Last month The Dabbler witches rummaged around in their cauldron to summon forth 10 free copies of The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson, which were duly distributed amongst the members of the Dabbler Book Club. As Worm describes below, It turns out that it was a devilishly good read. To be in with a chance of getting your hands on future giveaways, sign up to the Dabbler Book Club today!
In the post-Booker excitement surrounding double winner Hilary Mantel let us consider perennial bridesmaid Jeanette Winterson; she seems to be regularly shortlisted and her 1986 book ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ could arguably be a contender for inclusion in a list of Booker Prize winners that never were. The ever contentious author has been back in the bestseller lists again recently with her Oranges sequel ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ An autobiographical look behind the scenes of the semi-fictional goings-on of her most famous book, and a terrific read.
In between penning her more mainstream recent release Winterson has also managed to find the time to draft this novella in time for the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials, bearing upon its cover the hallowed imprint of Hammer Horror. It would appear that Hammer’s legacy is now being revived with a new publishing house, specialising in superior spooky stories for middle class mums. Hammer must have been delighted to snag such a big name as Winterson for one of their first releases, and are keeping up the momentum by commissioning a host of well known fiction writers to have a stab at horror, so expect more titles by other well-known authors in the future.
The Daylight Gate introduces us to the county of Lancashire in 1612. Apart from being muddy and grim and full of incestuous slack-jawed yokels, it was also evidently a lawless place far away from any seat of power. This remoteness meant that many folk were able to hang onto beliefs in witchcraft and the recently outlawed Roman Catholicism, remaining relatively unmolested by the murderous Taliban of the Church of England. Within this setting we are given a wholly fictitious reworking of the Pendle Witch Trials, as the Church attempts to assert their power on this previously untamed county.
All the character’s names used in the novel were real, but that’s about it as far as fact following goes. Winterson uses the character of Alice Nutter to play the central role of the strong heroine battling the monolithic church. At the non-fictional Lancashire witch trials land owner Nutter certainly confessed to being a witch, and identified herself as such, although her definition of a witch probably differed greatly to the prosecutors. The book explores that grey area of misunderstanding through the liminal confusion of dusk – ‘the daylight gate’. Along the way the main character also manages to get up to some liminal lady-loving and gets to meet Shakespeare in a walk on part; the bard conveniently turns up as a house guest discussing the new play about witches he’s been working on.
As horror stories go this is actually pretty good, refreshingly unschlocky, and certainly horrific in parts, but it will doubtless enrage history buffs expecting a factual take on the trials. It is a well crafted fictional world that Winterson weaves, even when she is not in her usual milieu, and I found myself interested enough by the back story to go and read up on the subject of the Pendle Trails to see where fact digressed from her fiction. Be warned though, if you are of a delicate disposition – as you might imagine with a name like Hammer on the cover, there’s a splenectomy’s worth of gore splashed across the pages.