‘Evil posseses neither depth nor any demonic dimension’ Hannah Arendt
‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ is a novel full of dread and fear and like some of the greatest horror stories it is allegorical in nature. However it contains nothing of the supernatural, rather it is folk-horror at its purest, keeping the reader on edge until, literally, the very last word.
‘But one of the men said, ‘Come, madam, enough of this silliness. That is a rabbit.’ At which she smiled. ‘It may look like one,’ she said, ‘but if I gave the word he would squeeze himself down your throat and lay a feast of toads in your belly.’
This is a story set in 1645, when folklore and farming rubbed along in a rural world which Underdown depicts with a palpable sense of a community at work, an everyday tale of country folk which serves to heighten the horrors to come: terrible acts carried out by Matthew Hopkins, self proclaimed witch hunter who, in a few short years, was responsible for the torture and death of over 100 women.
‘… I heard of Susan Cocke form St Osyth, to whom the Devil had come out of a hedgerow and promised that he would provide for her, promised her vengeance on her enemies, and that he would share her bed. ‘
But this is no serial killer detective thriller. Hopkins and his crimes exist as blood clots on English history – a man who carried out his acts with the consent of the law, the church and community; a leader able mould the people to his will, through manipulation and fear, until they are only too willingly became part of his fearful plan.
Underdown skilfully blends fact with fiction as our narrator, Hopkin’s sister Alice, learns of Hopkin’s plans but her naïve belief in the inherent goodness of humankind cannot countenance that he will actually carry them out. Surely she, his sister, can discover what set him on this terrible path and lead him to salvation?
But first this naivety costs her dearly, for in order to understand Alice must get close to her brother until – too late – she is implicated in the reign of terror: ‘I see now that my brother was letting me grow used to my new circumstances, letting me lower myself into the scalding bath, inch by quarter-inch.’
She becomes Hopkin’s unwilling servant, ‘searching’ the accused’s bodies for ‘teats’ at which it was believed imps suckled – the imps being sent by Satan to seal his pact with the witch by sucking her blood. (In fact these were more likely moles or third nipples). But rather than satanism, Alice finds something sadder and more pathetically human.
‘Each (woman) had a different tale, fit to break your heart, but what they had in common was loneliness, and too many nights spent listening; loose flesh where they had given birth or gained weight in other, better summers. What they had in common was fear.’
As the horror reveals itself Underdown cleverly infuses the narrative with imagery and incident from horrors closer to the modern period: We see and hear of neighbour set against neighbour, daughter against mother, all desperate to denounce and deflect suspicion. We hear of crowds of captive women being herded on carts to their fate…
‘..and then I saw the laden cart pull to the side to let us pass. There were thirty of them, in the cart, and only room to stand. Their hands had been tied together, so that they could not save themselves when the cart laboured in the ruts. Most were crowding away from one among them who had soiled herself. I will not forget their eyes, as we pulled up our horses behind Matthew while he spoke with the gaoler.’
…and how Hopkins was determined to these eradicate these women, to ‘purge the place and leave it, as he would think, clean’ . In Hopkins Underwood has created a character who exemplifies Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality of evil’, used by the philosopher to describe the work and ethos of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organisers of the Nazi holocaust. Eichmann and others, she believed , were able to countenance their evil by making their work into routine and system, enabling them to ignore any moral or political considerations: they were simply ‘doing their job’. In 1645 we hear of Hopkin’s lists of women with descriptions of them and their alleged crimes, a ledger of terror: ‘How mundane it was, and so how terrible.’ Hopkins sees his role as God-given and one he cannot question: ‘What I think is I owe it to God. To do his work with as much thoroughness as I can’. These reflections make this novel all the more powerful and, by applying it to a small canvas, helps us to reflect on just how easy the seeds of fascism are all around us, needing the right conditions to germinate and grow. And if you think that the holocaust metaphor is somewhat stretching, then make sure you keep reading until the bitter end.
Underdown is a master of stunning imagery, such as here describing the pub in which Hopkins has made his base I the midst of the witch trials:
‘The Thorn was like a bell-tower with a bell that is ringing and flinging itself to pieces, and you can feel it in your teeth, but all you can do is wait for it to cease.’
And while Alice occasionally seems to be curiously modern in her outlook, this is a minor criticism. Underdown has conjured up a novel which depicts without flinching a terrible moment in history, made all the more frightening by speaking as much about the 20th and 21st centuries as it does about the 17th. She builds and sustains a creeping sense of dread leaving us with a final crescendo which, like death itself, is all the more disturbing for its relative calm and quiet.
*Images: Top: a still from ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (Dir Piers Haggard 1971); Bottom: a still from ‘Witchfinder General’ (Dir. Michael Reeves 1968)