Winterson moved on very quickly, combining realist with fantastic elements from her second novel onward. She has always despised plot-driven novels, what she calls “printed television.” As she said of her celebrated book, Written on the Body (1992), “it is possible to have done with the bricks and mortar of conventional narrative [...] by building a structure that is bonded by language.” Two decades later Winterson was commissioned by Hammer, a division of the British film studio that produced in the 1950s and '60s horror movies such as The Revenge of Frankenstein, to write a novella in the same genre for its new imprint. Winterson can’t resist a challenge and agreed to write a plot-driven horror tale, seeking the advice of an old friend, Ruth Rendell, a crime and thriller writer, on how to do the plot. The result was The Daylight Gate, published in Britain in August 2012 and released in the United States in October 2013 by Grove Press. As a number of reviewers have testified, this book is addictive, a page-turner. She can succeed even at writing in a genre she has habitually spurned.
Winterson has never tread water for long. “I like to set myself challenges,” she says, “which is why I’ve written in so many genres.” Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), her first and most celebrated book was a bildungsroman, a fictionalized account of her own upbringing by a puritanical Pentecostal stepmother in Accrington, northwest England. This was followed rapidly by Boating for Beginners (also 1985), a comic satire on the mass marketing of religion. Her next two novels, The Passion (1987) and Sexing the Cherry (1989), combine historical fiction with fantasy. In The Passion, set during the Napoleonic Wars, the female protagonist walks on water and has her heart stolen by her lover who hides it in a jar. Sexing the Cherry is set in mid-17th century England (with flashes in the present) and features a giant Dog Woman and 12 dancing princesses. In both books Winterson uses history as what she calls “invented space [...] where the miraculous and the everyday collide.” Since then she has gone on to write a novel with a genderless narrator (Written on the Body, 1992), retold myth (Weight, 2005), science fiction (The Stone Gods, 2007), fairy tales for children (beginning with The King of Capri, 2003), and a memoir (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, 2011), covering the same ground as her first novel.
For someone like Winterson, who believes that art offers us “freedom, outside of the tyranny of matter,” the horror genre, with its use of the supernatural, offers her all the freedom she could desire. And she enters into the spirit of the Hammer variety of horror with enormous gusto. The Daylight Gate retells the events surrounding the most famous witch trial to have taken place in England, the Pendle witch trial of 1612, which ended with the execution of eight women and two men. It is well known partly because Thomas Potts, the clerk of the Lancaster Assizes, published a book-length report of it the following year titled The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the one source Winterson acknowledges in her introduction to the novel. The case has attracted numerous subsequent accounts, some historical, such as John Clayton’s The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy (2007) from which Winterson quotes, and some fictional, such as the Victorian novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth’s best seller, The Lancashire Witches (1849).
Needless to say, 2012, the 400th anniversary of the trial, saw a proliferation of new treatments. Besides Winterson’s novel, Livi Michael published a children’s novel, The Malkin Child; BBC Four aired a documentary of the Pendle witch trial narrated by Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage; Blake Morrison brought out a volume of poems, A Discoverie of Witches; and two plays, a musical composition, an exhibition, and a statue of Alice Nutter (Winterson’s protagonist) were commissioned for the year-long Pendle festival, during which 482 people dressed as witches (a record apparently) walked up Pendle Hill on which “1612” had been carved in numbers over 300 feet high, enough to draw from the nearby Bishop of Burnley an expression of concern over the celebration of such a shameful episode of English history. Two attempts since 1998 to petition to have the Pendle witches pardoned have failed. Still Pendle continues to make a living from tourists, selling a beer called Pendle Witches Brew, staging a witch-themed flower show, naming local buses after the witches in the trial, and celebrating Halloween on the top of Pendle Hill.
Potts provided Winterson with a ready-made plot, which she proceeds to elaborate on. She incorporates the historical events leading to the trial while employing a novelist’s freedom to imaginatively dramatize them and invent additional material, especially in the case of her protagonist, Alice Nutter, about whom Potts has little to say. Winterson, whose childhood home abutted Pendle, employs the religious and cultural context in an unobtrusive manner. It helps to know that King James I, while still just the king of Scotland, accused witches of attempting to drown him on his 1589 journey back from Denmark with his new wife. He identified witchcraft with treason, and in 1597 published a short treatise on the subject titled Daemonologie. In 1604, a year after succeeding Elizabeth I as king of England, James saw to the passage of a new law making any act of witchcraft leading to another’s harm punishable by death. The next year saw the Gunpowder Plot in which a number of Roman Catholic opponents of James’s Protestant rule attempted to blow up the House of Lords when the king would be present. They fled to the lawless north when the plot was discovered. This made Catholicism and witchcraft two major sources of treachery in the eyes of the authorities. As Winterson has Potts declare in her novel:
What is worse, sir? A High Mass or a Black Mass? To practise witchcraft or to practise the old religion? Both are high treason against the Crown. Witchery popery popery witchery. What is the difference?
In 1612, the year of the Pendle witch trial, local Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell was ordered to compile a list of Catholic recusants in the area. That March two old local witches, Demdike and Chattox, with Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon, and Chattox’s daughter, were summoned to appear before Roger Nowell after Alizon had cursed a peddler for not giving her pins when she begged for them. The peddler had immediately after suffered what appear to have been the effects of a stroke. Alizon mistook her powers for those of a witch and confessed. As both families were in competition for the local demand for so-called witchcraft, each accused the other and all four women were committed to Lancaster Gaol. On Easter Friday a meeting was called at Malkin Tower, the home of the Demdikes, where it was alleged that a plot was hatched to blow up Lancaster Gaol to free the four accused witches. Alice Nutter, the landowner on whose property Malkin Tower was located, stopped by at the time of the meeting, possibly to offer food, and was implicated in the supposed conspiracy. She may have been on her way to a Catholic mass, which would explain why she failed to defend herself in court. Roger Nowell sent seven of those attending to join the others in Lancaster Gaol. At the trial, Jennet, the nine-year-old sister of Alizon, who had been abused by members of the family, gave crucial testimony against her own family. Apart from Demdike, who had died in prison, ten of the accused, including Alice Nutter, were tried, found guilty, and hanged in August of that year.
The year before the Pendle witch trial the King James Bible had been published, offering a religious justification for making witchcraft a capital crime: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Moses declares in Exodus 22:18. (Modern translations use “sorceress” instead of “witch.”) Witches were supposed to have struck bargains with the devil to obtain their supernatural powers. In fact they seem to have been more like natural healers, beggars, and occasional extortionists. Some of them believed that they exorcised supernatural powers while others traded on the locals’ fear that they might posses such powers. Lancashire was well known for its lawlessness. It had a disproportionate number of witches and Catholic recusants. This is what Winterson makes her starting point:
The North is the dark place.
It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the Dead.
The north of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.
She opens as she intends to continue by confusing historical fact with superstition. We have entered her “invented space” of history, where material reality and the world of the imagination meet. This enables her to adopt a modern attitude to the superstitions and beliefs of early 17th-century England and yet to immerse her reader in that world, which parallels the invented world of Hammer horror films. Winterson lays on the horror and the supernatural with gleeful abandon. Lancaster Gaol has its iron maidens, the skinning of a prisoner alive, a cell filled with starving rats into which a prisoner’s various body parts could be inserted. Hot wax is poured onto another prisoner’s pinned-back eyeballs. A severed head has a tongue sewn into it that can speak. Spiders too can talk. Teeth fall from the sky. A sexually violated woman bites off the tongue of her assailant. Spells are cast on the magistrate. Alice’s hawk is telepathic. Alice remains youthful due to an elixir Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, John Dee, gave her. (But is this simply a moisturizer before its time?) There are haunted rooms and apparitions with no substance.
And yet the more educated characters harbor a modern ambivalence when it comes to believing in supernatural powers. Take the local magistrate: “Witchcraft did not interest Robert Nowell; superstition and malice, he thought.” Later, however, he almost dies from a witch’s spell and changes his opinion. Alice’s attitudes are equally ambiguous. On the one hand she tells the supposed witches that “witchcraft is superstition.” On the other she was recruited by John Dee as an accomplice and does believe in magic, which he taught her is “a means of bringing supernatural forces under human control.” When she meets Shakespeare (who has a brief walk-on part) and watches a performance of The Tempest, she asks him whether he believes in magic. His response could well be that of Winterson, if asked the same question about this novel: “I have written about other worlds often enough. [...] There are many kinds of reality. This is but one kind.” There is a telling moment in the opening chapter when Alizon, after being repulsed by the peddler, curses him: “FAT PEDLAR! CATCH HIM, FANCY, BITE FLESH TO BONE.” The peddler assumes that she is invoking her familiar in the shape of a spirit dog. But what the narrator is meantime telling us is that Alizon is using fancy, her and the peddler’s imagination, to frighten him into having a stroke. The entire world of witchcraft, like that of Hammer horror, like that of Winterson’s fiction, is one in which material reality dissolves and the imagination rules supreme.
Like Alice, Winterson sees witches as the victims of an unjust society seeking some leverage for themselves as compensation. Born “in great miserie and povertie” (as Potts writes), they delude themselves into thinking they have power through practicing witchcraft. As Alice tells Robert Nowell: “Such women are poor. They are ignorant. They have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs.” Where Terry Eagleton saw the witches in Macbeth as the true heroines of the play, because they expose the hierarchical order of Macbeth’s mind and world, Winterson sees witches as instances of the poorest strata of society looking for a way out and being punished for their presumption. The horror genre offers Winterson a perfect vehicle for inducing the reader to experience the privations of poverty and the oppression of the law. Take one of the supposed witches, called Mouldheels: “Mouldheels had flesh that fell off her as though it were cooked. And her feet stank of dead meat. Today they were wrapped in rags already beginning to ooze.” In prison she “sits on the floor and pulls blisters from her pus-soaked feet. She can feel her way through to the bone.” Society evidently puts less value on her existence than on the animals it kills for food. In passing implicit comment on the inequities of 17th-century English society, Winterson simultaneously draws on Hammer films’ traditional displays of cruel aristocrats abusing poor frightened villagers.
She is also commenting indirectly on the disadvantaged in her own society. After all, she herself was adopted by poor working-class parents who should have been imprisoned for child endangerment — her mother beat her, locked her in the coal hole, and shut her out of the house at night. In her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? — published the year before this novel — Winterson portrays her mother as a real-life ghoul who battled with the devil for her adopted daughter’s soul. Mrs. Winterson (as she is invariable referred to in the memoir) constantly bewails the fact that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib.” Weighing 280 pounds, she is described as “out of scale, larger than life,” “now and again exploding to her full 300 feet.” Mrs. Winterson would not have been at all out of place in The Daylight Gate. She was someone who “kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.” A Pentecostal fanatic who was opposed to sexual intercourse and longed for the Apocalypse to sweep everyone else to their damnation, she subjected Winterson to a brutal three-day-long exorcism when she discovered that her 16-year-old adopted daughter was having a lesbian affair, and then threw her out for good. So Winterson is intimately familiar with persecution for supposedly being bewitched by the devil. She has also experienced her own form of possession. In her memoir she writes of talking with “the creature” inside her day after day following her attempt to kill herself in 2008.
Winterson also takes the opportunity in this horror novel — hardly surprising, given the material — to reflect on gender relations, although not in tune with any particular feminist ideology. Her witches, unlike those in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1925 novel Lolly Willowes, are not benevolent practitioners of white magic. They are ignorant, mean, petty thieves and extortionists. Except Alice. She is a wealthy landowner who made her fortune from inventing a magenta dye that caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth. She rides astride her copper mare, not sidesaddle, owns a falcon like any male hunter, and strikes a pedophile with her whip. She has studied alchemy with John Dee and harbors a modern sensibility when it comes to the dark arts, which is not to say she dismisses them.
Like Winterson she is bisexual. (Winterson has acknowledged having had seven male lovers, while choosing to live with women as they did not threaten her career.) Alice fell for Elizabeth Southern, a fellow apprentice to John Dee. After Elizabeth took the Left Hand Path by practicing the dark arts (she turns out to be the wizened old witch Demdike), Alice fell for Christopher Southworth, a Jesuit and member of the Gunpowder conspiracy. In this novel women may be victimized; but they fight back. I have already mentioned Sarah biting out the tongue of her rapist, and Alice twice whipping Tom, the pedophile. Tom, who has been forcing the nine-year-old Jennet to have sex with him, ends up falling into the cellar of Malkin Hall and being locked in there to die by his former young victim, after she has discovered that he is her father. And on the gallows Alice takes control of the way she dies by summoning her falcon down to sever her jugular vein before they can hang her. But Winterson is even-handed. In the last paragraph of the novel, as he is hunted down by Nowell’s henchmen, Christopher Southworth slits his wrists. So both rebels, male and female, defy the social order by taking John Dee’s advice: “Choose your death or your death will choose you.”
The Daylight Gate is another name for dusk, the liminal hour when light turns to dark, when the living meet the dead. In his 1613 account, Potts cites Demdike’s use of the term in her testimony: “the spirit or devil appeared sundry times unto her about day-light gate.” In the novel, the peddler “did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.” But for Winterson both “the light” and “whatever lay beyond the light” is the subject of her novel. Liminality has long been her fictional territory — between the real and the fantastic, between the historical and the invented, between the natural and the supernatural, and between art and lies. As Henri reiterates in The Passion, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” So she enters this Hammer horror story with complete confidence and brings it off triumphantly. As Sinclair McKay wrote in the Telegraph: “will this be finely wrought fiction or Grand Guignol? The answer is that it somehow manages to be both.” She uses a combination of historical and modern English to evoke a world that hovers between medieval superstition and modern scientific fact. As she has said, “I think it would be very foolish not to take the irrational seriously.” Don’t we live in a post-humanist age when three out of four Americans believe in something paranormal and eight in 10 believe in angels? At a time when we have done vampires to death, this novel about a period when witches were thought to threaten both church and state should resonate with modern readers. And if it doesn’t, you can wait for the movie for which Hammer has already signed up Winterson.
Brian Finney has written for LARB on Martin Amis and David Mitchell.