Lancashire lass Stacey Halls grew up a little fearful of stories about the notorious Pendle witches, never dreaming that one day she would write a thrilling novel which put both herself and the witches firmly in the picture.
The Familiars, a torrid and yet tantalisingly beautiful tale set amidst the danger and suspicion of the 17th century witch trials at Lancaster Castle, blends real local history with an inspirational flight of fancy to imagine the dilemma of two young women caught up in the menacing maelstrom.
But what makes 29-year-old Stacey’s remarkable debut novel so powerful is that the women really did exist and their stories, although essentially fictional, shine a light on the gender politics and social mores of England in 1612 where the fiercely Protestant James I – a monarch with an obsessive interest in demonology – was on a merciless mission to seek out any evidence of witchcraft.
Lancashire – a hotbed of Catholics, including many of the key players in the Gunpowder Plot only seven years earlier – was rich territory for the witch-hunters and it is this perilously febrile atmosphere which Stacey brings to life with such emotional and dramatic intensity in The Familiars.
Stacey, who studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and now works for a national newspaper in London, reveals that the inspiration for her immaculately researched book, hailed as the biggest debut fiction launch of 2019, has its roots in her early years growing up in Rawtenstall.
Her first brush with the Pendle witches came at the tender age of seven when she picked up Robert Neill’s classic 1951 novel, Mist Over Pendle, in her local library. The young Stacey found the hairs standing up on the back of her neck and quickly put the book back, disturbed by images of mist descending, and the Devil appearing in the strange, lonely landscape of Pendle.
But the blood of the witches may well have an outlet in her family as her uncle, Jim Ashworth, who has been nicknamed the ‘witchmaster general,’ is the managing director of Sawley Fine Arts, a thriving business which makes a rather glamorous range of Pendle witches for the tourism industry.
And her beloved grandfather, Jack Jones, died in Pendleside Hospice in 2011, prompting Stacey to make a fund-raising climb up the brooding hill in 2012 to mark the 400th anniversary of the trials.
Twenty years after the witches gave her goose bumps in the library, Stacey says she experienced a sudden lightbulb moment one rainy afternoon in 2016. Despite living close by, it was the first time she had visited the Elizabethan manor house, Gawthorpe Hall at Padiham, near Burnley, built in the shadow of Pendle Hill by the Shuttleworth family in the 14th century.
As she wandered the rooms of the old house, now owned by the National Trust, Stacey was enchanted by the surprisingly ‘homely and cosy’ atmosphere of the comparatively modest stately home, and glimpsing Pendle Hill from one of the windows, she was taken by the idea of writing a novel about the witches… narrated by someone living at the house with a peripheral involvement in the trials.
Research led Stacey to the real-life Fleetwood Shuttleworth, mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in 1612 and the 17-year-old wife of Richard Shuttleworth, who attended the Pendle witch trials at Lancaster Castle and later became High Sheriff of Lancashire and MP for Preston.
In The Familiars, a pregnant Fleetwood, daughter of Richard Barton of Barton Manor, near Preston, is drawn into a friendship with her midwife, Alice Gray from Colne, another real-life and mysterious character who was amongst the women charged with witchcraft but about whom little is known, and it is their close but hazardous relationship which forms the bedrock of this atmospheric tale.
Their story also becomes bound up with Roger Nowell of Read Hall, the JP for Pendle in 1612, a man who was a guardian of justice at a time when an over-zealous magistrate could make his name by seeking out witches.
Nowell investigated the initial complaint by John Law – a pedlar who claimed to have been injured by witchcraft – and later committed the women to be tried for witchcraft at Lancaster assizes. Nowell has been viewed in some fiction as a gentle character but, regarding him as ‘the man who oversaw the execution of twelve people,’ Stacey turns tradition on its head by casting him as the villain of the piece.
Stacey also breaks new ground in her fictional account of the Pendle witches by exploring ‘a void of power and privilege between Fleetwood and her midwife Alice,’ and she hopes that by reading The Familiars, people will think about the Pendle witches in a new light as women who were victims of their time and not just a group of ‘old crones’ with warts and black cats.
Once she had harnessed her ideas, and after six months of intensive research, Stacey says it took only two months to write the novel, an impressive feat for a first, and very accomplished, book. And The Familiars is just the beginning of this promising Lancashire author’s own story as a second book – set in Georgian London – is already under way.
The Familiars is published in hardback by Zaffre, priced £12.99