Cold and windswept, black clouds glowering over the bleak moor, Pendle Hill in Lancashire is as ominous today as at the height of its infamy. Jeanette Winterson knows it well. She grew up at the bottom of Pendle Hill and could not have selected a more evocative location, nor subject, for her latest work, the novella The Daylight Gate.
Winterson fictionalises the true story of the Pendle witch trial in 1612, when 12 people were tried for witchcraft and ten hanged. Most of the accused came from the ragged edges of society and, in providing testimony against each other, sealed their own fate.
The case which was notorious mainly due to the large number of women tried at the same time, came at the height of a national hysteria about witchcraft. Lancaster was seen as an uncivilised and uncontrolled part of England and a refuge for papist sympathisers.
James 1, still nervous after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, believed witchcraft and a Catholicism thriving underground as two unholy partners in a supernatural plot against him and demanded the authorities to actively seek out, try and execute witches.
In this dark spiritual no-man’s-land, everyday occurrences became the stuff of witchcraft. Fear and revenge set villager against villager. The grindingly poor, the illiterate and the feeble-minded become unwitting targets.
Winterson had a rich vein of material to mine in her research. The clerk of the court, Thomas Pott, kept a detailed record of the trial which was published as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. And there were a number of subsequent witch trials in Lancaster.
Using this skeleton of historical fact she creates a glorious gothic romp. This is a world of foul-mouthed creatures, promiscuity, debauchery, unbelievably brutal torture, hideous death and sanctimonious religious cant. Witchcraft and magik are absolutes.
Her writing style, short sentences and short paragraphs, is pitch perfect: “The dark man sprung at her, growling and snarling. He was like a black fox, his jaws ripping her. He was on her back, sinking his teeth into her neck. Still she held Elizabeth’s face. “Her Soul belongs to me,’ she said. ‘I will pay the price’.” The story races to its inevitable ghastly conclusion but on the way she creates the stuff that real nightmares are made of.
Winterson is clearly having huge fun with The Daylight Gate, it is as rambunctious as the times. A fabulous story told by a masterful storyteller.
The Daylight Gate is published by Hammer.