–This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays. –Douglas Adams
This week my guest is Alison Williams, author of the historical novel, The Black Hours
I’m particularly thrilled to welcome Alison Williams today. As part of the Book Review Challenge on Rosie Amber’s incredible blog, I had the good fortune to receive a copy of The Black Hours for review. I was impressed with not only the story she told, but also with the way she put the faces of individual people to the sweep of historical events. On short notice and with remarkable grace and humor, Alison agreed to join me today to answer some questions and also to provide copies of her novel to some lucky participants. After a career in education, Alison decided to bite the bullet and write full-time – it only took her until her forties! She now works as a freelance writer with articles published online and in magazines and also as an editor, working mainly with self-published authors. Alison’s novel writing focuses on the stories of ordinary people caught up in the real events of history. When she has any time left at all, she enjoys blogging, reading, running (very slowly), listening to music (she has an obsession with Johnny Marr), and watching The Sopranos (again).
Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly? Definitely Star Wars but only because of Han Solo (for obvious reasons).
- Who would you most like to sit next to on an airplane? Again, for obvious reasons, either Ryan Gosling or Johnny Depp. Or Johnny Marr. But for purposes of interesting conversation (although I’m sure they would all be very interesting) then either Christopher Hitchens (assume it’s ok to include someone who has died) because he was so intelligent, eloquent, sharp and funny or Hilary Mantel because I want to know how she does it- I’m so envious and awed by her writing. Her books are among the very, very few that I can read more than once.
- Best guilty pleasure ever? Reading in bed with a big slice of chocolate cheesecake and a very large glass of red wine.
- What is the one thing you can’t live without? I know it sounds cheesy but definitely my husband and my two children. They’ve all been amazingly supportive and have put up with so much from me during the very, very long time it has taken me to research, write and publish ‘The Black Hours’. I really couldn’t have done it without their complete and utter belief in me.
- Are the names of the characters in your novels significant? When I was researching ‘The Black Hours’ I read many stories about people falsely accused, tortured and persecuted for witchcraft. I think it is sometimes difficult to remember that these things happened to real people. So I wanted to use the names of those accused in my book. Alice Pendle is named for numerous women and girls named Alice who suffered, and in particular Alice Molland who is rumoured to be the last ‘witch’ to be hanged in England. I chose Pendle as her surname to remember the famous ‘witches’ of Pendle, Lancashire who were executed in 1612. Most of the other characters have been given either first names or surnames of others accused, tried and executed. Unfortunately there were plenty to choose from.
THE BLACK HOURS by Alison Williams‘Look upon this wretch, all of you! Look upon her and thank God for his love and his mercy. Thank God that he has sent me to rid the world of such filth as this.’ 1647 and England is in the grip of civil war. In the ensuing chaos, fear and suspicion are rife and anyone on the fringes of society can find themselves under suspicion. Matthew Hopkins, self -styled Witchfinder General, scours the countryside, seeking out those he believes to be in league with the Devil. In the small village of Coggeshall, 17–year-old Alice Pendle finds herself at the centre of gossip and speculation. Will she survive when the Witchfinder himself is summoned? A tale of persecution, superstition, hate and love, ‘The Black Hours’ mixes fact with fiction in a gripping fast-paced drama that follows the story of Alice as she is thrown into a world of fear and confusion, and of Matthew, a man driven by his beliefs to commit dreadful acts in the name of religion.
Alice pulled her cloak tightly around her as she pushed her way through the crowds. The gruesome shadow of the gallows loomed ahead, five rope nooses creaking in the bitter wind that whipped through Halstead’s bustling square. She wanted only to escape these people who knocked against her, surrounding her with their noise and smells. It had been a hard two days walk from Coggeshall in the biting cold and she was looking forward to the warmth and refreshment she would no doubt receive in Hannah’s home.
Around her vendors called their wares, children laughed or cried in excitement; women giggled and gossiped with each other, their breath cloudy in the freezing air, pausing now and then to slap their unruly offspring. Men told raucous jokes and drank toasts of warm ale, their voices rising above the howl of the wind.
‘It’ll be a good one today.’
‘That it will. Wish I’d got here earlier. Might’ve got a seat inside.’
Alice swallowed, her heart beating faster. This was not an execution then; indeed the accused had not yet stood trial. The nooses swayed as she passed by the gallows. Alice shivered as she imagined the poor souls that would soon dangle from those cruel ropes. She quickened her step, filled with a need to get to the safety and quiet of Hannah’s cottage.
In the three years of his short career as Witchfinder General from 1644 to 1647, Matthew Hopkins was directly responsible for the deaths of over three hundred women. What author Alison Williams wants to know is not what happened or even how or why. In The Black Hours, what she sets out to examine is who. Who were the murdered women, who were their accusers, and even who was the young man who became the Witchfinder?
She introduces us to a tiny English village, Coggeshall, where seventeen-year-old Alice Pendle lives with her Grandmother Maggie—Margaret Prentice, the village healer. Against the polarizing backdrop of religious and political divisions of the Civil War, witch-hunters claiming to have grants of safe conduct travel the Puritan and Parliamentarian strongholds. They are accompanied by women who administer witch tests such as “pricks” —needle piercings, frequently faked—to “prove” accusations of witchcraft, an often lucrative career financed by frightened local officials.
When Maggie and Alice are suspected of witchcraft, we see the proceedings from several points of view. Their neighbors—by turns vindictive, bullied, righteous, or frightened—are the accusers. Although himself only in his mid-twenties, Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins is secure in his belief that he is fulfilling his religious duty, contemptuous of the simple villagers who don’t immediately follow his commands, and self-righteously determined to fight the devil he sees in basically everyone except himself. He has no hesitation in ordering their arrest, torture, and trial. But there are others who don’t give up, who are willing to fight against what they believe is unjust.
What makes The Black Hours so interesting to me is the unusual choice to alternate point of view between the victims and their accuser. Alice’s story is difficult to read in places, as she’s subjected to assault, torture, deprivation, and loss. But it is also one of triumph, a quiet individual victory. With the perfect hindsight vision of history, we want to see the Witchfinder as a monster, his victims as powerless pawns, his allies as weakminded minions. But what we get instead are strong women who fight what they see as the sin of false confession. We see a weak, increasingly sick young man who has no real grasp of the events he thinks he’s orchestrating. And most interesting of all, we see the neighbors. Not only are there the malicious or easily manipulated accusers, but there are those who become increasingly infuriated by the abomination perpetrated against their families and friends in the name of religion. If there are victors or triumphs in this story, and if there is a message, it is that these everyday people are inherently good, and eventually victorious.
There is so much I found fascinating in this story. Alison Williams gives us an amazingly detailed description of everyday seventeenth century lives, with meticulous research and beautiful descriptions of people and places. But more than that, she made me think about so many other witch hunts throughout history. Like Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, it serves as a parable for political witch hunts such as McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s infamous hearings that led to blacklisting (the anti-Communist purge of the American film and media industry). Seeing the way the Witchfinder is eventually discredited by those he confidently bullied reminds me of CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow’s challenge to McCarthyism. “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrines and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.”
Because she made me think, because she wrote a challenging and entertaining book, and because she succeeded in bringing a difficult historical page to life, I would give five out of five stars to The Black Hours.
CONTACT AND BUY LINKS:
- Amazon United States: http://www.amazon.com/The-Black-Hours-Alison-Williams/dp/1492801402
- Amazon United Kingdom: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Hours-Alison-Williams-ebook/dp/B00G505UUO
- Website: http://alisonwilliamswriting.wordpress.com
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alisonwilliamswriting
- Twitter: @Alison_Williams
I asked Alison if she could have one superpower, what would it be? Please pick one answer below add your guess to the comments below to be entered in a drawing for a copy of The Black Hours.
- Invisibility because it would give me the chance to listen in on other people – I’m incredibly nosey.
- Speed because I am an incredibly slow, if enthusiastic runner, and I’d like to run faster than my husband just once!
- Flying because I have a real fear of falling – I hate to cross bridges and don’t like standing on the edges of cliffs (or even hills) so this could make me braver.
Please add your guess to your comment below, and you will be entered to win a signed copy of Alison Williams’ new historical, The Black Hours. Winner will be announced next Thursday.
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