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R.I. had ‘Witches of Eastwick’ before ‘Hocus Pocus’

The Ocean State already had a trio of delightfully witchy women long before the Sanderson sisters took flight over Federal Hill

Jack Nicholson is shown with his costars in "The Witches of Eastwick," from left to right, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer.AP Photo/Associated Press

With the release of the locally-filmed “Hocus Pocus 2,” it seems like all of Rhode Island has witch fever. But what you might not realize is that the Ocean State already had a trio of delightfully witchy women. Decades before the Sanderson sisters took flight over Federal Hill, the Witches of Eastwick were running wild all over South County.

At least, that’s what the legend says.

John Updike published his novel “The Witches of Eastwick” in 1984. In it, a trio of women with a small amount of supernatural power become involved with a devilish, mysterious stranger, and their bond with him and each other amplifies their powers to the point that they’re able to bewitch people in their seaside town.

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A Pennsylvania native, Updike lived in Beverly Farms, for more than half his life, a small town north of Boston. But speculation at the time — that has persisted to this day — was that Updike set his first supernatural novel in a fictional town loosely based on Wickford, R.I.

If you read the book — or Updike’s 2008 sequel, “The Widows of Eastwick” — you’ll see that the resemblance to the village in North Kingstown is definitely there. “The center of Eastwick, where the two main streets met; the town was shaped like an L, fitted around its ragged bit of Narragansett Bay,” the author wrote in “The Witches of Eastwick.” “Dock Street held the downtown businesses, and Oak Street at right angles to it was where the lovely big old homes were.”

The description mimics Wickford’s Brown and Main streets, the center of the village, which has one largely commercial street and one more residential one that meet in an L around the water.

The intersection of Main and Brown streets in Wickford, in a 2006 photo from the Globe's archives.STEW MILNE

In addition to witchery — the three women use their powers to kill a romantic rival — the book is full of local references. Updike includes mentions of Providence, Westerly, Coventry, and East Beach, as well as WPRO. There’s even a mention of Cocumscussoc Way, an actual street name in North Kingstown.

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Updike never confirmed what exactly inspired his novel. In fact, when the North Kingstown Library invited him to an event, he declined in a letter, writing, “The connection of the setting of my novel with Wickford is so tenuous that I don’t want to emphasize it by appearing at any function as you suggest.”

But locals in Wickford tell another story, one about the author’s visits to Wickford in 1982, during the time when he would have been writing the novel. Specifically, he visited Simister’s Bookshop, once across the street from Veterans Memorial Park. Rhode Island Monthly reported a story in 2014 that unearthed an old article from the Standard-Times. In it, owner Robert Simister recalled that Updike asked him about a sign in the park that said “Updike’s Newtown,” once the name for Wickford.

“‘He wondered if the Updikes were any relation, but I told him they probably weren’t,” Simister told the newspaper. “‘They were Dutch and he was German.’” The magazine wrote: “A year after Updike visited Simister’s shop, a Random House representative gave Simister a copy of the manuscript of Updike’s forthcoming novel so he could confirm if it was set in Wickford. Simister devoured the ‘great spoof’ over Thanksgiving weekend in 1983. ‘There’s no doubt of the locale,’ Simister pronounced.”

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Wickford Harbor in North Kingstown.Paul E. Kandarian

Even if Updike didn’t fully base “Eastwick” on a specific place in Rhode Island, in his time here, he definitely had a specific take on the state. “Rhode Island,” he wrote, “though famously the smallest of the fifty states, yet contains odd American vastnesses, tracts scarcely explored amid industrial sprawl, abandoned homesteads and forsaken mansions, vacant hinterlands hastily traversed by straight black roads, heathlike marshes and desolate shores on either side of the Bay, that great wedge of water driven like a stake clean to the state’s heart, its trustfully named capital.”

Later, he wrote, “Once you cross the state line, whether at Pawtucket or Westerly, a subtle change occurs, a cheerful dishevelment, a contempt for appearances, a chimerical uncaring.”

It’s enough to make you wonder what Rhode Island ever did to John Updike. Maybe he was upset that his family didn’t have the local connection he was looking for?

There’s a movie adaptation of the book, released in 1987, starring Jack Nicholson as the devilish man and Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon as the witches. The plot is substantially changed, but the bones are essentially the same. It wasn’t filmed in Rhode Island, though. Filming took place in Massachusetts and California — although a famous Rhode Islander, Richard Jenkins, played one of the pivotal roles in the film.

The Quarterdeck stands on pilings in Scituate Harbor and was used in the movie "The Witches of Eastwick."Jessica Bartlett/Globe Staff