FANTAST IN FOCUS: DR HANNAH PRIEST
Dr Hannah Priest is a historian and writer. A graduate of The University of Manchester, she specialises in everyone’s favourite monster: the werewolf. Like other characters in folk tales and Gothic fiction (such as vampires and witches), werewolves have a direct link to historical figures and events. Fascinatingly, Dr Priest’s book She Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves, examines some of these narratives and traces the development of werewolf legends from the Middles Ages to the present day. As a novelist, Dr Priest writes under the pen name, Hannah Kate and has published several poetry collections and books through her company, Hic Dragones.
The Custodian: What first got you interested in the academic study of werewolves?
Dr Hannah Priest: I’ve always enjoyed Gothic horror – fiction and film – but I didn’t really become seriously interested in werewolves until I was working on my PhD at the University of Manchester (which I finished in 2009). My thesis looked at monstrousness in medieval romance (specifically Middle English and Anglo-Norman), and I was particularly interested in the porous boundary between the human and the monster in romance. While I began with an interest in giants and fairies, I soon became fascinated by the romance werewolf (a creature that is simultaneously human and non-human). Marie de France’s Bisclavret was an obvious starting-point, but it was reading the Middle English William of Palerne that really cemented my love of the medieval werewolf. At the same time, I was beginning to write articles on contemporary urban fantasy (beginning with YA fairy fiction), and I read Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver series. Moving between the twelfth and the twenty-first centuries in this way made me curious as to what came between, and my interest in the long cultural history of the werewolf was born.
My study of female werewolves in particular began with a footnote in my thesis. I was writing about masculinity in William of Palerne and placed a simple footnote reading: “In European literature, the werewolf is most commonly a male creature. Notable exceptions include…” And I added a couple of female werewolves. And then I added a couple more. And a couple more. And an article or two. And then a couple more she-wolves. In the end, when the footnote was threatening to take up a full page of my thesis, my supervisor, Dr Anke Bernau, insisted that “do something with the female werewolf footnote”. So I did.
C: Are there any abilities that differentiate she-wolves from their male counterparts and from other similar beings like witches?
H: Now that’s a question I could spend a long time answering! While male and female werewolves are, of course, the same ‘type’ of creature, their cultural histories are different. In European fiction, for instance, werewolves are predominantly male, often solitary, and usually sympathetic, even tragic (think Bisclavret, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf or David from An American Werewolf in London). In folklore, this trend is paralleled (though there are interesting exceptions, such as in the folklore of Saaremaa, Estonia, where female werewolves are more common than male). When the female werewolf burst onto the pages of Victorian fiction (in Frederick Marryat’s The Phantom Ship), she was a more predatory creature, with less focus on the tragedy of her ‘curse’ and more on the danger she posed to good Christian men. In this respect, the female werewolf has more in common with other female monsters (e.g. Greek monsters like the Lamia, or medieval figures such as Melusine), than with earlier male werewolves. As I argue in the introduction to She-Wolf, the female werewolf has long been associated with the (sometimes gleeful) disruption of domesticity (think Rosamund Marriott Watson’s “gude wyf” and Shakira’s “she-wolf in your closet”), and often represent a sexual, as well as physical, threat to men. Contemporary literature and film often continue this differentiation – thus, Jacob Black is a Quileute warrior, nobly accepting lycanthropy as part of his heritage; Leah Clearwater is a disruptive force who refuses to behave like a ‘good’ werewolf, and who freaks out the pack by telepathically broadcasting her thoughts about menstruation. However, contemporary fiction does have a number of non-predatory female werewolves, with the notion of ‘sacrifice’ coming to the fore. For example, while Being Human’s George rails and cries against the unfairness of his fate, Nina initially suffers in secret to protect the man she loves.
The questions of witchcraft is a complicated one. In early modern treatises and Inquisition handbooks, lycanthropy was included as a possible aspect of witchcraft – one that involved the pretence of animal transformation. In the trial information that survives from the Inquisition, it appears that more men were tried (and executed) as werewolves than women. But it’s not a straightforward gender divide: some men were tried as witches, some women as werewolves. In a number of cases, a group of individuals that comprised both witches and werewolves were tried and executed together, revealing a strong association of the two practices. What is interesting is that, when early modern broadsheets reported on (occasionally apocryphal) trials, they did draw a gender differentiation. If you compare, for example, the narrative of Stubbe Peter to that of the She-Wolves of Jülich, you can see that, while all these werewolves were allegedly engaged in blasphemous, murderous and demonic behaviour, the female werewolves also commit acts of vandalism that undermine men’s right to conduct business, and are explicitly stated to be bad influences on their children. In this respect, female werewolves are pretty similar to female witches (and, of course, Pat Robertson’s notorious depiction of feminists).
C: Is fiction-writing something you’ve always done or did it develop in the context of the dark histories that you were studying?
H: I’ve always liked writing stories. It’s something of cliché for writers to say that they grew up with their nose in a book and a notepad by their side, so I won’t say that. I’ll just say that my dad encouraged me to read widely from an earlier age, and that writing my own stories was a natural development from that. My stories became longer and more developed when I was in the final year of primary school, as I had a teacher who would let me miss P.E. if I hadn’t finished my creative writing. The material I work on academically has offered new sources of inspiration and new ideas, but my writing (like all writers’) has always been a creative synthesis of various ideas, experiences and influences. They say you should write what you know: I know a lot of weird stuff.
C: Can you tell us a little more about Hic Dragones?
H: Hic Dragones is a micro-press and conference company I started in 2010. I now run it with my partner, Rob Shedwick. I originally started Hic Dragones as a way to work on a couple of projects close to my heart – a collection of short stories about female werewolves and an academic conference about Alice in Wonderland. Shortly after these projects began, we got the opportunity to work with an amazingly talented debut author – Toby Stone (so far, we’ve published his novels Aimee and the Bear and Psychic Spiders!) – and things have continued from there. We have run conferences on Alice, the Wizard of Oz, monsters and cannibals, and we’ve published several anthologies of short fiction from new and established writers. Working on the anthologies has introduced us to some really talented emerging writers, and we’re very proud to have published Beth Daley’s debut novel Blood and Water (a ‘kitchen-sink Gothic’ tale of a woman haunted by the sea) and K. Bannerman’s The Tattooed Wolf (a stylish and compelling Canadian werewolf tale). We’re a small company, but this means we can stick to publishing stuff we like, and we’re hoping to open a call for new submissions soon.
Our most recent project is Digital Periodicals. We’ve been reserializing and reissuing a collection of early Victorian penny dreadfuls as (fully searchable) eBooks. Our titles include Varney the Vampyre and Sweeney Todd (A String of Pearls), but also some lesser known titles, like Clement Lorimer; or, the Book with the Iron Clasps and (one of my personal favourites) The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, Ventriloquist. Among our upcoming titles, we have George Reynolds’ Faust – an idiosyncratically early Victorian take on the popular tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil. Many people are familiar with the idea of penny dreadfuls, but may not have had the opportunity to read the original titles. While other modern editions do exist, they are often simply OCR scans of the print publications and are occasionally unreadable. We wanted to produce editions to be enjoyed by a new generation of readers. It’s been hard work, as we’ve had to transcribe some of the titles from scratch – the poor quality of the original printing makes scanning difficult in places – as well as a little editing and a lot of formatting. But we think it’s been worth it!
C: Many of your works are set in the north of England. Is that where you grew up? Why do you think the north has such a reputation in literature for magic and mystery?
H: It is indeed where I grew up. I was born in Cumbria, but have lived in Manchester since I was 10 (apart from brief periods when I lived in Lancashire and Fife). I’ve never actually lived further south than the Manchester Arndale, and I consider being a northerner to be an important part of my identity. I have set a lot of my prose and poetry in the north of England – specifically Manchester – because this is the territory I’m familiar with (and which I love). I don’t want this to sound like I’m anti-southern though! I enjoy reading work that has a strong connection to place, and which sees magic in the most mundane and urban of landscapes: one of my favourite writers is China Mièville, and I love the way he writes about London (the version of London that appears in Kraken is my favourite literary representation of the capital).
The north does have a bit of a reputation for mystery, but I think this is more a reflection of Britain as a whole. We’re quite regional in our identities – often fiercely so – and this comes through in our preservation of individual folklores and tales. Cumbria has a wealth of these, but so does Cornwall. It’s a way of keeping our histories alive. Another quirky aspect of Britain is that we cram a lot into our tiny islands (cultures, histories, languages and geographies), so it’s possible to travel just 100 miles and feel like you’re in a different world (drive 100 miles north from Edinburgh and you’ll see what I mean…), so unfamiliar regions of Britain will undoubtedly seem ‘mysterious’ to the uninitiated.
C: In a way, your first novel Yonec goes back to the fount of romance because it is inspired by a tale written by Marie de France, one of the earliest romanciers. What led you to adapt this particular story?
H: Serendipity, I think. Marie’s Yonec was one of the texts I explored in my PhD thesis, so I spent a lot of time thinking a lot about the text. At the same time, I discovered Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, a YA fairy fiction. Marr’s novel introduced me to the new wave of YA fiction, and opened my eyes to just how good YA could be. Thinking about both stories at the same time made me imagine what a modern, urban adaptation of Marie’s text could look like – so I decided to write it. I love Marie’s Yonec – it’s my favourite of her lais – and I constantly find new things to say about it, both academically and creatively.
C: What are you currently working on?
H: Finding an agent for Yonec is definitely high on my to-do list at the moment. I’m terrible at getting my work out there, and I need to get better at that! Academically, I’m finishing off two edited collections and working on two monographs (one is about sex and violence in Middle English romance, the other returns me to the cultural history of werewolves). Creatively, I’m currently working on a weird-fiction apocalypse novel set in the west of the UK – this has been quite slow-going, because of the pesky business of earning a living. I also host a literature show on my local radio station, which is a lot of fun as I get to invite really interesting people to come and talk to me about books!