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

Reviewed by Michael Cornett
Rating: none given

The bell in the village struck midnight. The belfry of the old church on the hill did not ring. It had been silent for many years, too dilapidated to be used.

The rusted gate to the churchyard shrieked and protested as the cloaked figure opened it and passed through. He moved silently through the tombstones, not needing a light. He knew where he was going.

An angel rose before him, her face marred by dark streaks. One arm pointed to heaven:  the other was missing. Winged skulls and gentle lambs peered up from the low stones. A mausoleum, the name over the door obscured by the years, stood desolately, its gate swinging in the wind.

He paused at a tombstone beneath a dead tree that creaked and groaned in the wind. After a quick glance at the name, he produced a shovel and began to dig.

It took him a while to dig down to his goal. Occasionally he would pause and listen. Was that a moan?  The rattle of a chain?  Were voices whispering in the wind?  He paid them no heed.

His shovel struck wood. He quickly cleared the dirt off  the lid of the coffin, and pried it open. His eyes glistened. He reached down and snatched the dusty book from the hands of the moldering skeleton that clutched it to its breast.

The coffin was closed again, and dirt began to rain on its lid. Soon the man was patting down the dirt. Someone might notice, but nobody would question.

An owl hooted as the man returned to his home. Soon, he was at his desk, slowly opening the pages, examining their contents. What did his efforts net him this time?

The title is a mouthful: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The author has an unfortunate name: James Hogg.  Its age is considerable: published in 1824, 173 years ago. But it is a shuddery supernatural tale, and an extraordinary depiction of human evil.

The setting is 18th century Scotland. It is a tale of two brothers (or half-brothers, maybe) George Colwan, brought up by his free-wheeling, good-hearted but boozy father and his mistress, the Robert Wringhim, raised by his pious, repressive mother (Mrs. Colwan) and the strict Calvinist minister (who may be his father).

They know of each other but have never met, until as young men they meet by accident in Edinburgh. Robert begins to immediately stalk and harass George. George, seeking peace, climbs to a mountaintop, only to see a vision of his brother against the clouds....and narrowly escapes being pushed off the mountain by Robert. Shortly after that, George is killed in a suspicious duel, and Georgeís father, the laird of Dalcastle, dies shortly after, leaving Robert heir to the considerable estate.

This first part of the book reads much like a murder mystery, with Robertís apparent madness, suspicious deaths, and the revelation that Robert, with another man, murdered his brother. When the authorities descend on Dalcastle, though, they find the mother dead and Robert gone.

The next part is where the spooky stuff really starts. Consisting of Robertís own memoirs, it tells of how his Calvinist upbringing led him to believe completely in predestination. The minister (his father?) convinces him  that he is one of the Elect, chosen to be saved no matter what. Robert meets a mysterious young man named Gil-Martin, who is able to change his appearance at will. The two become fast friends, and Gil-Martin convinces Robert that since he is fated to be saved, he can sin as much as he wants.

Robert starts on a career of lying, cheating, and the murder of a kindly preacher, all the while believing that it is the will of God. Supernatural happenings abound, as Gil-Martin shape shifts and causes all manner of things to come about. Gil-Martin is patently Satan himself, and Robert has become his willing tool. Robertís descent from piety to infamy is an exceptionally harrowing journey.

Justified Sinner works on many levels: as a supernatural tale, as a parable warning against self-righteousness, and as a satire of Calvinism. Gil-Martin is one of literatureís most enduring portraits of the Prince of Darkness. Robertís ravings about his own holiness and his determination to remove certain people ďfrom Godís sightĒ eerily prefigures the modern serial-killer.  Robertís memoirs, if read alone, could be seen as the work of a diseased mind, but Hoggís narrative is firmly on the side of the supernatural.

James Hogg, a shepherd who was illiterate until the age of  21, was a popular writer in Scotland and England in the early 19th century. His firm background in the folklore and fairy tales of his native Scotland are evident here, and in his other works, which are full of supernatural menace. His wry sense of humor helps to counterbalance the grimness of his tale, and sometimes to emphasize the irony of Robertís situation. Forgotten until the last few decades, James Hogg is an author who deserves another look, and Justified Sinner is just the place to start.

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