Author: Anthony Esler
Published by: Morrow
Publication date: 1st Jan. 1975
Source: Private Collection
Nicholas Hellbane, the Witchfinder, rides into the Devonshire fishing village of Tartan’s Cross on a winter’s night in 1613. With him he brings an arsenal of weapons to rip human flesh in his fanatic mission to purge the populace of wickedness and devilry. He was the most feared witch hunter of that dark and brutal age.
But in Tartan’s Cross he finds Alys, a dark gypsy witch-woman who instills a burning and tormenting passion within him. On the night of the witches’ Sabbath, Hellbane comes face to face with the Devil himself.
I’m digging a bit deeper into the ‘Witch Hunter’ topic, as this is a theme that I greatly enjoy. From historial to complete fantasy, it’s a sub-genre that has always captured my attention. I figured, why not read a few books around the topic and I went on a Witch-Hunter hunt! I remembered this particular book from my formative years, Heretic Deb had a copy of it that I vaguely remember reading so I thought this would be a good starting point for revisiting the theme.
Nicolas Hellbane, the greatest Witch-hunter in the Western Counties, arrives at the unsuspecting town of Tartan’s Cross to root out the evil-doers of the small seafaring village. Tensions within the village mount and soon they’re overcome by the ‘Witch-Fever’ that claims so many lives. It is a time of folk-tales, superstitions and dependence on God above all; where puritan lives meet with the otherworldly folk in which they share their lands. Amongst these is Alys, a dark-skinned gypsy woman that serves the people of Tartans Cross in more ways than one.
Hellbane is a character study of the titular character, Nicholas Hellbane. Of his work within the village of Tartans Cross, the impact he has on the lives of those within the small village, as well as delving into his past; what makes him do the things he does. As such he is the most developed character within the story – his depth goes far deeper than any of the other characters combined. This isn’t to say that those around him are bland or lacking in their own merit, but far more attention has been paid to the Witchfinder, compared to the simple village folk which he has come to judge.
I found Nicholas Hellbane a fascinating character, therefore the book for me was highly intriguing. The flaws of his past and how they contrasted to the life that he is, at the age of fifty, leading. The events of his life that led up to this point are captivating. He is a shrewd man when it comes to his work and the rich details of his life and actions speak out through the pages of the novel, Hellbane. As the novel progresses an understanding, and horror, forms around the wicked atrocities he has enacted. Leaving the reader with a sense of foreboding. Due to his past, you know that something dark lurks around the corner for him and the actions he has taken and this plays out in an expert and, somehow, unexpected ways. The character himself goes through several development stages through the book, some subtle, but most wrought with inner-conflict.
When Nicholas Hellbane descends upon the innocent town of Tartans Cross, he brings with him a fever. Causing the inhabitants to turn against their own in the ‘blame-game’ of Witch Finding. Each of the victims suffers a trial before the town courts and are tried according to their deeds. There is an element of mystery brought to the novel surrounding these parts, a drama that can do nothing but play out and gain greater and greater traction as the book progresses. The more Witches found in Tartans Cross, the more there are to uncover and the fever grows. The build of tension is superbly written giving the book a slow-burn to start with ending with a break-neck speed to it’s shattering conclusion.
The characters that play a part in Tartans Cross are varied and brimming with individual personalities. From Mad Joan Cunny to the gypsy-girl Alys. Each is well described and it is easy to see why some of them face the accusations that they do. Each of them leaves a vivid impression on the mind with their quirks. Even the more regular characters have a fire about them that we observe through Hellbanes eyes. Pastor Matthew Hacket, for example, a meek young man that has adoration and passion for the peoples of his congregation and a strong will to oppose and defy the methods of the Witch hunter.
There is a true mystery surrounding the gypsy-girl Alys. A character that lures Hellbane from his pious path. She is the hook that keeps the story moving as there is an intrigue about her that leave the reader guessing. Is she a real Witch, or just a mere potion-brewer from the outsides of the town? It is the answers to this and seeing the path of the Witch Hunter play out that implores the reader to keep going. Alys is an enigma; many times you think you have her figured out, only to be blind-sided by half-truths and rumours.
Hellbane was written in 1975, nearly 50 years ago, so I was expecting there to be some changes in the language within the book that could cause some issues to me as a reader. However, because the book itself is set in 1613, these issues, should there be any, are hidden in thee times in which the book is set. The spoken dialect is in deep Cornish accents which I confess, did cause me a few struggles; but nothing so harsh as to put me off the book itself, just a couple of re-read passages to clearly understand what was being said.
The book was a little slow to get going and was more a drama in the genre than an action novel that I was looking and hoping for; the enticement that Hellbane has a showing with the Devil is mummers trick of the blurb at best. I am conflicted in my thoughts on this aspect of the novel as it works within the parameters of the story but I do feel somewhat led astray as to my expectations.
An in depth character study of a novel centring around the titular Nicholas Hellbane. An intriguing, suspense filled drama surrounding the town of Tartans Cross in the heady-rush of Witch Fever. A good enough novel surrounding the Witch Hunter topic that starts off a little sparse but grows to an exciting culmination.