A Real Witch’s Perspective on Stacey Halls’ The Familiars

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Jasmina Matulewicz, Journalism Undergraduate, University of Roehampton

Stacey Halls ventured on a mission in researching the infamous Pendle witch trials and building characters from real lives.

For as long as history books reach, witches have been persecuted, treated like outcasts and the embodiments of evil. Thousands faced execution in the 17th century, burned on stake or hung in front of an audience, based on empty accusations and the people’s fear of what is foreign. Witches were hunted down for years, and while the taboo behind the practice is slowly dissolving, they continue to be misrepresented. The Pendle witch trials are amongst the most famous across the UK, and perhaps one of the most important accounts of the demonisation and persecution of women. Stacey Halls’ debut novel follows a young married woman and her growing friendship with a midwife who is accused of witchcraft.

‘The trials in Lancashire, which took place in August of 1612, were transcribed by a court clerk. He wrote this very subjective account all about the dreadful discoveries about the Pendle witches and all this heavy propaganda against them,’ Halls says. Her book aimed to strip all of that back, she explains, humanising witches in a historical tale of friendship, survival, and coming of age.

Reading her novel, Halls’ depth of research is clear. She claims that witchcraft was marketing trope used by women in the 1600s to avoid work and laughs at her own interest in Wicca, a nature-based religion, during her teens, she decided to write a book about them. ‘They’ll continue to fascinate me, but were they really witches? Well, no, of course they weren’t,’ she says, brushing off a question from the audience during her event during Wimbledon BookFest. Women accused of witchcraft served as scapegoats in a wider power play, pawns in the middle of politics, she adds. And while I have to agree with the persecution of women in medieval Europe being about control and authority, denying the existence of witchcraft altogether seems ironic, given the subject of The Familiars and the amount of research behind it.

‘All the people killed for witchcraft only did it because they wanted to have some power over their lives,’ Halls says, and I can’t argue against that. Witchcraft is about control, but it’s also about freedom, creativity, and embracing nature. The line between fact and fiction is blurred, they say, and yet writing a novel based so heavily on history did not manage to convince Stacey Halls that they do, in fact, exist.