I neglected this blog over Halloween, so here’s a queer horror review to make up for my absence.
The Daylight Gate was recently re-released by Windmill Books, so I decided to re-read it over Halloween. I first picked it up a few years ago in the local library and I remember being surprised by how bleak and nasty it was, but now I’ve read more of Winterson and revisited this one with my eyes open, I got a lot more from it. The grimness comes from the poverty and degradation on display, from human beings forced to extreme lengths to survive, resorting to dangerous pacts in a desperate bid for power. Or sometimes for love. There’s a spikey combination of realism and sinister magic that shines a light on the impossibly precarious position of women and outsiders at the time, with James I’s agents on the hunt, to cries of “Witchery Popery Popery Witchery.” But it’s not a story of helpless victims. The characters, for better or worse, each try to take their fate into their own hands; they’re often stubborn, mistaken, perverse and deluded, but most have a fierce will. It’s transgressive in a way that’s deeply unsettling. There’s little comfort on offer here, but it’s hard to look away.
1612, Pendle Hill, Lancashire. A poor, desperate rabble gather for what locals suspect is a dark sabbat. And then there’s wealthy, respectable Alice Nutter, who protects them on her land, who allows them to live in squalor in the notorious Malkin Tower. What’s the connection between Alice and the suspected witches? And with King James’s hunters on the prowl, why will she risk everything to protect them?
Winterson takes the real-life Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire as a jumping off point, from which she spins a story of horror and ill-fated love. For people looking for a dignified portrayal of witchcraft, or even for historical accuracy, this isn’t that book (nor is it trying to be), and I’ve noticed that’s upset some people. For a speculative exploration of desperation and devilry, this is a powerful tale and one that lingers in all its disturbing goriness. There are elements of folk horror mixed with subtle and not-so-subtle Satanism, with a sprinkling of alchemical magic.
There are plenty of twists in this tightly plotted short novel and enough mystery that I’m wary of giving any more details away. Some of the pleasure of reading The Daylight Gate is in the ways the story challenges and plays with perceptions of characters, their power relations and their motives. Although reading it a second time, aware of many of those twists, I still appreciated that progression.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was the first queer fiction I ever read and, I’m sure like many people, that gives me a soft spot for Jeannette Winterson, even though I don’t like all her writing. This was originally written as part of a series commissioned by Hammer Horror and it’s fascinating to see what happens when Winterson fully embraces the horror genre. For me, it’s a success. Not what I was expecting when I first read it, but on a second read, a rich and disturbing tale of power and the lack of it, of obsessive love and desperation. As a northerner (albeit from the other side of the Pennines) the dark mythologising of the North (of England) was an added bonus for me.
Read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge. Content warning for rape, incest and child abuse (I don’t always give these for horror reviews, but it’s particularly stark in this story, though not glorified).