With his new Wychwood novel, Hallowdene, out now from Titan Books, best-selling author George Mann very kindly shares with us his eerie inspirations in Witchcraft and the Dark Arts...
There’s something primal about the human fear of witchcraft and dark magic. I suppose, in many ways, it’s a manifestation of our ingrained fear of the unknown – the thought that there are people among us who command dark powers, who can influence our lives and alter our fortunes. The fact that, around such people, we cease to be in control.
Throughout history this fear has manifested in so many bleak and terrifying ways – not least the horrifying witchcraft trials that took place in Britain’s relatively recent past, during which innocent women were accused of impossible acts, and then tried and executed for their ‘crimes’. It’s a fascinating study in fear and terror, and an era that we forget at our peril.
Yet there’s something more, too, I think, in our ongoing fascination with the supernatural. Some of it is jumbled up in our folklore and mythology, which I’ve talked about here before, and some of it is to do with old traditions, dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.
One need only pay a visit to the Witchcraft Museum in Cornwall for an insight into the strange and obscene practises carried out, both in the hope of harnessing occult power to attain some often benign and all-too-human goal, and in protecting oneself and one’s family from the evils that supposedly lurk just beyond the veil.
It was visiting this museum that really kindled the idea for my latest novel, Hallowdene, the second in my Wychwood series. Seeing these artefacts – totems, dolls, mummified cats, effigies of woodland spirits, nailed human hearts – really brought home that sense of daily fear that comes hand-in-hand with belief in such malign forces. Not only that, but it suggested that people really had attempted to manifest these ancient pagan powers, to work with spirits or entities from beyond the veil.
A visit, too, to Isaac Newton’s house at Woolsthorpe, near Grantham, attested to the fact that even the most scientifically minded among us during that era put great stock in talk of witches – there remains, to this day, wards carved in Newton’s own hand, symbols around the doorframes and windows to prevent any witches from crossing the boundary into his home. Further research led to stories of ‘witch stones’ – huge stones placed atop the body of an executed witch to prevent her spirit from rising to seek revenge on those who had killed her. Such was the fear of reprisal, of the efficacy of the witch’s craft.
The truth, of course, is that the poor women accused of witchcraft were very much victims of terrible wrongdoing, an embarrassment of history, a tragedy. Yet that in itself sparked an idea. Was there a way to discuss witchcraft in those terms? To talk about the tragedy, the injustice…but to explore the dark, folklore-ish side, too? It’s one of my beliefs that history is a living thing, a continuum, and that, because of our relatively short lives, we’re never fully aware of the impact the events of the past our having on our lives, and our culture. That’s something that future historians will be able to look back on with the gift of hindsight. Yet it’s a recurring theme in my Wychwood stories – the idea that we fashion our own enemies, create our own monsters, through the decisions and actions we make – and that we continue to live with the echo and repercussions of the decisions of our forebears.
So it is that Hallowdene came to be – a tale about the execution of a ‘witch’ from ages past, and about the power she continues to exert in the present, through her story, through the means of her burial, and through the actions of those that came after. To say any more would risk spoilers, but Ellie and Peter – the returning characters from the prior novel, Wychwood – are in for a few spooky surprises!
Many thanks to George Mann and Titan Books for this fascinating article. Follow George Mann on Twitter @George_Mann
Image - Titan Books