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The weird and scary world of author Syd
I SUPPOSE I am drawn to morbid things and yes, weird things do seem to happen to me,” laughs Sydney Moore.
“But I always have a healthy dose of scepticism about all of it!”
At the moment the author spends her days holed up in her home office in Leigh , surrounded by books on witches, maps of witch executions, and scribbled notes detailing ghostly goings on, while her son Riley is at school.
She has immersed herself in the history of witch persecutions, in Essex and across the globe, and the spooky myths which surround them, since researching her first book the Drowning Pool, which was published in September last year.
The book, published by HarperCollins, was based on a woman called Sarah Moore who lived in Leigh in the 1800s and was condemned as a witch.
Syd’s latest book, the Witch Hunt, is due to be published this month and she has another in the pipeline. When I meet Syd at her home, we sit down to chat.
Although Syd declares she’s not going to eat any cake ‘as she’s being really healthy and has been at the gym for two hours’, with a cheeky smile, and a glint in her big, piercing green eyes, she pops out for a fag and chats to me through the open door.
I ask what she thinks about how, in recent years, women seem to have cornered the crime-writing market with authors like Aveley-born Martina Cole, but there seem to be fewer female ghost writers compared to authors like Stephen King and James Patterson.
Syd agrees: “It’s probably the reason why many contemporary ghost stories are lacking strong female leads. And in a lot of films the women are portrayed as the victims.
“On the other hand, the Drowning Pool is not a feminist book – which has been said as a criticism. I am a feminist and write from a female perspective, but it is a ghost story.”
After graduating, Syd lived in London for 13 years where she worked in marketing for publishers Random House.
Her outgoing person-ality and love of books saw her land a job as a presenter of the book show Pulp from 1998 to 2001, she describes it as “a crazy time during the ladism culture of the Nineties where there were a lot of strong women in the public eye”.
Breaking away from marketing Syd began teaching a publishing course at South Essex college in 2003, then she went on to study for an MA in creative writing at City University. Now Syd divides her time between editing Level 4 Magazine and being an author.
After her cigarette Syd comes back indoors and sits next to me at the kitchen table.
So what draws her to such a dark subject matter? She says: “I think it comes from enjoying the macabre. Also I am very curious, I like to ask questions. I love horror films but not gory ones. I like suspense and what you do not see. I find the plot of a ghost story exciting and love a good twist.” This is one reason Syd could not resist the tantalisingly scary story of Sarah Moore, the “sea witch of Leigh”.
Many stories existed about her, but most were based on her being a witch, including one about a sea captain who refused to pay for a charm. Legend says he was caught in a storm and chopped down the mast with three axe strokes only to return to find Sarah dead on the wharf with three axe wounds in her body.
On discovering the truth behind Sarah’s past, Syd says: “A eureka moment for me was finding her burial register in St Clement’s Parish Register, in Chelmsford, where I had gone to research with Rachel Lichtenstein. “I discovered she had been married and widowed twice, so was left to bring up nine children, as well as suffering the loss of several others.
“She worked as a mangler, which was really back-breaking work and would have probably given her a bent back which we see in drawings of her. “At some point she started reading fortunes, guessing the sex of babies and estimating when they would be born.”
Syd could tell she was on to a fantastic premise for a ghost story.
She says: “One account says some children went into her house and tried to get a jar of potion off the shelf while holding a candle. “The potion fell and covered the two little girls and the candle set their clothes on fire. Then Sarah Moore’s footsteps were heard coming up the path and she is said to have burst in with sparks flying from her eyes which ignited the girls into flames.
“In reality it could have been wind fanning the flames, but either way by this point she was seen as an evil witch. It is such a rich and exciting story.”
Mid conversation the radio next to where I’m sitting blasts out music and I nearly jump out of my skin. Syd looks at me with a mixture of fear and excitement, “that’s never happened before!” she exclaims.
We sit there with what Syd thinks sounded like the Funeral March still ringing in our ears.
She says: “Weird stuff does seem to happen to me, but I think it is because I am open to it and looking for material for my work.” A little bit spooked, we continue our conversation. Aside from her fascination with ghost stories Syd is passionate about the true stories that lie under them.
In her research, Syd discovered between 1580 and 1690 the total number of women tried for witchcraft in Essex was 503 – compared to 222 for Hertford, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. She says: “A lot of the people persecuted were old, poor women. You can’t help but feel sorry for them when you discover how they were treated. “We know now that Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder general, made a lot of money, about £100,000 in today’s terms, and that could have been the motivation behind it, but also these women were seen as a drain on society because they cost the state money.
She says: “I would like to commemorate the lives of the women who died so they are not forgotten. I have not been able to get a grant from the Arts Council, but I am looking to create a virtual memorial in places like Chelmsford High Street, where 29 women died on the gallows opposite where the Saracens Head is now.”
Syd draws comparisons with how women in Essex are treated.
“I do think there are parallels with the persecution of witches and the Essex girl stereotype that persists. The witches were portrayed as lower class and as loose women, like Essex girls are today.
“That’s why the stereotype should be turned on its head and show the attributes of an Essex girl as positives – she is a strong, ballsy woman who knows what she wants.”
I later get a text from Syd to say the radio was tuned into Radio 4, which doesn’t play music, so she couldn’t understand why it blasted out the music during our chat. Aside from goose bumps, I couldn’t help but hope this scenario would make it into her next book.
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