On the subject of things that go bump in the night, this brings me to Robert Neill's “classic novel of witchcraft”, Mist Over Pendle, which has been a firm favourite of mine for a while now, despite being less well known than some of the more recent titles I’ve highlighted in previous blog entries. (For US readers, this will be The Elegant Witch).
“When several local people die in mysterious circumstances, Squire Roger Nowell dismisses talk of witchcraft as superstition. But soon a series of hideous desecrations take place, and there are unmistakable signs that a black coven is assembling to plot a campaign of evil and destruction.”
Such is the premise at the outset of Mist Over Pendle. The reader travels with Roger Nowell’s niece Margary Whitaker from Holborn into the Forest of Pendle and shadow of Pendle Hill itself, bringing both into confrontation with the inhabitants of the Rough Lee and “dark elegance” of Alice Nutter. Soon enough, Margery becomes aware that life in Pendle has definite “undercurrents” and that these are such that some of them run “muddily”.
The novel is an account of the Pendle Witches, a fascinating subject in itself and Neill provides vivid descriptions of his Demdike, Chattox and Squinting Lizzie to populate well-known local history. We also see Jennet Device, the child informant responsible for the eventual apprehension of her own family who formed part of the recent BBC Four programme, The Pendle Witch Child, presented by Simon Armitage.
Pendle Hill, too, seems to feature as a distinct character in itself, filled with brooding emotion, as well as the calculated manoeuvres of “our Alice”. For those familiar with the territory the novel explores within its seventeenth century context, the level of detail and close attention to it by the author is pleasing. Neill displays a similar level of skill in the language utilised by his characters throughout the narrative, which, again, adds to the “feel” of the tale. We also see signs of the troubled religious times within which the events of the narrative took place.
Add to this an intriguing story arc, almost in the guise of a detective style “who dunnit” (to which the reader is already privy to the details of, unlike the characters populating the narrative itself) and you have a rewarding reading prospect.
Ultimately, though, it is the characters who provide the definitive “hook” to reel you in in this instance. Margery is sufficiently quick witted to prove more than a match for Alice Nutter in their on-going game of “cat and mouse”. Roger, Margery’s distant magistrate cousin, who we grow to know rather better over the course of the narrative, is pragmatic, sardonic and wise by turns. Neither feels forced nor clichéd in their depiction. Their battle against the Lancastrian world of poisons, curses and familiars feels real and we get a genuine sense of the frustration displayed by Richard Baldwin, the “stout Puritan”, as they search for the proof of witchcraft necessary for a committal to Lancaster.
Nor does Neill leave us devoid of any romance beyond the intrigue surrounding Pendle coven. In Margery and Frank and, equally, Grace and Miles, we see genuine developing relationships, the success of which we are invested in. Not bad all told for an author concerning whom little is known.