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Kate Pullinger: ‘The witch is such a contradictory and interesting figure’

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If you read my review of Kate Pullinger’s 1999 novel Weird Sister, you will know how much I enjoyed it and how relevant its ideas are today for the very same reasons that the study of witches and witchcraft remains as relevant as ever. Professor Marion Gibson’s reading list of witches in fiction introduced me to Weird Sister and the professor is also introducing the book to new generations of undergraduates as it features on a module she teaches at Exeter University; Pullinger says she gets students contacting her every year to ask questions for their essays. I spoke to Kate Pullinger about Weird Sister, her research into the Witches of Warboys, and her experiments with digital fiction.

Enjoying the novel as I did it is encouraging to know that it remains popular enough for copies to continue to be sold, despite the novel falling out of print with its original publisher. “Once it became clear that it was going to go out of print, I decided, when my last book came out in 2014, to create e-books of four of my old books that I was worried would disappear. The really nice thing about having done that is that Weird Sister, of the four of them, is the one that continues to sell. It doesn’t sell a huge amount but it sells continuously, and that’s really gratifying.”

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Weird Sister is a supernatural thriller in which Agnes Samuel, the daughter of the family executed for witchcraft in 1593 in the Cambridgeshire village of Warboys, appears to come back to haunt the village’s populace and terrorise a particular family. For Pullinger, it was “part of a slow-moving and ongoing exploration” of the supernatural in fiction through a number of books and digital fiction projects.

It wasn’t the first piece of supernatural fiction Pullinger had written; in 1993, the same year Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula was released, her vampire novel Where Does Kissing End? was published. Vampires in popular and literary culture weren’t quite as ubiquitous in pre-Twilight 1993 and the movie adaptation of Dracula “seemed to inspire a whole new generation of people thinking about vampires and vampires have been everywhere ever since”. After “spending some time with vampires”, Pullinger felt the “figure of the witch was slightly underexplored as well” and she turned her “attention to witches and Weird Sister was the result of some of that research into witches and witch trials.”

Why witches? “It’s a well-researched area when it comes to feminist historical studies, and the figure of the witch is such a contradictory and interesting figure in popular culture, and in fiction more generally, so I was interested in trying to think about evil and women, and that was really part of what drew me to the subject.”

Pullinger came across the famous trial of the Witches of Warboys during her research. The result of the trial was the hanging of Alice, John, and Agnes Samuel, whose crimes included “the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire” and “the bewitching to death of Lady Cromwell”. The Throckmorton’s were a wealthy family, the Samuel’s not, and “it’s just so clear that it’s this wealthy family picking on this impoverished family and the fact that the entire family was hanged just seemed extraordinary. When I read the record of the original Warboys trial that’s in the British Library the unfairness of it all is what really struck me, the way in which people turn against each other and the way this can lead to violence. I think that’s just what people do, it’s what humanity does and will doubtless carry on doing.”

It wasn’t just the trial that inspired Weird Sister but the landscape too. Pullinger is Canadian, both parents having emigrated to Canada during the First World War, but her mother’s family is from the Fens. Pullinger remembers visiting the area with her mother, “I always found it quite mysterious, remote and otherworldly so when I was doing my witch research and came across the Witches of Warboys I went there, and part of me was trying to write about the Fenland landscape in addition to the original trial.”

Weird Sister captures two contrasting senses of the place well; the first is a well-realised sense of Warboys from someone who understands it, and the second is the sense of Warboys (and England more generally) being alien to an outsider. The alien, in this case, is Agnes who, in the book, is an American who has just arrived in Warboys – for no other explicable reason other than to seek revenge for a 400-year-old crime – from her native Las Vegas. Pullinger chose to cast Agnes as an American because she was interested in the figure of “the glamorous outsider who comes to town and stirs things up”, a trope common to Westerns. And while in the original trial it was initially the mother who was accused of witchery, it made sense for Pullinger to choose Agnes as she wanted a “glamorous younger woman” to fit this archetype.

It might seem an odd sort of tribute to bring Agnes Samuel back to life as a witch, the very thing she was unjustly accused of and that led to her execution, but for Pullinger, “my mental justification is really that experience, that trial, those executions led to her becoming a witch. The historical legacy of that behaviour is what has empowered Agnes to return to seek revenge.” The Agnes of Weird Sister may not have forgotten about the events of 1593, but what about the real-life village of Warboys? “Because it was basically twenty years ago, I don’t know whether Warboys has decided to make this witchy history a feature. Certainly, at the end of the 1990s, it was not.” However, after the book came out, Pullinger had some correspondence from the present-day Throckmorton family who have a stately home in another part of the country, saying “how interesting… we don’t know if this family is related to ours.”

A literary point of reference for Pullinger was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel from 1926, Lolly Willowes, a feminist story about a woman who moves to the country from London to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft after encountering a force in the forest she takes to be Satan, entering a pact to free herself from the duties expected of her as a woman.

One area that Pullinger has experimented with a great deal over the past 20 years is digital fiction, i.e. fiction that makes use of digital technology rather than the printed or e-book form. “I’m just really interested in experimenting with form, and I guess the way I was experimenting with form in Weird Sister is part of the same drive that’s led me to experiment with digital forms as well as literary genre.”

Two of Pullinger’s digital projects have followed a character called Flo Evans who can communicate with the dead through technology. The first, Jellybone, a collaboration with the German startup oolipo, is a full-length ten episode story available for free on iOS and Android. The second in the Flo series is Breathe, also available for free on your phone. Breathe uses the ability of the phone to personalise the story – “it understands where you are, when you’re reading it, what the weather is like, and feeds all those things into personalising the story.” This ability for Breath to understand these things about you, the reader, works to enhance the uncanniness of the ghost story. We haven’t heard the last from Flo, “I’ve got a series planned for her.” Prior to both of these was a bigger, public-facing project called Letter to an Unknown Soldier, which was a digital war memorial commissioned by 14-18 Now “who have been doing all the work on commemorating World War I”. You can listen to Pullinger talking about this project on YouTube in a TEDx Talk from 2015.

These forays into digital fiction have been in parallel to traditional formats and coming in 2020 is Pullinger’s new novel telling the story of a logger and his family, set in British Columbia, Canada, and is published by Doubleday, Penguin Random House. “The challenge with this novel is that it’s a whole life story that starts in 1935 and ends in 2005, so it’s been quite a technical challenge to figure out how to make that work.” She admits, “I’m not very good at describing it yet!”

Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger is available to buy as an e-book

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