Book review: Witch Hunt by Syd Moore

England’s notorious 16th century witch trials cast a shadow far longer than the one which enveloped the people of Pendle in Lancashire.

Essex has its own dark history, with over 500 women tried for witchcraft in the county between 1560 and 1680 and the small town of Manningtree becoming the headquarters of Matthew Hopkins, the much-feared, self-styled Witchfinder General.

‘Essex girl’ and author Syd Moore gives the county’s fascinating past a pivotal role in her second haunting ghost story, a thrilling, chilling follow-up to her much-acclaimed debut novel, The Drowning Pool, which was inspired by the legend of 19th century Essex woman, the Sea Witch Sarah Moore.

In Witch Hunt, she delves into an Essex few us know or recognise as well as crossing new boundaries into a surprisingly rich and well-blended concoction of mystery, horror, politics, social issues, mental illness and stereotyping.

It was always going to be an ambitious project but Moore pulls it off skilfully, weaving the past and present, fact and fiction, the real and the ethereal with a palpable sense of passion and an impressive fluidity.

Freelance journalist Sadie Asquith has been fascinated by the dark past of Essex’s witch hunts for as long as she can remember and has decided to write a book on the subject.

But her mother, who has always believed she was distantly related to one of the Essex witches, is dying in a hospice and has bad feelings about Sadie’s book, not least because it will be published by the literary arm of the empire of ruthless tycoon Robert Cutt, a man who has ‘corruption all over his face.’

When her mother dies, Sadie throws herself into researching the book but soon starts experiencing strange, ghostly visions. She finds eerie messages on her computer, hears sobbing voices at night and black moths appear from nowhere.

It’s as if, by digging up the truth about the witch hunts, she has opened an unearthly connection to the women who were cruelly mistreated and killed centuries earlier.

But something else in the modern-day world is after her too; her mother’s boyfriend Dan has gone missing and Sadie is convinced she’s being followed. When her flat is burgled and she finds clues that reveal her own past isn’t all that she believed, her research becomes more menacing than she could ever have imagined.

Can she find peace for the witches of Essex, and can she find a safe path home for herself?

Moore’s multi-layered novel is a twisting, turning, absorbing ghost story, encapsulating in brief scenes of graphic horror the reality of the terrible fate of those 16th century women condemned as witches.

An intriguing read for lovers of history, the supernatural, detective fiction and horror.

(Avon, paperback, £6.99)