself and says she doesn’t want to be called “pet” because of its implications of ownership and an unfair power dynamic. Was the Annie at the start of the book someone who would have insisted on correcting a situation in which she was on the short end of an unfair power dynamic?
  • When Sophie acknowledges Annie’s right to choose her own path, she also gives Annie the ultimatum that if she does go to meet Sam, she may not return. Was that fair, or just petty beeyotch spite?
  • Annie wonders about how much of a woman’s life is spent enduring. Waiting for enjoyment, or waiting for death. I don’t know about y’all, but that bit stopped me dead. What say the book club?
  • The title of Happily Ever After (page 266) made me assume things were going to go a certain way, but I was wrong. The title still applies though. Did you correctly see what was coming?

Let’s Pretend it Never Happened – It’s My Party – Epilogue – pages 280 to 291

  • At their first coffee hangout at the beginning of our story, Sophie says that she’s never wrong. After the reunion with Sam, Annie says Sophie was wrong to issue her ultimatum. Was Sophie ever wrong?
  • Annie is finally happy, and her life is her own. As with all fairy tales involving witches and ghosts and spooky things in the woods, there is a moral to the story. Maybe many morals. What was Cackle trying to tell you? I mean, besides a kick ass story and not to fuck with witches.
  • Years later, Madison Thorpe shows up at the farmer’s market. Annie gives her an apple, and it sounds like she wants to introduce Madison to Sophie. Is there a coven in the making here?

We’ve reached the end of another noises above book club guide, friends. Be sure to let us know if you have any comments or suggestions for books you’d like to see here, and check out the blog for articles about Cackle by Rachel Harrison and other great horror fiction!

go ahead, whistle past the graveyard

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