Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Review of ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

There are few episodes in English history that rival the notoriety of Matthew Hopkins’s reign of terror as Witchfinder General in East Anglia, nurtured by the social turmoil of the Civil War. During the relatively short period of 1644-47, he, and his associates, are estimated to have been responsible for the hanging of around 300 women for witchcraft, approximately 60% of the total executed for this crime between the end of the fifteenth and the early eighteenth centuries when the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books. The woodcut image from the frontispiece of his book The Discovery Witches is a familiar and chilling one, showing Hopkins himself observing two witches naming their pictured familiars. Although Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647, he has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in the popular imagination, spawning verse, a number of books, and, perhaps most famously, the film Witchfinder General in which Vincent Price played the eponymous role.  

In her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown has approached Hopkins and his deeds through the eyes of a fictitious sister, Alice, which allows her to present the reader with the domestic Hopkins, as well as the public figure. She has taken the fragments of what is known about his life, and imaginatively fashioned a plausible Hopkins, who plays upon biblically-rooted popular fears and prejudices about women to unleash a wave of persecution that brings some solace to his damaged self.  

Written as a first-person memoir, the style is detailed and intimate, with a great deal of atmospheric description that is at once one of its strengths, as well as one of its weaknesses, for if I have any criticism of this novel it is with respect to its pace, which is as sluggish as the waters of an East Anglian river. That said, this novel manages to produce an appropriate sense of suffocating entrapment, paranoia, and fatalism, and delivers an ending with a suitably satisfying twist.

Review of The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Yorkshire gothic this may be, but a ghost story, it is not.

Katherine Clements has in this book managed to achieve something quite remarkable: she has written a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. It is true that there is mention of malign spirits, hauntings, and the wicked deeds of the forgotten pagan inhabitants of the bog-strewn heathered heights, but beyond that, the reader is left with the dark imaginings of its claustrophobic cast of characters, as lust, family secrets, and deception, tear apart the lives of a household on the Yorkshire moors. There is mention of witchery and suggestions of the supernatural, but there are no actual ghosts.

The strengths of this book lie elsewhere: it is brooding, evocative, and highly knowledgeable about the traditional husbanding of sheep in England’s bleak northern uplands. It contains the best descriptions of the ‘fly-blown’ backside of a sheep that I have read, and I challenge you to find better. Likewise, I have read no more convincing descriptions of the mutilated carcasses of sheep and lambs than are to be encountered here, but each time one of these vaguely queasy images manifested itself, I found myself thinking not about ghosts, but the peculiar phenomenon of cattle mutilation so beloved of a certain sub-sect of UFO enthusiasts. In a similar vein, repeated references to a ‘slaughtered lamb’ conjured up images not of horror, but of the fictitious Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London. And whilst we’re at it, do androids dream of slaughtered lambs? Probably not. Thankfully, I didn’t either.

The novel is born amidst the visceral symbolism of birth begetting death, and decline, madness, and death form the threads that weave through the warp and weft of the novel’s plot, from its misty and bloody beginnings, to its snowy and even more bloody end, and you’d best be warned that it takes a bloody long time to get there. Gloomy atmospherics are its strength, pace is its limping, and often absent, companion.

Its overall tone struck me – if the screaming mob slinging stones and excrement whilst occasionally yelling ‘witch’ is excepted – as being more suitable to the Victorian period than to that of the Restoration, which is a pity. Moreover, its sense of place, or more specifically, its sense of ‘Yorkshireness’, was largely lacking. It was so unlike, in this respect, the highly engaging and regionally-anchored The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood, which deploys the Yorkshire accent and dialect to such powerful effect in her Victorian gothic creation. That said, I sympathise with Katherine Clements in her decision not to employ dialect, as so many readers, particularly ones living in the US, aren’t keen on English regional dialects and accents, to put it mildly, which is a shame.

I do not wish to sound too harsh, as I did enjoy the tale, especially its descriptive passages, but I felt that it wasn’t quite what it was billed. As with The Essex Serpent, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, slimming the manuscript by a quarter, to a third, leaving an altogether leaner, and meaner, novel. To view The Coffin Path on Amazon, click on the image above, or here. For an alternative excursion into occult mystery on the Yorkshire moors, dare you set foot here?

Review of ‘The Hidden People’ by Alison Littlewood

An Adult Fairy Tale without a Fairy-tale Ending.

Every now and again, I read a book by an author new to me that makes a real impression, and I wonder why their work, being so well crafted and written, is less lauded and well known than that of many other contemporary authors. The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood was one such book, and if you’ve not read it, and have a taste for the Gothic and folk horror, then I heartily recommend it.

In The Hidden People, Littlewood has woven a lyrical tale of enchantment, delusion and jealousy, in which urban Victorian rationality collides with lingering rural folk belief, with neither emerging unscathed. Whereas the much-lauded The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry aspires to explore these themes and fails to deliver upon its promise, this cannot be said of The Hidden People, for it is by far the better-written and more satisfyingly plotted book of the two. It is a novel steeped in the Gothic, in which the wild and outlandish sentiments of the uneducated country folk are rendered in a rich Yorkshire vernacular, which contrasts with the staid speech of the middle-class London protagonist, Albert Mirralls, whose presence is at best viewed as an unwelcome intrusion into what appears to be an everlasting bucolic summer.

Fairy lore and the spirit of Wuthering Heights loom large in this story, where the power of belief in the malign power of the fairy folk and changelings is convincingly portrayed, leaving the reader guessing as to what is real, and what is not, in a world refracted through the first-person narrative of ‘Albie’ Mirralls. It is his obsession with his cousin, Lizzie Thurlston, that provides the thread which the reader must follow with a compulsive zeal until the final revelation with which the book concludes. There is also a powerful underpinning theme of loss and yearning, which is expressed through the blindness of the central character to what he has, whilst he remains locked into the pursuit of his idée fixe, to the detriment of himself, and to those closest to him. It is a novel sure to appeal to those with a taste for historical fiction, mysteries, and psychological horror. That said, if forced to pigeonhole this work into a single genre, its best fit would be folk horror with a pronounced Gothic streak.

Another historical tale set in Yorkshire and drawing upon local folklore that might be to your taste is the occult mystery Upon Barden Moor, in which an Edwardian summer’s day swiftly yields to something altogether darker.

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Review of ‘Monk’s Hood’ by Ellis Peters

The edition of the book that I read, dating from 1990 (ten years after its initial publication), is riddled with typos, with the first one being displayed on the cover: Monks Hood rather than Monk’s Hood.  Still, despite these minor niggles, the story told by Peters is engaging enough, with Brother Cadfael emerging as a sympathetic and highly unconventional sleuth, for I must own to not knowing of any other twelfth-century Benedictine herbalist protagonist fulfilling such a role. The period detail was very well done, but I found the prose a little lumpy in places. It was well plotted with plenty of potential suspects to divert the attention of the reader, but following the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ rule I sensed that the appearance of a certain character very early in the story, and his subsequent absence until the latter stages of the book, pointed to him being the culprit. Was he? Well, if you want to find out for sure, you should read it yourself.  

All in all Peters needed a better editor for this book, but for all I know the issues that I have enumerated may well have been addressed in later editions.

Review of ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

An atmospheric classic that manages to capture some of the wild lawless spirit of early nineteenth-century Cornwall. Du Maurier seems to have been clearly influenced by Wuthering Heights both in her choice of a bleak moorland setting and the character of the overbearing and violent Joss Merlyn, who makes Heathcliff seem like a civilised gentleman in comparison. The cast of characters who frequent the inn itself are an ensemble of disagreeable lowlife, and as such, make for good entertainment, not that I would go so far as to recommend wrecking, smuggling and murder as suitable pastimes. Still, this made me wish to bodily shake the heroine Mary Yellan for her bizarre insistence upon staying at her uncle’s inn rather than simply decamping elsewhere, but if she had done so, it wouldn’t have made for a very good story. 

The novel ends with a suitable twist, amidst the evocation of the obscure pagan past of Bodmin Moor. If I have any gripe with the book, it relates to Du Maurier’s slip in portraying what it is like to be out alone in the darkness of Bodmin Moor in the depths of night with a storm raging. Anyone who has stood upon the West Country moors at such a time at a far remove from modern street lighting knows that you can’t so much as see your hand in front of your face. Mary Yellan, it seems, was part cat.

Review of ‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris.

Harris breathes life into the world of late-republican Rome in a taut tale narrated through Tiro, scribe to the greatest orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero. In an effort of the imagination, the author brings us Tiro’s lost biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman, with this being the first volume of a trilogy which charts his rise to power as consul. The names of many of the leading characters in this book – Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey – will be familiar to those with an interest in this period of history, and it is through his vivid portrayal of their rivalries, scheming, and politicking, that we are permitted to play the role of disinterested spectators, although no reader could surely feel anything but antipathy towards such monstrous specimens of humanity as Verres and Catalina.  

Key to Cicero’s rise are his eloquence, sharp wit, and sheer political nous, and Harris ensures that certain enduring features of electoral politics – corruption, compromise, and emotional demagoguery, amongst many others – are also given centre stage, with parallels being alluded to with respect to the politics of the early 21st-century. Harris, being a former prominent supporter of the Labour Party, would appear to be drawing certain parallels between Cicero and another then ambitious young lawyer who had become Prime Minister in 1997 – Tony Blair. 

Pompey’s war on the pirates is also made something of a metaphor for the ‘War on Terror’, although in many ways it is but a poor comparison, for pirates possess no motivating ideology other than that of predatory self-serving greed. Islamism, on the other hand, is a coherent, albeit irrational, ideology, as well as a protean and existential threat, springing up hydra-like with the backing of vast reservoirs of funding from certain wealthy Arab regimes that are allegedly our ‘friends’. If anything, this latter fact serves to demonstrate the eternal perverting influence of vast sums of money on the political process, bringing to mind an image of the figure of the current incumbent of the White House swaying, sword in hand, in unison with the flowing-robed moneyed interests of his Arabian companions, whilst denouncing the very ideology that they propagate. In many respects, Trump resembles Crassus, albeit a far less intelligent version of the latter: a cynical plutocrat, willing to purchase the votes of the plebs to satisfy his own vanity. O tempora! O mores! Everything changes, and yet it remains the same. I look forward to reading the next two volumes in this trilogy.