The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate, like Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat, is a Hammer title, and part of their series of horror-themed novels by literary authors. Jeanette Winterson's contribution is a re-imagining of the lives and trial of the famous Pendle witches of the 17th century - but the Pendle witches of history were innocent victims of Puritan paranoia and sheer spite. In The Daylight Gate, there's certainly a witchcraft of sorts going on. It's just that, what with Alice Nutter and her elixir of youth and Elizabeth Device and her cauldrons and curses, Winterson seems unable to decide whether her Pendle witches are more akin to Snow White's stepmother or the Three Witches from Macbeth.

I love Hammer horror. I love reading about the Pendle witches. I love much of Jeanette Winterson's work. But I didn't love The Daylight Gate. It's fair to say there were certain things I liked about it: some sections had real atmosphere, and some of the more bizarre details of the witches' practices and their imprisonment and trial are fascinating and chilling. I live only a short drive from Pendle Hill and have walked up it, and I do think Winterson evokes its foreboding air rather well at times. But ultimately it was disappointing.



Part of the problem is that the different gears of The Daylight Gate just don't seem to interlock adequately at any point. I think it's unlikely that Winterson's attempt to bring together anti-Catholic prejudices, the social degradation of women and the poor, gory torture scenes, schlocky Satanism, the fate of a fugitive from the Gunpowder Plot and a bisexual love triangle would have succeeded particularly well even in a 600-page blockbuster, but in a book as short as this - a book so short that it felt rather cursory at times - it was never going to work. It was more or less at the point where Shakespeare turned up as a character for no good reason that I suspected I would be disappointed by this book, and unfortunately I wasn't wrong.

What I had hoped from this novel is that it would have the feel of an old 'folk horror' film, and in some ways there are those elements present - think Blood On Satan's Claw or Witchfinder General, for example. The Daylight Gate has grisly torture scenes and sinister yokels aplenty, along with a bisexual protagonist whose antics with both her lovers are reminiscent of the hilariously gratuitous soft-focus topless scenes of early 70s Hammer. But at no point when I was reading The Daylight Gate did I really feel that the author cared about the Pendle witches themselves, Hammer's horror heritage, or indeed the horror genre itself. There was something about The Daylight Gate that made me feel I was being patronised, as if Winterson wrote this book thinking it would be jolly good fun to slum it. 

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