Devil is in the black art of human cruelty
The Daylight Gate
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