As Winterson notes in her introduction, “The Trial of the Lancashire Witches, 1612, is the most famous of the English witch trials.” For her characters — Alice Nutter, Mother Demdike, magistrate Roger Nowell and others — she draws on the contemporary account of Thomas Potts, author of “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire.” Some readers may recall that this document also served as the basis for “The Lancashire Witches,” a once-celebrated 19th-century novel by W. Harrison Ainsworth.
Yet that book, though powerful, is garrulous and long-winded, while “The Daylight Gate” proffers a series of short, sharp shocks. It opens on Pendle Hill, one of the most haunted sites in England:
“The hill itself is low and massy, flat-topped, brooding, disappeared in mists, treacherous with bogs, run through with fast-flowing streams plunging into waterfalls crashing down into unknown pools. Underfoot is the black rock that is the spine of this place.
“Sheep graze. Hares stand like question marks.
“There are no landmarks for the traveller. Too early or too late the mist closes in. Only a fool or one who has dark business should cross Pendle at night.”
Nonetheless, late one afternoon a fat peddler named John Law is taking a shortcut through Pendle Forest near what they call Boggart’s Hole. He is hurrying along because the light has begun to thin and fade. “Soon it would be dusk; the liminal hour — the Daylight Gate. He did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.” But suddenly, Law is confronted by Alizon Device, who asks for a kiss, followed by her “grand-dam” Old Demdike, who begins to curse him. Frightened, Law runs to the inn at Newchurch in Pendle, where he collapses, dying, while holding up three fingers and murmuring a single word: “Demdike.”
In due course, the local authorities round up some — but not all — of the Demdike clan and throw them into the Well Dungeon of Lancaster Castle. In that hellhole, the jailer regularly rapes the younger women, who are grateful that he first allows them to wash up a little. Are the prisoners, as one suspects, simply scapegoats, victims of the period’s rabid fear of sorcery? Are they nothing more than deluded, hungry peasants?
That’s what Alice
, one of the region’s richest landowners, maintains. “Such women are poor,” she tells the well-meaning magistrate, Roger Nowell. “They are ignorant. They have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs. I have sympathy for them.” As the only benefactor of the Demdikes, Alice allows the family to squat in the decaying Malkin Tower on her land. Alice, herself, knows what it is to be poor. But, long ago, she created a deep magenta dye that took the fancy of Queen Elizabeth and earned her a fortune. Still surprisingly youthful and beautiful, Alice is widely respected, and Roger Nowell is clearly smitten with her. Nonetheless, there is something mysterious about her past.
Besides being a reputed haven for witches, Lancashire in those days was also a recusant Catholic stronghold. To Potts, King James’s government agent, sorcery and popery naturally travel hand in hand. He yearns to capture the Lancashire-born Christopher Southworth, who participated in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament but somehow managed to escape after fearful torture and mutilation. To this end, Potts throws Christopher’s sister Jane into the dungeon with the Demdikes, hoping that her renegade Catholic brother will return from Europe and try to rescue her. Witches and papists — what’s the difference? They should all be hanged or burned at the stake.
Up to this point, the reader of “The Daylight Gate” is gripped by the realistic horrors and brutality Winterson describes. With the exception of the magistrate, only Alice speaks up for tolerance, clear-thinking and charity. None of this witchcraft nonsense for her, right? Right? But what, then, of the elixir that she rubs regularly on her skin? What of the falcon that comes to her when she whistles? What of her association, years before, with the alchemist Dr. John Dee and the strange mirror she then created? What, above all, of the letter she treasures from the medium Edward Kelley, the letter that reads, “And if thou callest him, like unto an angel of the north wearing a dark costume, he will hear thee and come to thee. Yet meet him where he may be met — at the Daylight Gate.”
Is Alice herself a witch, then — and even, as the youngest Demdike proclaims, “the most powerful of them all”?
Throughout “The Daylight Gate,” Winterson plays several sorts of peekaboo with the reader. Witchcraft is obviously just superstition — but then it works. Alice obviously possesses an elixir of youth — or maybe she simply eats right and takes good care of herself. Unlike Elizabeth Southern, the gorgeous woman she loved when she was younger, Alice categorically refuses to sign away her soul to the devil. At the same time, she also loves, and is loved by, Christopher, who has become a Jesuit priest. Alice’s life, like those of our modern superheroes, is complicated.
Halfway through “The Daylight Gate,” Alice attends a special performance of “The Tempest” at Hoghton Tower. There she meets its author, now retired, who offers her some advice: “I have written,” says Shakespeare, “about other worlds often enough. I have said what I can say. There are many kinds of reality. This is but one kind.” He then “stretched out his hands to indicate the walls, carpets, tapestries and stuffs around him” before adding: “But, Mistress, do not be seen to stray too far from the real that is clear to others, or you may stand accused of the real that is clear to you.”
This is enigmatic, even for the Bard. But Winterson neatly shifts back and forth among various “realities” throughout “The Daylight Gate.” Yet she never tries to dazzle the reader, keeping her sentences sober, precise and solemnly beautiful as the novel moves along with a steady relentlessness. Will a desperate Alice finally take “the Left-Hand Path”? From the beginning, one naturally foresees a sad ending — the historical record is there, after all — and yet the book closes on quite a different note.
Throughout, Alice remains as admirable as she is dauntless: At least twice she thwarts the Dark Gentleman, and she is willing to face torture and worse to rescue her beloved Elizabeth from damnation and to save Christopher from the powers of this world. Even if today were not Halloween, “The Daylight Gate” would still be what it magnificently is: utterly spellbinding.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.