Book review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

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What an inspired choice to commission Lancashire-born author Jeanette Winterson to help kick off Arrow Books’ new partnership with the iconic Hammer Films company.

Exactly four hundred years after the Pendle witch trials were held at Lancaster Castle, Winterson returns to home soil to pen a stunning novella based on the notorious events of August, 1612.

This is a dazzling meld of magic and mysticism which finds its horror not just in the black mass, stinking corpses, evil spells and pacts with the Devil but in social inequality, rampant poverty, sadistic cruelty and man’s inhumanity to man.

‘The North is the dark place. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed,’ we are told in the opening lines of a book that dazzles with its subtlety, economy, style and atmosphere.

Winterson, award-winning author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Stone Gods, has never been afraid to break rules of literary convention and here she brings us a dark and seductive story of witchcraft which is built on facts but subverts real characters and events into a fantastical mix of history, horror, black magic and gothic romance.

Belief is suspended as a severed head speaks, the teeth of the dead rain from the sky, a youth is transmogrified into a hare and the Devil dances with his dedicated followers... but only until we return to the bone-chilling world of early 17th century Britain where the paranoid King James I pursued the ‘twin evils’ of ‘witchery popery’ like a man truly possessed.

Squalor, superstition and religious schism were rife, and those who practised either the black mass or the high mass were hunted down and subjected to unspeakable tortures and death.

And Lancashire, with its brooding hills, wild countryside, claustrophobic communities, age-old customs and adherence to the ‘old’ religion, was fertile ground for rumourmongers, zealots and witch hunters.

Just seven years earlier all the Gunpowder plotters fled to the county after their failed bid to blow up parliament, and now the Protestant king will stop at nothing to rid his realm of traitors ... and witches.

Two Lancashire witches, one of them the filthy hag known as Old Demdike, are already in Lancaster Castle awaiting trial so when a mysterious gathering of thirteen people in the remote and windowless Malkin Tower on Pendle Hill is interrupted on Good Friday by local magistrate, Roger Nowell, suspicions of a Sabbat, a witches’ black mass, abound.

Nowell is accompanied by Thomas Potts of London, Recording Clerk for the Crown Prosecution, a dangerous meddler and ‘a proud little cockerel of man; all feathers and no fight.’ His intention is to rid the county of the ‘diabolical’ followers of the Prince of Darkness.

On the other hand, witchcraft – ‘all superstition and malice’ – does not interest the magistrate. His spies have another target ... the escaped Gunpowder plotter Christopher Southworth who is rumoured to be back in Lancashire.

Hovering behind all the frenzied action is the beautiful, mysterious and wealthy Alice Nutter who owns the land on which the witches meet, feeding and defending them from those who use and abuse them.

Why was she among the coven found at the Malkin Tower, why does she sit astride her horse, fly her falcon with the strength and artistry of a man and how has she come to possess such ageless beauty?

Elsewhere, a starved, abused child lurks, suspected witches are raped, graves are despoiled, Alice Nutter’s links to the old Queen Elizabeth’s magician Dr John Dee are revealed and the ageing playwright William Shakespeare offers words of wisdom on a visit to nearby Hoghton Tower.

Some will die, some will survive but only those who dare enter the ‘Daylight Gate’ at the shadowy hour of dusk and step through the light into whatever lies beyond will know the truth of heaven and hell...

Winterson creates a superbly imaginative and intelligent story of genuine supernatural grotesquery, all in the best traditions of Hammer horror; she also tells a bleak tale of religious intolerance, hysteria, bigotry and brutality in the best traditions of a social historian.

Macabre, chilling, graphically violent and yet tender in its depiction of love, faithfulness and selflessness, The Daylight Gate captures the mind, the heart... and the soul.

(Hammer, hardback, £9.99)