Firstly, this book needed/needs more publicity. What’s going on Random House? It was published in August and I came across it by chance – and it’s Jeanette Winterson! Jeanette bloody Winterson! AND it’s published in association with Hammer, who are super famous for their classic horror films (and a few more modern things too). You’d think more of a fuss would have been made. Fair enough it’s not standard Winterson fare (although she does manage to squeeze in some lesbianism) but still – more publicity needed!
The Daylight Gate is part of Hammer’s work with Arrow Publishing, part of Random House, to help the classic horror brand reach a new audience through literature and already-famous writers. The endpage in The Daylight Gate states that ‘Hammer is back, and its new incarnation is the home of cool, stylish and provocative stories which aim to push audiences out of their comfort zones.’ Aside from use of the word ‘cool’, this sounds promising. While I’m a total wimp when it comes to proper nasty horror, I like thrillers and a bit of suspense and creepiness in both movies and books, so this ‘new incarnation’ of Hammer is something I can get on board with. Besides, I’d personally much rather read a horror novel than watch a horror movie; but that’s just me.
Now, I don’t know the details of how Winterson came to join in with this Hammer revival and actually write The Daylight Gate. Perhaps she’s always liked horror, but she certainly seems to have an interest in her subject matter – the Lancashire witch trials of 1612. They are the ‘best-documented’ witch trials in our history and are surrounded by rumour and legend. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was a notorious spot for witches, with its standing stones still in place today.
Winterson takes real life figures and creates her own story with them, postulating what might have really happened before and during the trials. In her introduction she states that her versions of these people, particularly Alice Nutter, are not the figures of history but her imaginings of them. She does use real events such as the meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday of the Device family and their friends. This meeting is the catalyst for the trials and the story goes from there, as the alleged witches plot to somehow win, and the wealthy Alice Nutter tries to avoid the situation but ultimately cannot avoid getting involved. Initially this is because Malkin Tower is on her land and she is knowingly letting the Devices use it – but then she herself is accused of witchcraft.
Stephanie Merritt’s review for The Observer stated that the more terrifying aspects of The Daylight Gate are the scenes taken from real life – or at least those that are more plausible – than the demonic witchiness. Merritt writes that
the social realism sits uneasily alongside the supernatural elements: a severed head that speaks, or the appearances of the mysterious Dark Gentleman … The story is at its least convincing in these moments, as if the truth of why women were accused of witchcraft – because they did not conform to convention – can’t be reconciled with the demands of the horror genre. The description of a prisoner being skinned alive has a far more chilling effect here than the appearance of an animated corpse, because it is true.
I agree. However that’s not to say that the supernatural parts of the story are not good or believable in the context of the story. It is just that they are somehow less affecting to the reader – while the image of a talking severed head and the grisly description of someone else’s severed tongue being sown into it is certainly upsetting, it is so extreme that the reality of it does not hit home in the same way as the image of lawmen taking advantage of their status to humiliate, beat, and rape a woman they have decided is a witch.
My only real problem with The Daylight Gate was the writing. It is well-established that Winterson is an excellent storyteller and I’ve always liked her style of writing before; but at certain moments in this novel the writing failed. There are moments of typical Winterson brilliance, and the overall structure of the story is excellent; but there are too many moments when Winterson seems to be relying on the fact that she is a good writer and not really trying to make the book as good as it can be.
That said I really did enjoy The Daylight Gate and wished it were longer – I blasted through it in two days! I would definitely be interested to see what else the partnership between Hammer and Arrow produces, and whether Winterson decides to return to horror.
The Daylight Gate was published in the UK on 16th August 2012 by Hammer and Arrow Publishing, part of the Random House Group.