Witchcraft in 17th-century England: from the prolific British author (The Stone Gods, 2008, etc.), a nightmarish novella that burns like a hot coal.
It was a notorious trial. The Lancashire Witches were tried and executed in 1612. England was jittery. The Protestant king, James I, was intent on hunting down witches and Catholics. The Gunpowder Plot had been a close call; all the Catholic plotters had fled north to Lancashire. Winterson uses the historical framework, grafting her inventions onto it. Entering the past with her is like walking through an open door. You are there. It is a world of rape and pillage. The most conspicuous witches are the Demdikes, a fearsome family of wretched indigents. The gentlewoman Alice Nutter, wealthy from inventing a dye, lets them live in a grim tower on her land. It is Good Friday. The Demdikes are planning a Black Mass. It is Alice’s misfortune to be at the tower when the magistrate arrives. All of them, save Alice, are placed under guard. Alice does not believe in witchcraft, but she does believe in magic, which flickers throughout the narrative. Thirty years before, in London, she had known the alchemist John Dee and the beautiful Elizabeth Southern, one of her two great loves. Then Elizabeth sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman, but Alice stayed young, thanks to Dee’s Elixir of Life. Now she is in danger, for her other great love, the Catholic plotter Southworth, has materialized at her house. The magistrate offers a deal: Give up Southworth and go free, or be tried as a witch with the others. Alice refuses, sealing her fate. As the tension mounts, Winterson weaves into her story a voodoo doll stuck with pins and an eerie meeting on haunted Pendle Hill between Alice and the dead John Dee. There will be torture and false testimony.
An electrifying entertainment.