James Hogg wrote this odd, ferocious little novel in 1824, and published it anonymously. It’s hard to categorize: is it psychological mystery? Is it satire? Theological treatise, reflection on totalitarian thought? Metafiction? Crime fiction, or possibly gothic fiction? Well… yes. And in addition to all these things, it’s told (at least in part) from the point of view of a criminal anti-hero, and it has, probably, the devil in it.
The book begins by telling the story of a Scottish squire with two sons, one acknowledged and one unacknowledged. The rightful heir, George, grows up happy and generous; the other, Robert, is brought up by a Reformed pastor. But not just any pastor. Reverend Wringhim is the worst of all extreme Calvinist sectarians, taking and twisting the Reformed ideas to their irrational extreme, harping on the idea that those chosen by God can do nothing wrong and those destined for hell need not be taken into account by the elect in any way. (As you can imagine, Wringhim and his friends, by some strange coincidence, fall into the number of the elect.) Robert is brought up to despise the legitimate heir, and to make his life a misery; his final opportunity to bring harm takes place at university, and is both malicious and cowardly.
Halfway through the novel, however, the voice changes from an omniscient narrator to the private diary or confession of Robert himself. He is writing the same story we have just read, but from his own point of view, and he has much to reveal that we have not yet seen — in particular, the presence of a man (?) called Gil-Martin, who has been encouraging him and pressing him to every kind of violence against his brother and father, in the name of his religion. (The logic goes like this: if they are going to hell anyway, and if the elect can do nothing wrong and can never be removed from God’s hand from all eternity, why not clear out the land so that the elect may live in peace?) Robert’s diary shows his pride at Gil-Martin’s attentions (he takes him for the Tsar of Russia), his initial reluctance at violence, his slow understanding that he is in thrall to this man, and his descent into madness and despair. The second half of the novel, an eerie commentary or twinning of the first, is a perfect reflection of the way Gil-Martin can make himself into a double of anyone he meets.
That this is a gothic novel, or a novel with gothic trappings, there can be no doubt. There are specters, doubles, strange meetings at night, demons, golden weapons that appear out of the air. But there is some remarkably rich exploration of Robert’s psychology here as well. We see him from the outside as a sullen youth, and then we see why he is as he is: his upbringing by Wringhim, his physical cowardice, his utter conviction of his own justification (in both senses, the religious and the usual sense that he has the entitlement to do it) for every act he takes.
This exploration of justification in a religious sense permeates the book. Hogg never pretends he is attacking normal Calvinism, or a more moderate Presbyterianism. Far from it. There are several moderate Christians portrayed in the book, including a pastor, and they are not judged with the same harsh eye. But Robert, force-fed with the notion that because he is justified he can never do anything wrong, and that others who are not justified are beneath his notice, is ripe for the plucking, using precisely the same Scripture and the same vocabulary that Wringhim has been using all Robert’s life.
Plucked by whom? I loved the portrayal of Gil-Martin in this book. He presents his obviously horrifying power of being able to shape-change as a “gift from God,” and Robert believes him. From then on, it is all easy: Gil-Martin quotes Scripture, infiltrates himself into church, hammers his point home. He is suave and powerful, and always there, every single day. He is subtle and sarcastic: “I believe I do know your eternal end,” he says. I can’t find any evidence that C.S. Lewis read this book, but Gil-Martin reminds me vividly of Screwtape, the devil in The Screwtape Letters. He is “never truly amused with anything” (the devil never laughs) and thinks very highly of his own powers. After a time, Robert realizes that he is never happy out of Gil-Martin’s company, but also never happy in it; this is just Lewis’s idea that the devil will take everything from a human and give him nothing in return. And when Robert begs that Gil-Martin will let him go his own way, his response is this:
“Sooner shall you make the mother abandon the child of her bosom; nay, sooner cause the shadow to relinquish the substance, than separate me from your side. Our beings are amalgamated, as it were, and consociated in one, and never shall I depart from this country until I can carry you in triumph with me.”
And that amalgamation, that feeding of one soul on another, is the real horror of the book.
I think the final question is: whose is the responsibility for Robert’s fate? Wringhim’s, for the poisonous doctrine? Gil-Martin’s, for his constant company and twisted counsel? God’s, for his predestined plan? Or Robert’s own?