Witchery, treachery and gross-outs


Scary story takes place in Lancashire in the time of James I, when Catholics were despised.

The Daylight Gate. Jeanette Winterson. Grove. 240 pages. $24.
The Daylight Gate. Jeanette Winterson. Grove. 240 pages. $24.

Stephen King once wrote: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify… I’ll go for the gross out.” So it goes in The Daylight Gate, the new novel from Lambda Literary Award winner Jeanette Winterson, which takes as its inspiration the Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612. If the historical narrative doesn’t always terrify, it never fails to gross out.

In the English county of Lancashire, “known for its witches,” a wealthy widow named Alice Nutter is accused of allowing a group of women to practice their dark arts on her land. The witches are locked away in a dank and miserable tower to await trial, while Nutter is brought face to face with her infernal past; at different points in her life, she had been involved with a fugitive Catholic priest and another woman who may have sold her soul to Satan — the “Dark Gentleman.” Her uncannily alchemic youthfulness, despite her age, is not a good way to avoid the witch hunters.

A story framed around a witch trial is always an effective vehicle for allegory, because the witches can represent any source of unfounded fear or mass hysteria; think Arthur Miller mirroring the Red Scare in The Crucible. Here, though, the corollary is even closer, as the suspicion of witches goes hand in hand with James I’s suspicion of Catholics. At the time, England was still reeling from the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by a group of Catholics to blow up Parliament and help return the country to Catholicism. “Witchery popery, popery witchery,” is the refrain of one the most zealous witch hunters, and Winterson deftly weaves human wickedness with theological concerns. She writes of one of the accused, while locked in her cell: “She thinks of Hell, and is it like this? She thinks that the punishments of the Fiend are made out of human imaginings. Only humans can know what it means to strip a human being of being human.”

This is not realist fiction: the witches here are actually witches, and they reanimate lifeless boiled heads, cause spiders to talk and cast hexes with the best of them. But it’s the un-supernatural human naughtiness — the constant medieval mistreatment that many of the characters are subjected to — that really turns the stomach (in a good way, if you’re into that sort of thing.) In the king’s torture chambers lie the gross-outs; I’ll refrain from excerpting, but let’s just say that you don’t want to spend much time in the “rat room.”

The plot name-checks many historical figures who were involved in the trial — even William Shakespeare makes an appearance — and with such a large coven populating such a slim book, the narrative never quite lifts off on its broomstick. But the imagery here can sometimes carry the show, and Winterson’s Lancashire, a place “alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt,” is a haunting place indeed.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.

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