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.