Historical Musings #19: The Halloween edition

Historical Musings October is here and has brought with it (in my part of the UK at least) a change in the weather, longer, darker nights and a distinctly autumnal feel. With Halloween just a few weeks away, I thought it would be fun to give this month’s Historical Musings post a seasonal theme! I would love to hear about any historical novels you’ve read which deal with any of the following subjects:

  • Witches and witchcraft
  • Magic (black or white)
  • Ghosts and hauntings
  • Vampires/zombies/werewolves/monsters or other supernatural beings of any kind

My suggestions:

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is one of the first authors to come to mind when I think about this type of historical fiction. The Vanishing Witch is set during the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and features both ghosts and witchcraft; at the beginning of each chapter is a spell, a piece of folklore or a superstition, which I thought was a nice touch! The Raven’s Head, set in the early 13th century, is a darker novel with a strong supernatural element. I haven’t read her other books yet, but am about to start her new one, The Plague Charmer.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (also published as The Lost Book of Salem) deals with the Salem witch trials. It’s a dual time-frame novel but is set at least partly in the past so I’m including it here.

For those readers who are interested in witches and witchcraft but prefer a gentler read, I can recommend The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. The first is set during the English Civil War while the latter is set in the 1940s (but published in 1988, which is why I’m classing it as historical here). There’s also Susan Fletcher’s Corrag (also published as Witch Light), a beautifully written novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692; the main character and her mother have both been accused of witchcraft due to their knowledge of herbs and healing.

Vlad the Last Confession C.C. Humphreys has written a novel called Vlad: The Last Confession, which tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia who is thought to have provided at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is not actually a vampire novel, but because of the Dracula connection and the dark atmosphere I’m including it here anyway.

There are also two ghostly novels by John Harwood that come to mind: The Séance, a gothic mystery set in Victorian England, and The Ghost Writer, which includes four genuinely chilling short ghost stories supposedly written by a fictitious author in the 1890s.

Finally, there’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, in which our hero and heroine are a vampire and a witch. The first book, A Discovery of Witches, is set in the present day but in the second, Shadow of Night, we travel back in time to 16th century Europe. I’m not sure about the third book as I haven’t read it yet.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you think of any other historical fiction novels with a ghostly/witchy/magical feel?

24 thoughts on “Historical Musings #19: The Halloween edition

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read a lot of Philippa Gregory’s books, but not that one. I didn’t know it was about fortune telling. That reminds me of another book I could have included here – The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley, about a fortune teller at the court of Louis XIV.

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver is probably the scariest ghost story I’ve ever read, and has a partly historical setting. As far as I can remember!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read Dark Matter, but I’ve heard about it and have been a bit hesitant to read it as I’m not as brave as I used to be when it comes to ghost stories!

  2. elainethomp says:

    Doris Sutcliffe Adams wrote THE POWER OF DARKNESS lo these many years ago… apparently 1970, going by publication date… which features villains who are a small Devil worshiping witchcraft cult in IIRC, the reign of King John in England. I remember it fondly but haven’t reread it in years. Grace Ingram’s GILDED SPURS used the same family of devil worshipers set a generation earlier. I’ve always wondered if Ingram & Adams were the same person.

    There’s also Robert Neill’s MIST OVER PENDLE (UK title) THE ELEGENT WITCH (USA title), dealing with the Lancashire witches of the 1600s. published in the 1950s, I believe.

    These were all really historical novels, I don’t remember much witchy atmosphere to them, except maybe POWER, when our heroes running around in the dark forest see the devil worshipers complete with goat-headed man.

    I’ve picked up the first of Harkness’s trilogy more than once, and always put it down again, rather quickly. Something about it puts me off.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve been meaning to read Mist Over Pendle for years, but can never seem to get round to it. Thanks for reminding me of it. The other two books you mention are new to me and both sound interesting; I’ve made a note of the titles but judging by the prices Amazon is asking for The Power of Darkness, that one won’t be easy to find.

      I thought the first Deborah Harkness book was quite good once I got into it, but the second was disappointing which is why I haven’t been tempted to pick up the third one yet.

      • elainethomp says:

        There are other books about the Pendle witches, too, but other than Winterson’s DAYLIGHT GATE I haven’t read them. I didn’t think much of Winterson’s take on the story. DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL by Sharratt is much better reviewed. FWIW. I’ve got a sample on my kindle and will eventually get to it.

        I’ve read some Mitchison, both tCK&tSQ and Travel Light. I’d say their writing style is very different, but both worth reading. If CORN KING is like any other writer I’d pick Renault’s ancient Greek novels.

  3. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen is a marvelous imagining of how magic was part of everyday life in the ancient world, with a central character who is quite matter-of-factly a witch. It’s quite long, so for a shorter taste of Mitchison’s style I recommend Travel Light – set in the same world but later, in the days of declining myth and the rise of Christianity.

    The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart is interesting in how it recasts most of Merlin’s magical deeds, making them explicable by natural laws — but there remains an element of the uncanny, that he himself is not fully in control of.

    I feel as though there should be more, but that’s what I can think of off the top of my head!

    • Helen says:

      The Corn King and the Spring Queen sounds wonderful, Lory. Definitely the sort of book I would be interested in reading – but maybe I’ll take your advice and try Travel Light first to see if I like the writing style.

  4. FictionFan says:

    Great list! I don’t read many witchy type books, but you reminded me of a couple I’ve enjoyed. Douglas Watt’s Testament of a Witch is set in pre-Enlightenment Scotland – it’s not a supernatural one but about the real witch finding and trials of the period. And for witchy women, I recommend Angela Slatter’s great collection of short stories, Sourdough – they are written like folk tales and all the women share some witchy attributes. I also second Pam’s recommendation for ‘Dark Matter’ – thoroughly spinetingling. I’m just about to read Paver’s new one for this Hallowe’en season – Thin Air, which I’m hoping will be just as good…

    • Helen says:

      Sourdough and Testament of a Witch both sound intriguing. I think I’ll have to read Dark Matter soon – I don’t read a lot of ghost stories these days, but I’ve seen so much praise for that one! I hope you enjoy Thin Air too.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    Aw I love this topic as it brings together some of my favourite genres into one. I immediately thought of Deborah Harkness’ Shadow Night (by the way, the third book is set back in the present again) and Karen Maitland’s The Raven’s Head. Last year. I also read the dual-narrative Lamp Black, Wolf Grey by Paula Brackston which looked into the history, life and magic of Merlin.

    • Helen says:

      I remember hearing about Lamp Black, Wolf Grey on your blog, Jessica. I would like to read it, especially as I enjoyed reading Mary Stewart’s Merlin books recently.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Since I have read all of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels, I have read (and loved) The White Witch. One of my top favorite historical novels including magic is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. One of these years around this time I would like to reread it.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve only read The White Witch and The Child From the Sea so far, but I would love to read more of Elizabeth Goudge’s books. And I should have remembered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, especially as I’ve mentioned it in another post today. I would like to reread it one day too.

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