Thanks to Himadri of the The Argumentative Old Git. This was one of his Bah - Humbook recommendations for me.
James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a book that was amazingly ahead of its time. It is a fascinating psychological study as well as a supernatural horror story that has striking similarities to certain elements in more modern stories.
Written in several parts, it tells two versions of the same story. One account seems to be a reliable 3rd person narrative; the other account is told by the unstable and, at times, insane protagonist. Even the trustworthy narrative confirms that Hogg’s universe is populated by angels and demons, and is a place of magic and sorcery.
The story takes place during the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Scotland. The tale begins with the marriage of the laird of Dalcastle, George Colwan, to a younger noblewoman. The marriage is extremely contentious from the beginning, as George is an easygoing and relatively free soul in contrast to Lady Dalcastle, who is a religious fanatic. The pair quickly learns to despise one another. The marriage produces one son who is also named George. When Lady Dalcastle delivers a second boy, named Richard, who resembles her pastor and spiritual confident, Mr. Wringhim, the laird all but disowns both mother and child. Lady Dalcastle and Richard retreat into a separate floor of the Dalcastle manor and live an estranged life separate from George and his son. George takes as his paramour his housekeeper, Arabella Logan.
Richard grows up, under the influence of his fanatical mother and his surrogate, and likely biological father, Wringhim. Raised as a fanatical Calvinist, Richard is vindictive, hateful, jealous of others and cruel. Hogg does add complexity to Richard’s character as he is occasionally plagued by bouts of conscience.
In late adolescence, Richard meets Gil–Martin, who initially appears to be a young man who espouses a strident and radical Calvinist theology. It becomes apparent, however, that Gil – Martin is not human. Instead he is a shape shifter with demonic powers who is likely Satan himself. Based upon the observations reported by third parties in the unbiased account of the story, Gil–Martin is no figment of Richard’s imagination; both he and his mystical powers are very real.
Under Gil–Martin’s influence, Richard, under the auspices of doing God’s work, begins a life of evil and eventual murder. George the younger is harassed and hounded by the pair and eventually murdered, as is Lady Dalcastle and several others. Subsequently pursued by a few decent people led by Arabella, Richard is exposed and flees into the countryside pursued by Gil–Martin and a host of demons.
There is much ponder in this story. The portraits of both Richard and Gil–Martin are superb. Hogg’s depiction of Richard is a brilliant psychological study of a disturbed mind. Gil–Martin is complex and philosophical, but also frightening. There are a few scenes that are positively chilling in this work. Modern readers may find parts of this story familiar: an immoral person, who is obsessed by religion, is encouraged and aided by a demon–like character to become a serial killer. Variations of this tale pervade current day popular books, television and film. While reading this book, it was easy to forget that it was published in 1820! At the time, the story, structure and characters were revolutionary and groundbreaking.
Though Hogg’s worldview seems to me to be Christian, he firmly rejects certain thought systems and theologies that were at times associated with Christianity. The idea of predestination is attacked. Hogg portrays this theology as leading to the ultimate moral bankruptcy. In Hogg’s view, belief in predestination inevitably leads to the false conclusion that those chosen by God for salvation can only act with moral impunity. Gill–Martin argues several times that if one is among the “elect” and predestined as a recipient of God’s grace, then one’s actions have no relevance to one’s eventual fate.
Basically, a person can commit horrendous acts and be immune from punishment. Later, Richard criticizes those who espouse moral behavior in favor of just being a recipient, almost randomly, of God’s grace.
“I would astonish mankind, and confound their self-wisdom and their esteemed morality—blow up the idea of any dependence on good works, and morality, forsooth!”
Hogg ties the idea of predestination as well as religious fanaticism to Satanism. At one point Richard asks Gil–Martin, who he believes to be an Eastern European Prince, if all his followers are Christian. Gil–Martin replies,
"All my European subjects are, or deem themselves so, and they are the most faithful and true subjects I have."
A little research reveals that many Calvinists and others who espouse the Christian concept of predestination have responded to Hogg’s portrayal of their belief system as distorted, inaccurate and unfair. However, Hogg does portray several Calvinist characters in the book as reasonable and moral people. The author seems to be arguing that the concept of predestination is a faulty idea that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will lead to moral catastrophe, even if all its adherents are not immoral.
Again and again, Richard makes excuses and rationalizes his actions; it is justifiable to kill sinners, as one of God’s elect he cannot be doing anything immoral, Gil–Martin approves his actions, etc. As mentioned earlier, he experiences pangs of guilt. Despite Richard’s belief in a divine fate, Hogg seems to be saying that he is actively choosing an evil path. Ultimately I believe that Hogg is championing the concept of free will, as opposed to predestination.
I see this story as Hogg laying a relaxed view of Christianity. The most sympathetic characters in the book, such as George senior and Arabella, are Christians. However, they reject predestination; they have a somewhat laidback attitude toward sexual morality, and simply identify and combat the anti–Christian and evil of Gil–Martin and Richard without undue moralizing. They do not tremble at God, but follow many Christian precepts. Hogg describes the elder George,
The laird was what his country neighbours called "a droll, careless chap", with a very limited proportion of the fear of God in his heart, and very nearly as little of the fear of man.
I would argue that Hogg was espousing a version of Christianity based on moderation and tinged with the ideas of the enlightenment.
This is a fantastically entertaining yet frightening story. It is well written and thought provoking on several levels. Fans of psychological horror, classic literature, as well as theological musings, will find much in this very contemporary-seeming novel.