The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Hogg prepared the way for the publication of his 1824 novel with a letter in the August 1823 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine entitled “A Scots Mummy”, about the supposed discovery of a suicide’s corpse, buried in a shallow grave for over a hundred years, yet somehow perfectly preserved. When the novel came out the following year, it quoted the letter in its concluding “Editor’s Narrative”, explaining how the main portion of the narrative, the “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner”, was discovered as a damp but still legible manuscript unearthed on a subsequent visit to the grave. To perhaps make the whole thing a little bit more authentic, Hogg published the novel anonymously, and even included a passage in which the book’s “Editor” goes to see the writer of the letter — Hogg himself — hoping to be guided to the grave, only to be rebuffed, as Hogg (famously, a poet who found his literary calling whilst working as a shepherd) is too busy trying to sell some sheep. Hogg (the real one, not the one in the novel) then asked his literary friends to put about the rumour the book’s anonymous writer came from Glasgow, while he himself lived in the Edinburgh area.

This may have been playfulness on Hogg’s part, but could also have been him protecting himself from potential criticisms over the novel’s religious aspects. (When it was republished as part of his collected works in 1837 — two years after his death — these parts of the novel were extensively bowdlerised. It wasn’t until 1895 that Confessions was published again in its original form — though under the title The Suicide’s Grave — leaving it to become something of a 20th century rediscovery.)

Retitled 1895 edition

The story opens in 1687, with the instantly-disastrous marriage of George Colwin and Rabina Orde. George is a fun-loving Laird, who makes a point of dancing with all the women at his wedding; Rabina, on the other hand, is dedicated to the extreme Calvinistic teachings of one Mr Wringhim, and immediately removes herself from the celebrations. The couple’s first son, also named George, takes after the father in enjoying the company of friends, games of tennis and cricket, and the occasional trip to a bordello. Their second son, Robert, is very much in his mother’s mould, though. George Colwin even denies the boy is his. His wife had been spending all her time with the preacher Wringhim, and though Wringhim is indignant anyone would think he’d fathered a child, he takes Rabina in when she leaves the Colwin household, and becomes the young boy’s ward (who henceforth is known as Robert Colwin Wringhim). The brothers only meet for the first time as young men, when Robert decides to stand so close to George while he’s playing tennis that he obstructs his game, and the two get into a fight over his refusal to move. When George realises this is his brother he apologies, but Robert refuses the apology, and proceeds to follow George everywhere, making himself as much of a nuisance as he can, till George’s friends start to avoid him.

Robert becomes, to George, something like the monkey in Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, always present wherever he goes, staring at him with a deep and spiteful bitterness, driving him to distraction. The two clash again and George is arrested for threatening to kill Robert (Mr Wringhim’s many worthy friends come to his ward’s defence), and although this comes to nothing, shortly afterwards George is killed in what appears to be an unrelated duel. The father dies of grief, and Robert inherits the lands, house, and wealth.

Illustration from the 1895 edition, by Robert Easton Stuart

The main portion of the novel, the “Confessions”, are Robert’s narrative, retelling the same events from this young man’s perspective. Robert has been brought up to believe in the extreme “predestinarian” teachings of Mr Wringhim, which claim that some people — the Elect — have already been chosen by God to be saved, while others are already consigned to Hell. Mr Wringhim, who “knew the elect as it were by instinct”, spends some time trying to decide if young Robert is one of them, and the moment he does, Robert meets a mysterious new friend. This man, who at first refuses to give his name (but later allows himself to be called Gil-Martin, a Gaelic nickname for a fox), has the supposedly “natural peculiarity” of being able to change his face just by thinking about it:

“My countenance changes with my studies and sensations… And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness, but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well.”

He drops a number of mysterious hints as to who or what he is, including the fact that he has “no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge”, and “subjects and servants more than I can number”. Robert comes to the conclusion he is Peter the Great of Russia, rumoured to be travelling Europe incognito. The reader will already have other suspicions.

Gil-Martin agrees with every word of Mr Wringhim’s teachings, and pushes them to a further extreme: one of the Elect can, he says, commit any crime — anything that might otherwise be deemed a sin — with impunity, because God has already declared them bound for heaven. This means they’re free, for instance, to rid the earth of sinners — and it would in fact be a good deed to do so, for though these sinners would go straight to Hell (where they were bound anyway), they’d at least do so that little bit less burdened by the sins they would otherwise have committed. Gil-Martin persuades Robert to begin by murdering old Mr Blanchard, whose main sin is to warn the young man against religious extremism. He then directs Robert’s attention to his brother George.

1978 Folio Society edition

Justified Sinner brings in some traditional, folklorish elements, such as the deal with the Devil, along with others that, though no doubt old as Faerie lore, came to the fore around this time in literature, in the theme of the doppelgänger or double, as in Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839) and Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846). In the first section of the novel, happy-go-lucky George is haunted by what seems his double or shadow, the surly, combative and religiously over-serious Robert; in the second section, it’s Robert who’s haunted, by Gil-Martin — not his opposite, in this case, but an intensification of all that’s extreme about his own beliefs. And Gil-Martin himself claims to have a dual nature, in a passage that makes it pretty clear — to all but the self-blinded Robert — that he’s the fallen angel Lucifer:

“We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way. The spirit that now directs my energies is not that with which I was endowed at my creation. It is changed within me, and so is my whole nature. My former days were those of grandeur and felicity. But would you believe? I was not then a Christian. Now I am.”

(I take his claim to not have then been a Christian then, to be because his fall from Heaven occurred before Christ’s incarnation — typical Devil’s equivocation.)

But, to me, the thing that makes Justified Sinner a piece of weird fiction, when deals-with-the-devil don’t usually fall into that category, is that Gil-Martin never feels entirely like the caricature Satan you’d find in, say, Doctor Faustus or The Monk. Gil-Martin isn’t the “Lord of this World” type of Devil, but one who needs human beings to do his work for him. He seems, in fact, rooted in Robert:

“I am wedded to you so closely, that I feel as if I were the same person. Our essences are one, our bodies and spirits being united, so, that I am drawn towards you as by magnetism, and wherever you are, there must my presence be with you.”

Although Gil-Martin claims he’s entirely willing to carry out the murders he’s urging Robert to commit, when it comes to it he can’t land a blow, but needs Robert to do the deed. There’s never any doubt that Gil-Martin exists as a separate person, because other characters in the novel see him, but his power over Robert is entirely psychological, and in the latter stages of the story, he seems to be actually inhabiting Robert’s very body and mind, and committing further crimes an increasingly fevered Robert has no memory of. He may be Satan, but he might just as well be some Faerie creature.

James Hogg, painted in 1830 by Sir John Watson Gordon (original at the National Portrait Gallery)

Robert Louis Stevenson called Hogg’s novel “without doubt a real work of imagination”, saying it “haunted and puzzled me”, and some commentators have found echoes of Justified Sinner’s structure in Jekyll and Hyde as well as its evident thematic links. I first heard about it thanks to Kim Newman and Stephen Jones’s Horror: 100 Best Books, and it has gained slow but sure literary ground throughout the last decades of the 20th century, particularly as a work of the Scottish fantastic. (Which makes me wonder if David Lindsay ever read it — both Krag and Gangnet from A Voyage to Arcturus have something of the air of Gil-Martin, as god-like beings who appear to be normal people, and who work entirely by persuasion; and Nightspore, meanwhile, feels like he has a similar nature, too, in being an external embodiment of a refined or distilled aspect of Maskull.)

What perhaps makes the book just as live a narrative today is the point it makes about how the Devil achieves his ends — not merely by being a tempter of the flesh, but as one who can work upon the pride of the most self-righteous, turning any view, the moment it strays towards the extreme, into a pathway to damnation and evil deeds. Hogg’s own attitude, meanwhile, is expressed by the critic J B Pick, who says in his study of Scottish mystical writers, The Great Shadow House:

“[Hogg] did not accept that any single mind or any single system of thought can encompass all the complexities of life, and was content to carry a variety of incompatible parcels in his luggage, and to accept the burden cheerfully… Hogg’s counterweight to the diabolical sublime is what I can best describe as the good nature and good sense of the common man.”

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is one of those 19th century landmarks on the way to modern horror, not widely-enough known to be lumped with the core classics such as Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein, but like the latter belonging to that post-Romantic Gothic entangling of the supernatural with the psychological. To me it feels like it most naturally belongs with the demonic weirdness of Wuthering Heights, and the stories of Sheridan Le Fanu. Perhaps the only thing keeping it from being more widely appreciated is its being rooted in what might now seem to be the abstruse theological teachings of Calvinism, but the idea of elites who feel themselves to be free from morality, and its warning against the perils of extreme beliefs, are, surely, timeless.


The Walking Dead

Earlier this year I started working my way through The Walking Dead, after only being vaguely aware of the show up to that point. I’m now a little over the halfway point of its entire eleven season run. It has obvious affinities with some of the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve covered on this blog, such as Day of the Triffids and The Death of Grass — the opening, with Rick Grimes waking up in hospital to find the world has ended being straight from Wyndham, while the brutality and descent into ruthless survivalism is John Christopher cubed — even though neither of those is about zombies. It also has a lot in common with Game of Thrones: both shows started in 2010; both had some pretty addictive storytelling, with ensemble casts and multi-episode subplots; and both had a penchant for killing off major characters with little or no warning. At its height, The Walking Dead attracted an audience of 17 million. Downtown Abbey, another massively popular show that also started in 2010 and which seems (though I’ve never seen it) the opposite to The Walking Dead in every respect, only got 13 million. There’s probably some sociological lesson to be drawn from that, but I’m not going to attempt it.

For the first season and a half, I wasn’t really gripped. The characters — who you need to care about in this sort of story — were mostly dominated by a group of emotionally inarticulate and self-destructive men, shouty and confrontational one moment, lacerating themselves with self-blame the next, while the women in the main did the cooking and cleaning and reminded each other that things like guard duty, expeditions, and making decisions were best left to the men. Then a plot twist arrived midway through season 2 that — perhaps because I wasn’t 100% engaged by this point — was so unexpected, and so brutal, I was suddenly and totally hooked. (It involved zombies in a barn, if you’ve seen the show.)

It still took till about season 4 before I began to feel interested in any of the characters, as they’d finally developed beyond the soap opera level of emotional immaturity (self-blame alternating with self-righteousness, in constant rotation), but the show has been pretty consistently gripping ever since.

I don’t binge watch it, though. However moreish the plot, or cliffhanging an ending, to watch more than one episode a day — or even one a day for an entire week — just feels too much. The show is almost constantly brutal and gruelling. (And gruesome. Every episode or two there’s a reminder of just how disgusting it must be to deal with the half-rotten dead on a day-to-day basis.) Which left me asking, at its worst moments, why do I keep watching it? Game of Thrones at least balanced its brutality with a sort of Sword & Sorcery joie de vivre and a dark sense of humour. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has virtually no sense of humour, and the closest its characters get to the joy of being alive is a sense of relief they’re not yet dead.

One thing the show has, though, is an engagement with the idea of what it means to be “good people”. People keep telling Rick & co.’s group of survivors they’re “good people” — certainly they are, compared to some of the other groups we meet, who are militaristic, fascistic, opportunistic, or even cannibalistic. But each time someone says this, the latest story arc would end with a moment that seemed to say, “Do you still think they’re good people?”

A formula began to emerge. Rick’s group would encounter another group, and that group would either be actively hostile (one group, for instance, had commandeered a tank, and used it) or apparently friendly but secretly up to some serious nastiness (the aforementioned cannibals). Rick & co. would fight their way back to freedom, and (mostly) survive, but only at the cost of having to sink to new levels of brutality. At one point, Rick — having pointed out that as long as they’re not like the “walkers”, the zombies, they’re not entirely a lost cause — finds himself having to bite a chunk out of his opponents’ neck to win a desperate fight. Just like the zombies do. By the end of a storyline, the group are often so covered in blood — mostly other people’s — that they’re barely distinguishable from zombies anyway. Finally, Rick says: “This is how we survive… We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead…”

With the fifth season, the group arrive at a community that has managed to stave off the worst of this sorely-changed world’s ravages, and suddenly they find themselves in something like the civilised world they used to inhabit — but so battle-scarred and toughened by a series of utterly traumatising and degrading backs-to-the-wall experiences that they’re like homecoming veterans, totally incapable of sleeping because the quiet is too quiet, the calm too calm. At the same time, they don’t see this as an invitation to relax. Rather, they fear losing the edge the constant fight to survive has given them… But don’t worry, Rick & co., something terrible is bound to happen soon to bring those survival skills to the fore once more!

Another thing I like about the show — if like is the right word — is a quality it shares with a lot of the darker types of fiction and film I like, and which I’ve come to think of as bleakness. Bleakness is there, quietly, in the opening scenes of Alien, in the cold whiteness of the Nostromo’s interior and the getting-up-too-early feel of the crew waking from hypersleep, just as it’s there in the round-the-dining-table discussions about how they’re going to survive this killer alien out here in space; it’s there in the unforgiving landscapes of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Thing; it’s there in the all-encompassing labyrinth of love, lies and deception in Vertigo; it’s there in the disconnection between even the closest of people in The Silence; it’s there in the harshness of a fascist regime in Pan’s Labyrinth and the helplessness of children in The Institute; it’s there in the fragmented psyches of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition stories; it’s there in the cosmicism of Lovecraft. It’s pretty fair to say, where this blog is concerned, it’s never far away.

This bleakness is perhaps best summed up as a disjunction between the humanity of the characters and the hostile, or simply uncaring world they inhabit. The Walking Dead has it to a particularly harsh degree, and the question, for me, is always: can they, these characters, hang on to their humanity in the face of such a dehumanising world?

With The Walking Dead, it’s a constantly uphill struggle. There’s no rest, no respite, otherwise there’s no show, and the characters will only be worn down by each loss, each set-back, each moral compromise. (Unless the final episode of season 11 has a happy ending!) And that’s perhaps the thing that has led to me slowing down my watching of the show: it’s just too relentless, at times, in its bleakness. (I confess, I’ve recently started to check Wikipedia to see when long-standing characters meet their inevitable demise, just so I’ve got some warning.) In a world where everyone is forced to be at least a little bit wicked, there’s never going to be any rest…


Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Ever since reading Theodore Roszack’s Flicker (which I reviewed back in 2007), stories about supernaturally-charged/cursed films have been a favourite sub-genre of mine. Ramsey Campbell produced two very different takes on the idea, the folk horror Ancient Images and the cosmic-absurd Grin of the Dark. I like it tackled in film, too, with John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns another early review on this blog (in fact the earliest, from 2006), and the Japanese Ring one of my all-time favourite films. So, I knew I had to read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new novel Silver Nitrate.

Set in Mexico City in 1993, the story follows film-editor Montserrat and her childhood friend (and somewhat faded TV star) Tristán Abascal’s investigation into the now forgotten director Abel Urueta’s last, unfinished horror film, Beyond the Yellow Door. Although a conventional enough shocker for its day (the mid-1960s), this movie was intended by its makers to be secretly turned into a publicly-enacted magical ritual by the insertion of three occultly-charged scenes, created by one Wilhelm Friedrich Ewers (named, in part, after the author of one of Lovecraft’s favourite stories, “The Spider”, Hans Heinz Ewers). Ewers, in the novel, fled wartime Germany when he realised he and his fellow dabblers in the occult were going to fail the Nazis’ test of their abilities to divine the location of enemy ships (most of them, including himself, being charlatans), and so were likely to be executed. Doing so, he discovers that the blood spilled in his escape has actually given him real magical power. By the time he arrives in Mexico he has honed his abilities, and intends to use them, alongside what he believes to be the magnifying effect of film (“A movie is a spectacle, but so is a sacrifice atop a pyramid”) to gain the sort of immortality even the greatest movie star can only dream of — the immortality that, in Woody Allen’s words, involves “not dying”. Or at least coming back from the dead.

The thing that makes this sort of book fun, for me, is the way the supernatural gets woven in with the actual history of film. Ancient Images, for instance, has Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi appearing in their only British-made collaboration, and uses this to comment on the censorship of horrific material, both in the 1930s when the film was made, and the 1980s when the novel was written; Flicker weaves all sorts of Hollywood lore into its tale of how the darkness between movie frames can be used to unleash a more metaphysical kind of darkness on the world, including, for instance, Orson Welles’s attempt to film Heart of Darkness. I don’t have the knowledge of Mexican horror — or Mexican film generally — to know how much of this meshing-with-reality Moreno-Garcia is doing in her narrative, but a telling point, perhaps, is that I didn’t come away (as I usually do with this kind of book) with a list of films to seek out. (The one I remember her mentioning, the Spanish-language version of Universal’s Dracula which was filmed in parallel with the English-language version, is certainly worth a watch.)

Another trouble with approaching Silver Nitrate from the point of view of a connoisseur of this particular sub-genre is that I was wondering what new thing Moreno-Garcia would do with the idea of the supernaturally-charged film. But there isn’t a twist on the genre, here. Instead, the villain of the piece is, in the end, something of a stock baddie: an evil occultist and leader of a rather generic cult, a racist and would-be Übermensch whose philosophy (“Seize the world, squeeze it for every drop of power, smite your enemies”! ) is rather too off-the-shelf to develop any interesting angles. The supernatural, here, has no cosmic implications, it’s just imposing your will and making things happen, with no lasting cost.

I didn’t really care about the main characters, either. Perhaps one of the things that characterises the other narratives I’ve mentioned is the way their protagonists tend to get more and more isolated as they’re drawn further into their labyrinthine researches, until, when they finally realise they’re up against the supernatural, they’re so far gone that no one will believe them. Here — though they have their isolated moments — Montserrat and Tristán aren’t, ultimately, alone with the supernatural, and when the occult powers start flying, they’re just as capable of wielding them as their enemies, so there’s no sense of being up against something inherently weird. It’s a “superpowers” style of magic rather than the metaphysically frightening darkness that haunts the likes of Cigarette Burns (tortured angels!), Ancient Images (ancient rites!) or The Grin of the Dark (the, um, grin of the dark).

I don’t usually review books I found to be simply okay on this blog, but I wanted to include Silver Nitrate as it’s part of this sub-genre I so like, and it felt worth looking into the reasons it doesn’t work as well for me, to help me to see what does work. Silver Nitrate was okay, but didn’t hit the depths of weirdness like those other titles. (In that sense, I can more easily imagine it being made into a film.) There’s not the sense, as with those other works, that once the real horror of the weird has been seen it can never be unseen. I’m reminded of a lesson from another darkly labyrinthine quest-for-a-movie narrative which I’ve only just realised belongs on the list: Videodrome. The point about the Videodrome signal — as Max Renn must learn — is that it has “a philosophy”, and one that is both fascinating and dangerous. The occultist Ewers’ idea — “Seize the world, squeeze it for every drop of power, smite your enemies” — is dangerous, but doesn’t need the supernatural to make it so.