THE DAYLIGHT GATE
By Jeanette Winterson
ANYONE familiar with Jeanette Winterson's books would probably agree that the English writer would have made a formidable witch. You can just picture her at the stake, delivering a tongue lashing, and eloquently damning her accusers to burn in hell for eternity.
In The Daylight Gate, her first foray into the supernatural genre, Winterson draws on a real-life event that lives up to the cliche ''stranger than fiction''. In Lancashire, a little more than 400 years ago, 10 people were hanged for witchcraft based on the evidence of nine-year-old Jennet Device. Most of those condemned to death were members of her own family, including her mother, brother and grandmother.
The original account begins with a quarrel between a pedlar, John Law, and a beggar, Alizon Device, and ends with a curse that leaves Law paralysed and foaming at the mouth in a ditch.
The Pendle witch trials coincided with a dark time; England in 1612 was ruled by James I, a king with a grim fascination with witches - especially when it came to killing them - and a hatred of Catholicism.
Winterson, who was born under Pendle Hill (''where the living and the dead come together''), takes the bones of the story and revels in schlocking it up, pulling in historical figures - including Shakespeare and Dr John Dee (Queen Elizabeth I's astrologer) - to flesh out the plot.
Richly evocative, The Daylight Gate title refers to the ''liminal hour'', and Winterson clearly enjoys layering the atmosphere, and ploughing readers through explicitly gruesome passages. But it's also charged with her particular literary preoccupations with desire and class, and she also brings her poet's ear, luxuriating in prose - ''Underfoot is the black rock that is the spine of this place. Hares stand like questions marks'' - and controls the build of the story arc expertly.
Two figures remain central throughout; Alice Nutter, a wealthy, independent, bisexual widow whose affair with a woman obsessed with dark magic leads to a life of privilege, and little Jennet, a tragic figure who will betray her family if it means surviving the brutality of an age governed by powerful men, superstition, religious tensions and scientific fervour.
According to official records, Jennet climbed on a table before looking around the court and identifying those who practised witchcraft. She admitted to flying on a broomstick and that her mother played with poppets. It's a charged image to re-create the idea of a child wilfully manipulating and condemning her entire family, but by the time you finish the book, her motivation becomes tragically clear.
The novella (less than 200 pages) is published by Hammer, a division of the English film studio that flourished in the 1950s and made films such as The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Curse of the Werewolf. Helen Dunmore's ghost story, The Greatcoat, was the first title and more are on the way.
Winterson embraces the genre entirely. While her ghoulish delight in the grotesque is almost heavy-handed, restraint would make for a far less entertaining read. Sadism, sexual abuse, satanic rituals, grave-robbing, romance, torture, seduction; if Winterson felt any self-consciousness about writing what is, in essence, a florid page-turner, it never shows.
No matter what the genre, Winterson wants her readers to engage with the story, and she's already proven a successful cross-genre writer, with titles in fiction, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Written on the Body, The Passion; children's books, The King of Capri; a memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Miserable; and even a fitness manual.
The Daylight Gate is a horrific tale retold for modern audiences by a masterful storyteller who brings every ghastly detail alive on the page.