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A sharp eye on witch trials and priestly tribulations

The Pendle witch trials of 1612 are among the best-documented in English history, and have inspired writers and poets since the 19th Century. Now Jeanette Winterson has added her own interpretation of the events, in a novella (for the newly revived Hammer Books imprint) that mixes a sharp-eyed view of history with elements of magic and some of the more outré touches horror fans might expect.

In the wild country of Lancashire, north-west England, Catholicism clung on as stubbornly as more ancient beliefs, and to King James I, the one was as dangerous as the other.

Priests and witches were pursued with equal relish, neighbour often denouncing neighbour as one or the other before the light of suspicion fell on them. The Pendle trials resulted in the execution of nine women and two men who lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire. They were poor and uneducated, except for the gentlewoman Alice Nutter, whose inclusion among the group accused of celebrating a witches' Sabbath on Good Friday remains a mystery.

Winterson's cast share the names of the historical protagonists, though she has reshaped them into fictional characters - even Shakespeare is given a cameo. Her Alice Nutter is a self-made woman, a widow grown rich from an invention born of her knowledge of alchemy, which she learnt many years earlier from Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and magician. She is also a woman with a mysterious past, torn between her love for a woman, Elizabeth, whose dabbling in magic crossed a point of no return, and a secret priest tortured for his faith.

In spare, precise prose, Winterson conjures a world of casual brutality, where the poor live little better than animals and where justice is an unimaginable luxury.

Women are raped because they have no voice to protest, children are sold, accusations fly between rival families until everyone is tainted by the stench of witchcraft. Her symapthy for such women proves Alice's downfall.

Winterson is at her best when she is dealing with real horrors, whether the disease and depredations of poverty or the ingenious tortures men have devised.

The landscape she describes is bleak and atmospheric, inviting an affinity with dark powers. But the social realism sits uneasily alongside the supernatural elements: a severed head that speaks, or the appearances of the mysterious Dark Gentleman, to whom Alice is supposed to be a sacrifice.

The story is at its least convincing in these moments, as if the truth of why women were accused of witchcraft - because they did not conform to convention - can't be reconciled with the demands of the horror genre. It asks the reader to suspend disbelief but it can't shake that the real forces of darkness and light exist within the extremes of human nature.

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