There’s word of a clandestine gathering. Of the congregants performing rituals with talismanic objects and blood. Is it a witches’ sabbath or an underground Catholic mass? The answer wasn’t so clear in (fiercely Protestant) King James I’s England. As far as the authorities are concerned, they’re the same thing. “Witchery popery popery witchery,” the king’s clerk repeats assuredly in Jeanette Winterson’s new novel, The Daylight Gate, inspired by the real-life trial of the Lancashire witches in 1612. Having narrowly survived a shipwreck and then a Catholic assassination conspiracy known as the Gunpowder Plot, King James allows his paranoia and religious fundamentalism to fuel each other. When the Gunpowder Plot failed, the conspirators fled to Lancashire. The king’s enforcers followed, determined to eradicate heresy of all kinds.
Winterson plunges us into a frightening Lancashire of her own making, with the witch hunt already underway. A vagrant woman known as Old Demdike has been imprisoned on suspicion of witchcraft, and her ragged relatives and supporters meet on Good Friday to plot her escape. Alice Nutter, a wealthy landowning widow, happens across the meeting, and the Demdike crew move quickly to draw her into their plot; they claim to know Alice has magical powers and insist she use them to free Old Demdike. When the local magistrate appears to round up the Demdike crew, Alice isn’t taken into custody. But her presence at the meeting is noted and she’s tarred by association. Her freedom will last only as long as it takes the clerk and magistrate to build up a case.
The witch hunt is a horror narrative, but the horror in The Daylight Gate comes not from the sudden, lethal whims of the crowd. It derives instead from the mundane violence and wretchedness of existence in 17th-century Europe, a century of war and plagues. Awaiting their trial, the Lancashire prisoners waste away in an underground cell where they sleep next to, and eventually in, their own waste. Their skin festers and they fight with rats for the rainwater that dribbles in. The youngest Demdike girl, Jennet, an underfed girl of nine, is pimped at the local alehouse by her mother. These details sound almost baroque in their hellishness, as if Winterson were spinning a stylized, Boschian dystopia. In fact, her description of 17-century life isn’t too off the historical mark. During anxious times of plague, famine, or as in this case, political unrest, survival was often a nasty business. When people are dehumanized and powerless against the sources of their suffering, it’s alarmingly easy for them to brutalize others. Winterson’s clipped, matter-of-fact narration underscores the degradation of daily life. One rape is disposed of in a sentence: “Tom Peeper raped Sarah Device.” Horror does indeed lie in banality.
Magic is real in Winterson’s Lancashire and this is perhaps the author’s biggest risk. As story elements, the cauldron and the magical potion are almost overinvested with the history of Western literature and folklore. They stand out as props. Handling them clumsily will dissolve a horror story with staleness. In The Daylight Gate, Winterson unabashedly incorporates some of the most familiar tropes of fairy-tale magic: an enchanted mirror, a Faustian bargain, warty old hags, toadstools. But why not? This is, after all, a story about witches. To omit these objects, or worse, include them without motivation would drag the novel down with tentativeness. In the novel, poppets pierced with pins inflict real damage, and Alice isn’t merely stunningly beautiful, but impossibly so, maintaining her looks with a youth elixir.
Alice’s beauty is familiar territory for Winterson, who takes a special interest in the power of human bodies to attract and repel. In her earlier novel, Written on the Body, Winterson’s narrator (name and sex never declared) takes a lover, Louise, who, like Alice, is an unearthly beauty. Later, the narrator halfheartedly takes another lover, Gail, whose body repulses: Gail is like “a left-over jelly at a children’s party.” At one point Gail gets drunk and vomits half-digested clams onto her blouse without bothering to clean herself. Such difficult bodies also populate The Daylight Gate. Old Demdike is covered in weeping sores, and on the day of their execution, two of the female condemned are so racked with syphilis contracted from their jailers that they cannot stand. These are grotesque bodies we want to recoil from, but Winterson takes us by the scruff and shoves our faces closer to them. Amid the squalor, there are also moments of brief transcendence over corporeal humiliations. Alice takes one of the fugitive Gunpowder Plotters, Christopher Southworth, as her lover. Though castrated and severely disfigured from torture, Christopher and Alice nonetheless take deep pleasure in their own and each other’s bodies when they’re together.
Witch hunters often find what they’re looking for, and today there are countless works—from scholarly books to plays—that reckon with the twisted logic of the hunt. Winterson’s novel is a valuable addition to these; in the end, it isn’t proof of magic that does in the accused, but plain old miscarriage of justice and exploitation of the most vulnerable. Witch hunts work by dismantling the traditional bonds of community and turning people against those close to them. These relationships may already be under strain when people are forced to compete for limited resources or tenuous social standing. In The Daylight Gate, the witness who condemns the accused at trial is a relative of theirs who “shows no emotion,” for there’s “no emotion to show.” Winterson shows us that such denial of hope and human feeling in a person is a curse far more evil than anything achievable by hexes and “dark magic.”
Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate is available now from Grove Press; to purchase it, click here.