How Gruesome Does A Realisic Account Have To Be? – On Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2012)

A visit to a book shop on Friday evening led me to Jeannette Winterson’s latest book The Daylight Gate. It was in the fantasy section and from the description I gathered it was a book on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, the most famous of the English witch trials. Why this book was in the fantasy section wasn’t entirely clear to me as witch trials are a historical fact and hardly fantastic. Maybe it was because of the way it was written?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of the trials of witches. Interested and horrified. And I often pick up novels on the subject. In the past I’ve read Eveline Hasler’s amazing but untranslated Anna Göldin. Letzte Hexe (Anna Göldin. Last Witch) on the last witch trial in Switzerland, in 1782. The way the book was told is amazing because it reads like an old trial report. It’s sober and very impersonal which created an eerie feeling of realism. Maryse Condé chose an entirely different approach for her I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem – Moi Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem. That’s a novel I didn’t only find fascinating but really loved. It’s tragic but beautiful as well. A third novel which many people like but I found dry and unappealing was Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity.

I was keen to find out how Jeanette Winterson would treat this subject. It seems that content-wise The Daylight Gate is very close to Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was said to be the home of witches. While there may be a similarity content-wise, there certainly is none in the execution.

Maybe the fact that it was in the fantasy section misled me. While I didn’t expect a fantasy novel as such, I most certainly wasn’t prepared for something this gruesome. This was by far the most gruesome book I’ve ever read. It’s really not for the faint of heart and it literally made me sick. For someone who is used to read accounts on war this is an intense reaction and it really made me wonder if the book had to be this gruesome to be realistic? Witches are frequent figures in fantasy novels and fairy tales. They can be black or white but some romantic ideas may often be tied to them. Maybe Jeanette Winterson wanted to prevent any idealization or romantic notions. While there are a few instances of magic in the novel – mostly linked to the figures of John Dee and Edward Kelley – the focus is on fanaticism. There is nothing romantic in women and men being persecuted by zealots. Women and Catholics alike were hunted by King James’ henchmen. King James, a fervent  and fanatic protestant, who believed he was attacked by witches, hunted and executed numerous men and women. And had them tortured. And this is the gruesome part, as the torture scenes are described in great detail.

Not only are we served detailed descriptions of torture but of incest and rape as well. Children are sold to their own father. Many a poor woman’s only chance at survival is to sell her body. Often they received not only food but many negative things in exchange. They got pregnant or contracted a disease. The scenes in the dungeons are hard to take as well. The dirt, the festering and oozing wounds, the stink…

To call the world of The Daylight Gate bleak would be an understatement. This is a dark, very dark and disturbing book. Finishing it felt like coming up for air after having been under water and deprived of oxygen.

Was there anything to like in this book?  Yes, I liked the story of Alice Nutter, a rich woman who acquired her fortune through the invention of a magenta dye. An independent and strong woman. Beautiful and free. She was convicted together with 12 other women and men. She seems to serve as proof that it wasn’t about witchcraft but that at the core of those trials was hatred. Hatred against poor people and women.

While I see why Jeannette Winterson chose this approach, I’m not sure it had to be this gruesome. A little less show but tell would have been my preference here. If we had read “He was emasculated” would we not have gotten the picture? Did we need to read how it was done in a page long, detailed description? We get a full blow. No room for romantic notions here, fanaticism and ugliness are laid bare.

To be honest, I could have done without reading this. As well written as it was, as much as I was fascinated by the story of Alice Nutter, I cannot understand how a writer can let loose such utter ugliness. If you know and like Jeanette Winterson, just bear in mind, this might be her most disturbing work.

What do you think? How gruesome should a realistic account of torture and pain be?

59 thoughts on “How Gruesome Does A Realisic Account Have To Be? – On Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2012)

  1. Thanks for the review, Caroline. I’m a big Jeanette Winterson fan, but this doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy. I may decide to give it a try at some point, but it’s nice to have the heads-up about what to expect.

    • You’re welcome, Janet. I finished it any way but it wasn’t badly written and I wanted to read her interpretation of the case especially why Alce Nutter, was sentenced as well but it was very hard to read.
      I’m sure, as sad as it is, it’s realistic.

  2. I know Jeanette Winterson only from Ally’s praise and she always tells me I should read her, but her stories always seem a bit weird to me. Anyway, I have never read anything by her and I have never read about witch trials as I dislike reading about violence in general (not reading war literature or thrillers etc. either). Probably a lot of people would agree to what you say, but, to be honest, if she wanted to get her point across, she chose to do the right thing.

    No, I don’t think that saying “he was emasculated” would have made us get the picture. This is just a word and it does not tell us what was done to that man. OK, we KNOW what that means, but we do not feel the pain when we hear that. We only feel the pain when she shows it to us.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to read that, but IF you want to read about what was going on at the time and about what people are able to do to each other, this is probably the way to go. If you can stomach it, that is. I couldn’t.

    • I have read one or two of her other books but they were very different.
      She certainly strips the topic of all romantic notions which it most certainly didn’t have. It was an awful and one of the worst periods in history. Reading it there is not escaping the horror of it and maybe you are right, maybe that was the way to go. It was too much for me but it’s realistic and as close as you can get to be a witness of something like that.
      Maybe we would really not get it if it wasn’t described as drastically. I’m not sure.

    • Some pictures have been bothering me since I’ve read the book…
      I think she writes well and I’m reading her memoir at the moment “Why Be Happy….” It put me in the mood for some fiction of her but this was too horrible for me.

  3. There are two books that I read over the last few years that also described unbelievable true life cases of torture and sadism. They were Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World and Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. Both of these books described incidents that went way beyond even the typical horrors of war type of account.

    Both of these books troubled me deeply. In some ways I wish I had never read them. I too became nearly sick at times when reading these books. However, I think it is also important that we learn just how bad humans beings are capable if behaving. The things people have done is beyond imagining. I know that this is a work of fiction but it seems as if Wintersone is attempting to cover similar territory.

    A note about romanticizing these terrible events, I live in New York about 150 miles from Salem, Massachusetts. It irks me to no end when I hear people say that they want to or intend visit Salem for Halloween for a “spooky” experience.

    • I like fanatsy novels wit witches but I make a huge difference between that and the fairy tale image and the true witch trials. There was nothing romantic about those nd I really believe that’s what she wanted to prevent, that some reads her book and gets a nice little shiver. I can understand your annoyance with the Salem Halloween tourists.
      I’m really in two minds about gruesome accounts. I might not read the two you mention. Anna Göldin for example is really not gruesome but it’s an account which upset me a lot. On the other hand, Winterson wanted to show that not only witches but Catholic priests as well were persecuted and a lot of the torture and the horrors at the time had a sexual nature. A reaction to repression.

      • I too like supernatural and fantasy books and find the mythical witch is a fascinating concept. I definitely agree that we are talking about something very different here.

        • Entirely different. that’s why I was surprsied to see this book in the fantasy section and a bit intrigued because I thought it would be a first for her. It was a first maybe but i sure isn’t fantasy. Adding a few magical elemnst doesn’t make a book fantasy in my opinion. No, it’s unpleasantly realistic.

  4. Very interesting read. I don’t like reading something that is just too graphic, I don’t feel there’s a need for it and it makes me think (rightly or wrongly) that the author is simply being sensationalist without any real need for it. It troubles me that an author has spent time and effort researching such acts in order to write them. I wouldn’t like these images implanted in my memory. The memory is so powerful and can store images for a lifetime, there are some images you don’t want in there.

    John Connolly’s previous book was The Burning Soul. He said at a discussion event that one of the things he wanted to achieve with the book was to make any violence more ‘suggested’ than actually described. It worked well. There’s one particular scene where the writing suggests a particularly violent event is going to take place, but it is suggested and clearly implied rather than explicitly described. It worked well because although I felt a great degree of unease at what I knew was going to happen, I didn’t have to read it described in great detail. The horror was in the suggestion rather than the detail and I still felt the force of the crime.

    I think Jeanette Winterson operates in that ‘slightly weird’ territory generally. In that category maybe she feels the need for experimentation that goes a bit too far at times.

    Thanks for article 🙂

    • Thanks, SomewhereAmazing. It’s very interesting what you write about John Connolly’s approach. I have a hard time with fiction like Jeanette Winterson’s which is this graphic. i have to force myself to not think of what I read anynmore. I feel she overdid it. I know she can be quite provocative, challenging but I didn’t expect anything this gruesome. I’m not sure she aims at sensationalism but it is hard to imagine she didn’t intend to shock.
      Of course one could say, why did I read this book but for a start I’m interested in history and fanaticism, I believe there is a lesson to be learned in writing and reading about such things but i still belive as well, one could handle it in a different way. I hope this will not be made into a movie.

  5. I have never tried to read anything written by Jeanette Winterson – for some reason I assumed she did lighter books. Deciding how graphic a book should be is a tough one. In books based around true events I don’t mind being shown the true horror of what occured, but in pure fiction/fantasy I am less tolerant. As long as the reader is warned then they can make their own choice about whether or not to read it. Thanks for the warning – I don’t want to read it!

    • She is a very literary writer, a stylist and quite interesting. I’m half way into her memoir and it’s terrific as well.
      One problem I had is that the book comes with no warning other than that it is published by Hammer. But Helen Dunmore’s The Great Coat is also published by Hammer and I don’t think it is gruesome. Curiosity kills the cat…I’m a dead kitty now. 🙂

  6. If a book is too graphic for me, I have to put it down. My imagination is pretty vivid, so all the writer has to do is suggest what’s going to happen. I too don’t want gruesome images in my memory forever. Perhaps the writer was tired of all the romanticizing of witches and wanted to set the record straight. With a vengeance.

  7. I agree with you completely, Caroline! I don’t know if I would have been able to finish the book.

    I don’t feel that gruesome details add to the storytelling – whether they be in novels, movies or any other art form. I much more prefer the Hitchcock method. I didn’t need to see Norman Bates kill the girl in the shower in Psycho. Just the shadow on the curtain in enough for me to understand.

    Also, as a writer I think it takes away from the reader’s opportunity to imagine the scene in his/her own mind.

    • I would like to read an intreview with her and hear why sche chose this approach.
      I agree the PSycho scene is quite scray and we don’t actually see much.
      All I know is, it doesn’t happen to me often that I feel really sick when reading something but it happened here.

  8. I’ve only read Winterson’s mythic re-tellings, which I liked. But think I’ll skip this one. I find the tendency to concentrate on gratuitous, gruesome, graphic details an unpleasant one in many novels. Grrr.

    I enjoyed Mist Over Pendleton–it does take a good bit of freedom with the historical information, but for an interesting witchy novel it makes good reading.

  9. Can you give me a quote of how gruesome it was? if not here maybe in Twitter’s dirrect message.

    I am really curious about it, not in eager fashion way, it’s more like is it really that gruesome??

    King often wrote gruesome stuff in some of his books, like in Cell, a man ripped off his dog’s ear by biting it…but that man is already turned into a zombie. And you also know that I sometimes wrote gruesome short stories. The level of gruesomeness in that book really makes me curious.

    • King writes another kind of gruesome. I can’t really send you anything via twitter, they are long passages. In one she describes in great detail how a woman is raped what they do to her and how she then brips out the tongue of an aggressor with her teeth but that was the least gruesome. The castration was really bad. That’s as explicit as I can get here. It was detailed and horrifc especially since we know it’s true.

  10. Too much straining for effect, I feel. Less really can be more. I loved all her early novels, and really enjoyed her recent memoir. But quite a few of her recent novels haven’t worked so well for me. I feel she has trouble getting the right balance of elements in her writing at times, particularly when she doesn’t let her humour play a role.

    • I can assure you there is zero humour in this one.
      I bought the memor after you reviewed it and really like it but I will stay away form her novesl for a while or read something older.

  11. Sorry I’m late at reading posts at the moment.
    I’m happy that you wrote about something I don’t want to read,, it’s good for my book pile. 🙂
    Seriously, I prefer when the violence is implicit but then you need to be an excellent writer for the reader to really understand how violent, painful it was

    • I know some people choose to not review what they didn’t like but I feel with a book like that which just came out, it’s quite important. It had interesting elemenst but thy were just historical facts. Other tan that, she over did it.

  12. I’ve got this one on request at the library. Interesting debate on the level of violence – I have no problem with violent content (other than finding it disturbing, of course) unless either a) it tips into being shock-value gratuitous or b) seems to be catering to a seedy, ‘torture porn’ taste.

    Easier for me to illustrate my thoughts with films: I steer clear of films such as Hostel (2005 horror) but loved Snowtown, based on real-life Australian serial killings. The violence explicitly shown in Snowtown is appalling, but, I would argue, absolutely necessary. Importantly, the moments are carefully chosen and serve the film and story. It’s a fine line, difficult to get right. Context is crucial.

    Really interesting to read Brian Joseph’s comments on the Salem tourists, too. I dislike the ‘spooky’ romanticising of ugly events more than a graphic depiction of them. Same, in a different, glamourising vein, with some books & films about the Mafia, for example. And that weird pride some locals take in the ‘No Mean City’ violence of Glasgow, where I’m from.

    • I hope we can discuss it once you’ve read it. It will be interesting. I’m sure she wanted to avoid romanticising.
      I have less of a problem with gruesome in movies for some reasons. I find that nothing I see in a movie can quite equal the horrors I can conjure up in my head. I’ve not seen Snowtown but it might be something I’d like to watch.
      I wouldn’t say the descriptions were gratuitous in Winterson’s case but it was ambiguous.
      I didn’t know that about Glasgow. Interesting.

  13. Totally know what you mean about conjuring up the horrors, it’s really unsettling! I’ll make a point of commenting here once I’ve read The Daylight Gate, would love to discuss it with you. Might be several weeks before the library system deposits it at my local branch (I’m in a bit of a queue).

      • Hi Caroline, the library finally delivered this to me! My copy’s due back tomorrow night, did my usual thing and left it to the last minute to read it.

        I agree that the violence is shocking in this book, although I didn’t find it as distasteful as you – -understandably – did.

        You’ve mentioned that it seemed out of place given your expectations for a horror book and I actually think this is the single major problem with The Daylight Gate. It doesn’t seem to know what it is. For example, it doesn’t have the suspense and pace I’d expect from genre horror or ghost stories such as the Paver and Hill tales we discussed over at my blog.

        In the end, its staccato, short-chapter style felt more like a collage of fictionalised history (which in the foreword we are advised is not written in a spirit of accuracy, unlike, say, Mantel’s Wolf Hall) than a tightly written, unsettling book. It felt too light, punctuated by shocking, grotesque scenes which seemed foregrounded because of the slightness of the rest of the book. I did enjoy some of Winterson’s writing and the weird, northern england landscape, but that wasn’t enough for me. Makes me want to check out her other stuff to see what she can do in more fully fleshed works.

        I basically agree with what Danuta Kean says in her review for the Independent (easily Googled, didn’t want to put link here in case WordPress hid my comment!)

        • Thanks, Eva, for getting back on this one, I was rally curious to hear another opinion and I’m glad you found the violence shocking as well.
          But, as you say, if it hadn’t been in the fantasy section of the book store, I would maybe have been prepared and less disturbed – or rather – I wouldn’t have read it at all.
          She was in the past a brilliant writer and a lot of it shimmers through in this novel but overall, I would call this a failure.
          I was too much under shock to see how light the other parts really are but you’re certainly right.
          Thanks for mentioning the review. I’ll have a look.

  14. This looks like a pretty scary book, Caroline. I don’t think I will read it. But glad to know that you found a silver lining in it – the story of Alice Nutter. I will try to read more about her. It is sad the way people have used religion to make innocent people suffer.

    • No, I don’t think you should read it. I can’t imagine you would like it. I’d like to know more about Alce Nutter too. She sounds like a remarkable woman but that’s probably what cost her her life. It’s incredibly sad what was done to people in the name of religion.

  15. This sounds very ‘in your face’ which I am not sure I would do well with. I like subtlety, and this doesn’t sound at all subtle. I have only read one of Winterson’s books–Sexing the Cherry, which I liked, and I’d like to read more–though I think I’ll stick to what’s already on my own shelves. My library recently bought a number of her books, but I didn’t see this one come across my desk–it sounds quite different than her other works.

    • You wouldn’t like this and I really still don’t know why it had to be his gruesome. It still makes me sick, when I think back…
      I’d like to read more of her earlier novels too. I think you’d like her memoir.

  16. I think that it’s sometimes necessary to write these stories and to try and make them as realistic and detailed as possible to show and tell exactly what happened and what human beings are capable of doing to each other. It’s definitely not nice to read about – but this is a book about the witch trials, it shouldn’t be nice because they weren’t nice. I can’t say if this is too graphic since I haven’t read it and I certainly have read books that were difficult to read because of them being very explicit about things. A commenter above said that she didn’t mind as much when it was based on real life and I think I agree. I don’t read book versions of Saw for instance – but I read about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or slavery or torture and I actually think this book sounds really interesting. Although you certainly have to be in the right mood for books like this…

    • I’m really in two minds about this. While I agree witch trials shouldn’t be romanticized I would still say there is graphic and graphic. I still think if she had mentioned the atrocities without describing them in so many details I would have been affected but not shocked. To me it was too graphic and I do not say that very often. I haven’t read a lot of reviews of the book so far. I would really be interested to know what others think of it. Still … It is an interesting book. If I had been warned, my reaction might alos have been different.

      • But isn’t it okay sometimes to be shocked? I mean, we live such easy and pleasant lives most of us that I think we can forget how life have been before – and how cruel we can be to each other.

        • In a way, yes. I suppose I just really didn’t see it coming in this book. As for a sheltered life… I grew up with a veteran father who told me quite explicit and gruesome stories of torture he had to watch being done to comrades. Reading the book triggered my memories of this and it made me really quite sick.

          • Well, maybe that’s it then. The book as such may not be too much but it triggered something in you that was very unpleasant. And yeah, if you didn’t expect it – and I can see how you didn’t when you found it in the fantasy section – and then you suddenly find yourself reading nasty details about torture and witch burning, it gets even worse.

              • I just read an interview with Joyce Carol Oates (one of my favorite writers) and I think this quote is interesting in this context:
                “Q: In 1981 you wrote a short essay for the New York Times in response to so many readers asking you why your writing is violent. You said: “Since it is commonly understood that serious writers, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists, take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist.”

                I agree with you, and I have to wonder: Over 30 years later, do you still get asked that same question?

                JCO’s answer: Yes! It’s such a silly, naive question. There is the pretense that history hasn’t been a sequence of bloody wars and that it’s an aberration of some sort in a writer or artist who perceives the obvious fact that there is indeed “violence” in the world — which is to say, in the human heart. Worse, there is the pretense that women are so delicate, so hypersensitive, so feminine, that we can’t confront adult subjects like war, politics, exploration, science, the law …”

                • This is interesting for many reasosn. I reviewed “Rape” not long ago (she is one of my favorite writers as well) and it has graphic elemenst but they do not seem gratuituous at all and while reading Winterson I was thinking of Rape and my conclusion was that it was a very different way of treating violence and while I thought the way JCO did it was importnat, I felt Winterson had overdone it. The debate on the JCO post was interesting. Not everyone approved of the title. I disagree. I think the title has an important message. I’d be relly interested to hear how you would feel about The Daylight Gate.

                  • Oh, it’s been too long since I’ve read Rape to enter any discussion of it. Maybe I should find time to read both Rape and The Dayleigh Gate…! I think JCO often includes violence in her books but you never shy away from it, it’s not written in a way that makes your toes curl because it’s so horrific. I remember reading Gerald’s Game by Stephen King many years ago and it had a couple of pages where the main character has to get out of handcuffs. It took me a week to read those pages… I still think that if violence has a place in the story, it’s okay for it to be gruesome – but still, I hate Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (and I do understand why it is that way). Hm… Am I talking myself in to a corner now???

                    • The very first book which reminded me of American Psycho in its absolutely graphic way to deal with violence was – The Daylight Gate. It would really be interesting to read what you think of it.
                      I rember that there were comments regarding the title Rape. Some thought it was sensationalist. I thought it made perfect sense even whit the addition of A Love Story. There is no pretty way to write about rape. I found she did a great job, the book is amazing. I don’t do too well with violence in horror novels.

                    • Hm. It’s been years since I tried to read American Psycho – and failed miserably. I stopped the second he hurt the beggar’s dog. And yeah, it would be really interesting to actually read the book and see how it is. I just read your review of Rape – it makes me want to reread it. Have you read We Were the Mulvaneys? Amazing book – dealing with the same subject and how if influence a family.

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  18. I was at an event last night where Mark Billingham was talking about the violence in his Thorne detective series. Apparently as he grows older, more mature and, he feels, a better writer, he sees less need to include blow-by-blow accounts of everything that happens. I’ve seen him quoted elsewhere as saying that a single spot of blood on a white floor can be as shocking as a room bathed in the stuff. I’d sooner go with his take on violence than Winterson’s!

    • That must have been an interesting event. I agree, little can be more. I think it’s important in this context to show that witch trials were horrible but I feel she could have done it without being this graphic.
      It’s interesting that Billingham moves away from being a graphic writer.

      • In some ways it’s the same when watching a film. A director can convey what’s happened without showing every detail – or go the opposite way and show every little (faked) moment. At least a cinema audience can shut its eyes – tricky to scan down a page and pick up after the gruesome bit!

        • That’s exactly what I’m thinking because for some reason I do better with graphic depictions in movies. It seems my imagination is too vivid and one never knows where to stop with abook, where exactly the gruesome bit ends. I will have to do some research and see if I find other reviews of the Winterson. I cannot imagine I’m the only one who foud it too gruesome.

          • I’ve now read The Daylight GAte and TBH didn’t find it all that horrific. A lot of the violence seemed to be presented from the pov of the perpetrator not the victim – which made it very cold and callous. I was rather disappointed with the story overall as I’d expected something more historical, less fantasy.
            By coincidence I was asked yesterday by OH to read a childrens’ book that he’s struggling with – a tale of snot and bogies and general disgustingness – and like him I found it too revolting to continue!

            • That doesn’t sound like a children’s book to recommend.
              Well, I had a hard time with the gruesome aspects in The Daylight Gate, my imagination made it all too vivid… I agree it was a mix, no “proper” historical novel not really fanatsy either. It’s not a very good book, I’m afraid.

  19. It is interesting that your review generated so much discussion! I agree it was rather gruesome compared to what I normally read but I’m the kind of person who reads a book, and if it doesn’t do anything to me, I tend to forget about it very quickly! (You can say, in that case it is a pure waste of time to read a book in this way. lol 😀 )

    I reviewed The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent before which is about the hunt and the trial of witches in Salem. I think that book was far far better than this one.

    I read 4 of Jeanette Winterson’s books now. “Why be happy when you could be normal?”, Weight, “Orange is not the only fruit” and this one, The Daylight Gate. …The first and the 3rd book are my favourite, but I too am puzzled why Daylight Gate was written in such a put off style.

    Thanks for the review.

    • I think this sin’t her typical kind of book. It was my third by her and it was the only one I didn’t like.
      I have that book by Kathleen Kent and am glad to hear it’s better. I know what Winterson wanted to do – and after all it has been published by Hammer books – but it didn’t work for me at all.

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