"The Well Dungeon at Lancaster Castle measures twenty feet by twelve feet. It is sunk thirty feet below ground. It has no window and no natural light, save for a grille, slotted into the floor at ground level, but ground level is thirty feet above. Might as well be the moon away. And the moon looks in at night, high and pale, a cold light, but on a full moon a light at least."
After the gentle but deeply moving ghost story that was The Greatcoat, Random House and Hammer well and truly plunge the reader into darkness with Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate. Set in 1612, the novella is a new telling of the trial of the Pendle Witches, and like The Greatcoat is a beautifully produced small format hardback.
ShadePoint knows absolutely nothing about the Pendle Witch Trials, and this is probably an advantage. Reading some of the responses online, it probably made it much easier for me to accept Winterson's take on the story of one of those on trial, Alice Nutter, and the incorporation of historical figures like Dr John Dee, and, yes, Shakespeare. In her introduction, Winterson makes it perfectly clear she is up to to some invention. With no background worries in place, I was able to roll along easily with the story, which I read in a single sitting. It is a novella, of course, but it is also beautifully written, the prose precise and effortless to read.
The subject matter, on the other hand, is often very hard to read about. If Hammer's brief to Winterson was for the 17th Century to ooze from the pages of the book in a riot of torture, abuse and general hideousness, then it is brief fulfilled. Often, the detail is eye-wateringly horrible, and all the more so for the spareness and directness of the description. In one scene, a man has his leg skinned, and this is dealt with much in the way that we might observe a cobbler of the period, mending a shoe.
I was reminded all the way through of two other stories, Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, and the short story 'Witch' by George Mackay Brown. Something of the viscous recreation of an era recalled Unsworth, and the sparse brilliance of the description, Mackay Brown. These are two quite unforgettable tales, so all suggestions are that Winterson's dark little masterpiece is likely to leave a lasting impact.
Alongside the tongues bitten off, the flayings, burnings, dungeons and the general all round cruelty, The Daylight Gate is a matter of fact, almost day-to-day consideration of the supernatural and its place in the world at this time. On the one hand, I think Winterson does this to set the scene - essentially saying, people in those days believed in all this stuff, and so there it is, and plain - but on the other I think she cleverly puts us in that place, in order to lift our own astonishment at the 'real' magical elements of the story. For every villager and evil eye, every scheming political varmint or religious intolerant, there are simple moments of otherness, a bizarre magick world that intrudes, then retreats. Spiders talk, severed heads talk, dead walk. In the middle of all the gruesome everyday horror and basic superstition, Winterson sends in markers from a completely different understanding. When the alchemist Dee steps into the narrative, its a clear sign all will not be as we expect. And so it is: elixirs work, mirrors are magical, ghosts walk abroad. It is a fantastic and wonderful story.
It is also, without giving too much of the plot away, a love story. The horror is intensified by its contrast with a very moving back story for Alice Nutter, by the hopes of love that are up against the ignorance and hatred that springs the trials. Alice's story is elevated from the grim chambers of the castle and the mundane understanding of the accusers and even some of the more sympathetic characters. It is like a fragile song that carries above all the action, very much like her falcon that carries her messages:
"She heard wings. She held out her arm. It was her bird. He scarred her arm where she had no glove but she did not care because she loved him and she knew that love leaves a wound that leaves a scar."
In the end, for me it is this haunting love story that will sustain. A good while after finishing the book, the memory still recoils at all the Witchfinder General gore and grue, but it is Alice's story and to some extent, her sacrifice, that is uppermost in the mind.