Barry McCann, editor of Spooky Isles’ new anthology, Shadow of Pendle, talks Pendle Witches with CHRISTINE MILLER
Congratulations on Shadow of Pendle, it is a brilliant read. Firstly, why did you choose to create an anthology surrounding the legends of Pendle and the witch trials in particular?
I grew up near Pendle and with the stories of the witches, but what I grew up with were the myths that have been weaved.
As an adult when I became more interested, I discovered there was this terrible truth, that these people were victims of paranoid times. James I was on the throne, and he had this intense paranoia that plotters were using witches to try and dethrone him, so he reinforced the Witchcraft Law. He didn’t start these laws, which many tend to believe – the laws were already there – but he did turn them up a notch or two. It created a climate, especially following the Gunpowder plot, where people were living in fear of these seventeenth-century equivalent of terrorists, where Catholics and witches were basically seen as the same thing. The climate was charged and the hysteria continued to build.
The thing about the history of the Pendle witches is there are a lot of gaps in the knowledge. For example is it true that Magistrate Rodger Nowell and Alice Nutter had a land dispute? There is no actual evidence that they did, but it has always been claimed that this dispute took place, so when she (Nutter) came into the frame and was named as a witch, Nowell saw this as an opportunity to get rid of an inconvenience, by getting Alice arrested, charged and sent down as a witch, which would solve any land dispute. That is one theory.
Another speculation is, where was Jenet Device in the four months before the trial where she was brought in as a star witness? No one knows where she was, but she would have been cared for, most likely by Nowell where she was indoctrinated against her own family. That is the likelihood.
Why did you and David Saunderson (editor of Spooky Isles) decide to get together to create the book?
About two years ago, David decided to come up to Pendle to have a visit as he’d never been, and I offered to take him.
Obviously, I’d been writing for Spooky Isles for a while now and it was on this journey that we started formulating plans to produce an anthology inspired by Pendle.
By this time the first Spooky Isles anthology was on the way and I was planning to edit the second, so I suggested one inspired by Pendle Hill with all its myths and legends. David decided to make it more specific and was keen to hone into the legends of the Pendle witches in particular, and he wanted poetry as well as short stories. Thanks to the people who responded to our request for stories and poems we ended up with such an eclectic mix of stories: some are period, some are contemporary, some are paranormal, some are horror, some are psychological with a couple of fables also thrown in. We were really pleased with the mix we came out with in the end for the anthology.
The thing I particularly like about the poems is that they were more reflective of the truth of the story, and they catch the climate, so we used the poems as a reminder of the truth in between the stories. I tried to match a poem up with the story, so the poems act as a curtain raiser.
There is one of your stories which particular spoke to me in the book entitled Once in Every Blood Moon. I was quite sure I had predicted what was about to happen next, but on every turn, I was proven wrong! What is the secret to writing an original horror/folklore story?
There are all sorts of sources that a short story can come from, a lot of my sources are actually dreams. Dreams can provide really original materials because the conscious mind deals with things that are retrieved in our dreams. I recently wrote for the Lancashire Post a story which was based on a nightmare I used to have as a child. The dream centred around a wardrobe we had and this thing that would come out of it. People who have read the story will not have read anything quite like it – this thing that comes out of the wardrobe has a crucifix for a head amongst other unusual bodily mutations. And it’s all based on a nightmare I used to have.
Other sources I like to draw from are folklore. You tend to find the same folklore tales wherever you go, it is just that they are re-dressed and re-told to suit the local environment. Once in Every Blood Moon was based on the tale of the Headless Horseman in Jinny Lane. in Lancashire, so I decided to flip the story a bit. I wrote it as being darkly humorous…
It is quite League of Gentlemen-esque…
[Laughs] Well, yeah, I suppose so, although it’s not really a series I have watched, although I have met Mark Gatiss at a dinner party hosted by The Dracula Society.
You are an expert on the folklore of Pendle and the Witch trials, but what do you make of the supposed hauntings of Pendle?
I call myself a sceptical believer. My mum, as a young girl, was sensitive to the paranormal and she would attract things. My brother is the same. My sister and I haven’t inherited this in any form at all. I have a friend who is psychic; I take her places and sometimes she will go cold and say, “something’s happened here” and she will ask me if I can feel it, but I can’t.
If someone said to me “that house is haunted because footsteps and knocking are heard” for example, my first thought would be, what sort of investigation has been conducted or what sort of material is the house made of? Is there wood, will it expand with temperature? Is there any subsidence on the land which the house is built on? I believe in going to the natural explanation first, because like Sherlock Holmes, once you go through all the natural explanations, then whatever is left must be the truth. There are paranormal happenings that I have no explanation for and I am a subscriber to the Stone Tape Theory, because, when you think about it, we have the technology to record images, sounds and play everything back. Could the same thing exist in nature? Considering the things used in old cassette tapes are actually mineral elements, so could there be certain things in stone, in air, in water that can catch certain images or sounds and maintain them somehow.
What do you think is responsible for the dramatic increase in popularity for ghost hunting over the last 15/20 years? There seems to have been somewhat of an explosion in the amount of television programmes pertaining to capture the paranormal these days.
That’s interesting. I was reading not so long ago about horror films, and apparently they become more popular during times of economic depression. When you think about it, you have the crash of 1929, and immediately Hollywood start to churn out horror films, whereas before Hollywood has stayed shy of horror films. The Germans were doing them, but Hollywood wouldn’t touch them, or if they did they would tag on an ending like the whole story has just been a terrible dream. They shied away from the supernatural. I wonder then if it’s during times of uncertainty where people think beyond; in that there has to be more than this life, and of course what is the one thing we wish for? That there is an afterlife that we go onto, and it isn’t going to just all go black once we shut our eyes, hence the ghost hunt.
I think shows like Most Haunted has also popularised the whole idea of ghost hunting. Yvette (Fielding) lives around my area actually, and I’ve met her once or twice. I did ask her once, when things on the show are supposedly happening, and something is throwing stones at you, has it been prearranged? All she would say to me was, “if it is, no one tells me about it”.
I saw an interview with Derek Acorah shortly after he was caught out, and he didn’t admit or deny that he was a fraud, but he did say something to the effect of “I am an entertainer”, which I thought was interesting.
I’ll give you one anecdote. Most Haunted did a live episode at Pendle Hill a few years ago. Myself and my then girlfriend were in Pendle, staying in the Pendle Witch Inn at the same time. They put a large screen up in the bar area so we could all watch it. The team go to one of the supposedly haunted barns and Derek becomes possessed by Demdike (one of the women accused of being a witch at the Pendle witch trials) and in the thickest scouse accent shouts “I don’t want you here, don’t want you here!”. My girlfriend turned around to me as we were watching it from the bar and said “I didn’t know Demdike had a scouse accent!” The funny thing is is that the scouse accent didn’t evolve until the late 19th century.
I couldn’t let you go without asking you about the late, great screen actress Ingrid Pitt. You were friends with her weren’t you?
Yes, I was. I met her in 1998 when I went to interview her for The Dracula Society. She took me for a coffee, and we sat and talked. She was very showman-like, she really knew how to sell herself. When I listened to the recording back, I realised she had spent half the interview asking about me. After I turned the Dictaphone off we had a chat, and I was just completing my MA in English Literature at the time, and I mentioned this and I saw her eyes light up. “Ah,” she said, “you’re a researcher!”, and that was that. She had just written The Ingrid Pitt Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers and I helped with the research for The Ingrid Pitt Book of Murder and Depravity which she wrote next.
We did become very good friends. Every November on her birthday she would have a dinner in London and every year she would invite me. If I didn’t bring a plus one, she would seat me beside someone in the business, so consequently over the years I have had dinner with Fenella Fielding, Caroline Munro, Valerie Leon and Kate O’Mara plus more.
Ingrid was truly larger than life, and very embracing; she really did make me one of the family.
What is next for you? What future projects do you have in store?
I am a contributing writer to a few magazines, so I will continue to write for them. After Shadow of Pendle I have more ambition to be on the editing side of things and would like to do more anthologies. I have a large number of my own short stories would I would like to anthologise; in fact I think I have enough for three volumes! I will be continuing to make appearance on TV and Radio Cumbria and Radio Lancashire, so I’ll be keeping busy, that’s for sure.
Barry McCann lives in the north of England and is a writer, editor, broadcaster, speaker and host of two Ingrid Pitt festivals held in Hastings in honour of the late scream queen for whom he worked as a researcher. He is a features writer for various magazines, newspapers and websites such as Cultbox and Spooky Isles. This has led onto regular appearances on BBC Radio Lancashire as resident writer, Radio Cumbria as Folklore Correspondent/ storyteller and Radio Merseyside as cultural historian. His short stories are regularly featured in the Lancashire Post and American anthologies such as Dark Gothic Resurrected and The Horror Zine, as well as being performed to audiences all over the U.K. and Ireland.
He is a regular feature writer for Scream magazine, This England and Evergreen, the latter two reflecting his love of history and old churches. He also an award-winning editor of the art and literature journal Parnassus for Mensa International, which sits nicely with his Ingrid Pitt – Queen of Horror award for his fiction, presented to him in 2012 by James Herbert.