The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Reviewed by Michael Cornett
By James Hogg
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
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.