Publisher: Penguin English Library (Penguin)
Pages: 238 – including Afterword (Paperback)
A nightmarish tale of religious fanaticism and darkness, this chilling classic of the macabre tells the tale of Robert Wringhim, drawn in his moral confusion into committing the most monstrous acts by an evil doppelgänger.
James Hogg’s masterpiece is as troublingly duplicitous as Wringham himself, and was ignored and bowdlerized before becoming a hugely influential work of Scottish literature.
I really wanted to love this book; the title was intriguing, the cover was stylish, and the blurb sounded like it should be absolutely wonderful. But somehow, despite my interest in the themes explored, I just didn’t enjoy it all that much. It started off absolutely wonderfully, continued very well for a while but somewhere around the midway point when the lead character started to doubt himself and the advice of his obviously sinister doppelgänger I just stopped caring. I don’t doubt that it’s a very good book that totally deserves it’s place in Scottish canon, or that it’s one of those books that will stick around in my head for years to come, I will probably even reread it at some point because it’s the sort of book that demands a second look and a more measured thought – but I didn’t love it.
I suppose I’d better elaborate. The story is told through two equally unreliable narrators; ‘The Editor’ a modern (read early 19th century) man of science and religious cynic who introduces the context for the main bulk of the story; a manuscript written by the main character, Robert Wringhim, a religious fanatic from the 1600s. The first Editor’s Narrative takes up a little over a third of the book and was both incredibly funny – courtesy of the barbed and unabashedly biased judgements passed down by the editor on the religious ‘bigot or hypocrite’ of the previous age – and highly enjoyable. The Editor tells the story of a marriage torn apart by religious beliefs, and two sons separated in infancy to be raised one by the easy-going husband, the other by the wife and her radically Calvinist ‘religious advisor’ (strongly implied to be the father of the second child). It then skips forward about twenty years to the first meeting of these two brothers in Edinburgh and the sinister way the younger brother, Robert Wringhim insinuates and stalks his way into his brother’s life. This was probably my favourite section of the book, I’m a big fan of both dark humour and creepy gothic horror and this had both in spades. Robert certainly felt like a malignant unnatural and genuinely threatening power, even the editor’s cynicism couldn’t erase the hints at the supernatural as well, and I was made to genuinely fear for his brother’s plight.
What then followed was this story told from Robert Wringham’s own perspective. And boy…he’s a nasty little shit of a man. Raised from birth to think he’s ‘special’ and ‘better’ than the ‘sinners’, Robert prescribes to the belief of predestination – that only a few pre-chosen people will ever gain heaven while everybody else is doomed to spend eternity in hell and, crucially, that nothing a man does in his life will ever be able to change this ultimate fate. Instead of spreading love and tolerance Wringham and his adopted father and ‘fire and brimstone’ Christians and the worst sort of hypocrites who see themselves as superior to everybody else. In his youth this religious upbringing causes Robert a lot of angst, as he owns up to himself he sins daily and is a profligate liar and a manipulative little shit who attempts to ruin the lives of people he doesn’t like. Thus he is always in fear of divine recrimination until reaching the day when his father informs him that he is one of ‘the Elect’ and thus destined for heaven. On this same day Robert meets a mysterious doppelgänger who discusses religion with him, gradually tearing down what few merciful doctrines and moral qualms Robert has and convincing him that it is his duty as one of God’s chosen to cut down and destroy the sinners of the world.
So far, so good, and I had a lot of fun watching the story in Edinburgh and the destruction of his brother’s life play out from Robert’s perspective. The supernatural elements only hinted at in the editor’s narrative come out in full force in Robert’s as his mysterious companion changes faces at will and is strongly implied to be the Devil himself. It’s only after the conclusion of the Edinburgh story that I felt the narrative began to lose steam and go off the rails a bit. I don’t particularly want to say much more about the rest of the story because I do think it might go a bit too far into spoilers so I’ll just say that it wasn’t at all what I expected and I found it to be a bit of a directionless mess after a brilliant and darkly humourous first half. The Editior’s narrative at the end detailing how he came across the Wringhim manuscript and the meta-level story within a story within a story also did very little for me.
As I said though, it’s a book that will definitely lurk in my memory and one that I will almost certainly return to later and with fresh eyes, and probably gain fresh understanding from it. Although I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the later half of the book I found the novel, in its entirety, an absolutely fascinating read and a chilling warning against putting religious dogma and doctrine above human compassion.