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on 19 September 2012
Living near Pendle and having a keen interest in the history of the witch trials, I was very excited to hear about this book. I thought that a well respected writer would do a good job of re-telling the story, but I was to be very disappointed. To say that the book is based on fact is utterly misleading. The names used are the names of real people, and yes, the places are too, but that's where any research into the subject matter ends. On the 400th anniversary of the trial, there has been a call to pardon these people for the so called crimes they committed and in a more enlightened age we understand that the evidence brought against them was unreliable at best. We also know that they were not witches, but possibly Catholics practising "the old faith" as with Alice Nutter, or desperately poor , destitute and disabled women hated and feared for their differences. To suggest that they really were witches and to give them such degrading attributes (brothel keeper, for instance) is downright disrepectful to them. Had it been the 40th anniversary instead of the 400th, relatives would be suing.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the story isn't really any good. It isn't scary, haunting or chilling as it lacks atmosphere, which is quite an achievement when writing about a place so rich with it. The characters are one dimensional and the Shakespeare cameo is frankly a naff attempt to demonstrate the link between the real life witch trials and the playwright's efforts to please the king by writing plays that would appeal to his interest in the supernatural (Macbeth, The Tempest). When I saw the extracts lifted straight from Shakespeare, I imagined the character from Little Britain who is only interested in her word count.
I have previously enjoyed Ms Winterson's writing style, but this book felt clumsy and childish with its overuse of simple sentences. There are also proofreading errors, which together with the poor story, scant research and short length of the book make it feel like a rush job either to squeeze some cash out of the 400th anniversary market, or else Ms Winterson had an unexpected bill to pay off.
It doesn't work as an insight into the witch trials, Robert Neill's Mist Over Pendle does a far better job, nor does it really work as a horror story independent of the Pendle story. One to avoid.
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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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on 26 August 2015
Having grown up around Pendle and with the story of the Lancashire witches part of my heritage I find Jeanette Winterson's telling of the tale both disappointing and offensive. The only character I could sympathise with was that of Jane Southworth and found the antics of some of the other characters both ridiculous and risible. Far better to read Robert Neill's fictionalisation of the tale.
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on 7 July 2016
The Daylight Gate is full of mystery and gothic creepiness. Winterson is not one of my favourite writers but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The Daylight Gate is written by an author I could really fall for. I really enjoyed the witchcraft elements and the fact the book is inspired by the real life Pendle Witch Trials. Winterson admits that she has taken liberties with the actual story which is fine and something authors have been doing for centuries. I’m not familiar with the Pendle Witch Trials so have no idea how close or how different this book is. I enjoyed it. Winterson writes gorgeous prose which is a delight to read. The plot isn’t the best and there are some flaws: I was disturbed by the group sex scene shoe-horned in for no discernible reason. I didn’t understand the need to constantly refer to a young child being raped especially when the rapist is later revealed to be her father. I enjoyed some aspects of the plot: Alice discovering that one of the women she lets live on her land for free is a ‘bad’ witch and very dangerous. The flashbacks to Alice’s life and the revelations about her youthful appearance. The Daylight Gate doesn’t work on every level and is essentially a literary author trying to write genre fiction which is hard to pull off. I’ve read much better books and much worse.
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Alice Nutter was one of the so called Pendle Witches and the author freely admits in the beginning of this book that she has changed Alice's role. She wasn't that wealthy but differed from the other accused by being fairly well off by virtue of her late husband being a Yeoman Farmer. Whether she owned the land on which Malkin tower stood is unknown. She certainly sympathised with the recusants though and is this is probably what caused her untimely end.

The story centres around the Witches of Malkin Tower, the Mouldheels and the Demdikes and some of their kin who were already in Lancaster gaol awaiting their fate at the Assizes.

James the Ist rules the country and is terrified of Witches and Papists and it would seem that his followers like the Magistrate and the local law man Potts, are much the same.

Alice harbours a well known 'Recusant' and this is her undoing when the Magistrate searches her rooms and finds a crucifix on her bed. In early times, Alice had been friends with John Dee and he foretold how she would die..........she is not about to let this happen and this brings the book to a rather good conclusion. This is certainly artistic license on behalf of the author.

Whether these women really were in league with the Devil and had such power is very unlikely but it makes for a good story as does the description of the manner of tortures that were contrived to make either Witches confess or Recusants to convert.

I couldn't give it 5 stars because it was too short I do think however, it would make a really good horror film.
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on 6 July 2013
A short book – too short. The author has based the book on the Lancashire witches’ trials in the early 17th century. She doesn’t do justice to the subject, which has serious social, religious, judicial and political elements. She wallows in the stench, obscenity, and superstition around witches and popery of that era. The story encompasses paedophilia, incest, prostitution, promiscuity, abuse, sodomy, lesbianism, superstition, torture, orgies, - all described in prurient, gory detail, although the storyline is slight, the plot almost non-existent, and the characters ill-defined. If the book has any merit, apart from its brevity, it does bring home the appalling medieval attitudes towards so-called witches and clandestine Catholics, bracketing them together as agents of Satan. Don’t bother to buy it – but if you’ve nothing better to do, you can whip through it in about 3 hours, so not too much of your life is wasted!
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on 3 December 2013
This book was a great disappointment. It is poorly written and the wallowing in cruelty, violence and extreme poverty seems gratuitous and insincere. The characters are poorly drawn and the narrative construction is confusing. Any political point about the persecution of poor, isolated women is lost with the invitation to the reader to accept the possibility of magic and witchcraft.
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on 23 January 2013
The Daylight Gate
An interesting but difficult read, not for the delicate of stomach. It is the first time I have ever read any of Jeanette Winterson's work - but certainly not the last - and certainly I hope to do more factual research into the facts of the people involved, charges and trial of the Pendle Witches. It did muse me to see how many of the names are used by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in 'Good Omens'!
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on 28 November 2013
I very rarely give a book one star, but I found the violence and abuse in this quite sickening. I skipped several passages about torture because they were so unpleasant to read. I know that it was a dark and cruel time but I was unsure of the motive for including so much abuse in this book, the incest and child abuse was a step too far.
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on 12 November 2012
I was disappointed in the book - it just seemed a regurgitation of the known facts with a bit of unnecessary and gratuitous sex... a shame as this is a good writer with a fascinating subject!
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