Devil is in the black art of hu­man cru­elty

The Day­light Gate

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Tran­ter

JEANETTE Win­ter­son’s new novel is the lat­est in a se­ries from the re­vi­talised Ham­mer Cor­po­ra­tion, most fa­mous as the English film pro­duc­tion com­pany re­spon­si­ble for many en­joy­ably lurid hor­ror movies of the 1960s and 70s.

Ham­mer’s new pub­lish­ing part­ner­ship with Ran­dom House aims at a high-brow mar­ket for hor­ror writ­ing, a well-timed ven­ture at a time when Pride and Prej­u­dice and Zom­bies can be­come a best­seller and lit­er­ary nov­el­ists such as Col­son White­head and Glen Dun­can have em­braced zom­bies and were­wolves.

The Day­light Gate of­fers a fic­tional ac­count of the trial of the Lan­cashire witches in 1612, the most fa­mous of the many witch-hunts un­der­taken dur­ing the rule of the fiercely Protes­tant James I, Eng­land’s most de­monob­sessed monarch. There seem to be many rea­sons this ma­te­rial would at­tract Win­ter­son. Lan­cashire is her ter­ri­tory, af­ter all.

‘‘ The North is the dark place,’’ she an­nounces in the first sen­tence, and what fol­lows is a bril­liant con­tri­bu­tion to the mythol­ogy of north­ern Eng­land as the site of wild, un­tamed mys­tery.

The land it­self is in­vested with su­per­nat­u­ral sig­nif­i­cance, alive with sin­is­ter in­tent: ‘‘ The For­est of Pendle used to be a hunt­ing ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter — alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an an­i­mal pelt.’’

The hill is a place where the liv­ing and the dead meet, where an open­ing into other worlds ex­ists in the form of the day­light gate, ‘‘ the lim­i­nal hour’’ at dusk be­tween day and night.

Win­ter­son grew up in the Lan­cashire town of Ac­cring­ton, adopted into a poor, dys­func­tional fam­ily in which she was the only child. Her mother was a pas­sion­ate and de­ranged evangelical Chris­tian, and came to be­lieve that baby Jeanette was the devil in­car­nate. In Or­anges are Not the Only Fruit, her 1985 de­but novel, and her more re­cent mem­oir, By Jeanette Win­ter­son Ham­mer, 194pp, $24.95 Why Be Happy When You Could Be Nor­mal?, Win­ter­son re­counts her fam­ily’s bru­tal at­tempts at ex­or­cism af­ter she re­vealed her les­bian sex­u­al­ity.

It’s not hard to imag­ine that the idea of witch-hunts, which al­most in­vari­ably in­volved the per­se­cu­tion of the most pow­er­less and mar­ginal mem­bers of so­ci­ety by peo­ple who be­lieved they were act­ing ac­cord­ing to reli­gious prin­ci­ples and erad­i­cat­ing the devil’s work, would strike a chord with Win­ter­son. She knows some­thing about what it’s like to be ac­cused of be­ing in league with Satan.

But these ac­cused women, chil­dren and men have a wealthy pro­tec­tor in this story, a pow­er­ful woman who at­tempts to in­ter­cede on their be­half, Alice Nut­ter. This char­ac­ter is based on a his­tor­i­cal per­son, a re­spectable woman whose in­volve­ment in the trial has never been ex­plained.

Win­ter­son puts Alice at the cen­tre of the story and in­vents a colourful back­ground for her, in­clud­ing a close as­so­ci­a­tion with John Dee, the no­to­ri­ous El­iz­a­bethan al­chemist and ma­gi­cian, and an en­counter with Wil­liam Shake­speare.

Alice has a tal­ent for chem­istry and makes her for­tune with a spe­cial ma­genta dye that im­parts a strange lu­mi­nos­ity like ‘‘ wa­ter that was on fire’’. She rides astride a cop­per mare; she wears a fal­coner’s glove of heavy leather like a man and calmly feeds a dead mouse to her bird when he comes to rest on her arm.

In this world of su­per­sti­tion and reli­gious fer­vour, Alice is a scep­tic. Al­though she un­der­stands some­thing of the power of ‘‘ the black arts’’, her re­la­tion­ship to them is am­biva­lent. She be­lieves in ‘‘ the mag­ick of our own minds’’ and knows a lot about how those minds can be ma­nip­u­lated. The power

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