In April 1593, the whole Samuel family – Alice Samuel, her husband John, and their daughter Agnes – were tried for witchcraft. They were hanged for their supposed crimes, ‘the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire’ and ‘the betwitching to death of Lady Cromwell’. If you weren’t already aware of the Witches of Warboys, this is not the fictional setting for Kate Pullinger’s 1999 novel Weird Sister, it is a genuine case that scholar George Kittredge called ‘the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England.’
Scholars, academics, learned people of all kinds, often crop up in fiction. Horror is no exception and ghost stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular, featured academics in lead roles. Sometimes this is as the result of ‘write what you know’ more than any other reason; M. R. James, coming up later (because of course he is) being a case in point. But, much more significantly, academics represent rational, empirical, and “modern” thought, in contrast to the superstitions of an older, darker age. The academic represents progress; sometimes as a means of rebutting the supernatural, but sometimes the supernatural could show that perhaps our progress had gone too far. Thank you to Sarah Burton on Twitter for prompting the idea for this reading list and thank you to those who offered suggestions (@cath_fletcher, @marccold, & @ssmithwc1n).
C. J. Tudor‘s debut novel, The Chalk Man, released last year, was a fantastic success. It was a Sunday Times bestseller, shortlisted for the Steel Dagger and National Book Awards, made its way onto a number of the year’s “best of” lists, and even claimed a highly coveted quote from Stephen King, who said, “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.” It was a success even before it was published, being Tudor’s literary agent’s fastest selling book of all time, won in a nine-way publisher auction.
Dale Bailey’s seventh novel, In the Night Wood, is a modern gothic fantasy, infused with folk horror elements and the spirit of a dark fairytale. Originally released last year, and featured on Tor.com’s best books of 2018 list, the novel is being re-published in a new hardback edition by HarperVoyager, who clearly see untapped potential.
Witches, in one shape or form, by one definition or another, have a long literary history and are a constant source of inspiration. I spoke to Marion Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literature at the University of Exeter, to put together this reading list of witches in fiction, starting with the relatively modern Young Goodman Brown in 1835. Clearly, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, but a cherry-picked selection that will likely be of interest to our readers. Marion is the author of an introductory book on the study of witchcraft, the themes of which we discuss in the first episode of the Sublime Horror podcast.
This is the first in a new series where we round-up the most interesting new (UK) releases in horror and cross-over horror fiction. “Cross-over” is worth specifying because a number of the books here wouldn’t be shelved under “horror” in the average bookshop but alongside other literary fiction, so it’s all the more important we call them out. One of the aims of Sublime Horror is to remove some of the artificial boundaries between what is “genre” and what isn’t, which I hope will bring new books to the attention of readers who might otherwise fall into one camp or the other. The first book on this list is a brilliant example of what I’m referring to.
The horror film, as a genre, emerged in 1931 with the release of the Universal-produced Dracula and, later that year, Frankenstein. It wasn’t until this time that the language of horror entered the popular vernacular and that a framework of a genre had been defined. But by no means were these two films the first to use horrific elements; elements designed to evoke the uncanny, use the supernatural as an artistic and emotional tool, and to shock audiences. It is this pre-1931 period of American cinema that Kendall R. Phillips’ book A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema (which was included in the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker non-fiction award) focuses on, a period of proto-horror that set the foundations for a genre to come.
The supernatural has long been a convenient way to address socially taboo topics, especially during the nineteenth century when ghost stories became increasingly popular. Indeed, the ghost story very much became a Christmas tradition, which you can read more about in our review of Spirits of the Season. For women writers during this period, the short story became an empowering form, giving women both a professional and social voice. This is the theme of a new collection of ghost stories by Victorian women writers edited by Melissa Edmundson, featuring ten great representative authors. Naturally, her book is the best place to start if you’re looking to explore these stories – buy the book here. If you’re looking for further reading, I spoke with Melissa about what other books she would recommend; here are her choices.
“Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End” is another great collection from the British Library that provides the reader with an intimate experience with the otherwise unfathomable: our own mortality.
Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End is the second book I’ve reviewed in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series (read my review of Spirits of the Season), which aims to revive long-lost material from the library’s vaults in the genres of horror, the gothic, and weird fiction. This collection focuses on death, stories which bring us face to face with our own mortality.
Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings is a marvellous collection of Christmas ghost stories by 19th century and early 20th century writers, some of whom you will expect to see in a collection such as this (M.R. James, for example) but some you might be nescient of. Whilst I am publishing this review after Christmas, these are stories I would urge you to read whatever the time of year (but are especially haunting in these dark, winter months).