I first discovered this book when I was perusing the shelf of a friend of mine from university and the title literally jumped out at me. The first thought that went through my mind was 'wow, this seems to be a good, whole hearted, Christian book' and asked her if I could borrow it. She kindly lent it to me, but I never go to finish it because after a week she asked for it back (having assumed that I have finished reading it, which I hadn't). Anyway, that was the last I saw of that book until I was wondering around a number of second-hand bookstalls in Melbourne's Federation Square and once again it jumped out at me, so I immediately purchased it with the intention of finishing it this time.
I note that when I first saw it my thoughts were that it was a Christian Book. Well, it's not, at least not in the traditional sense of what you would consider a Christian book. Actually, it seems to be part gothic horror, part satire, and an early incarnation of a crime novel. What Hogg is exploring in this book is the idea of predestination as it is understood by Calvinists, and that is that one is predestined to be saved from birth, and if you are predestined as such, then there is nothing that can take away your salvation. So, the question that is raised is: if you are one of the elect, and if nothing can take your salvation away from you, then does that mean that you have a license to basically do whatever you want?
Well, the Biblical answer to that question is no, and I suspect that most Calvinists would suggest that if you were one of the elect then your actions would be severely restrained by your character, which means that you could not actually go and do what the anti-hero of this book went and did. However, that is not really the question that Hogg is exploring here, because the anti-hero was raised by a strict Calvinist preacher, and had this teaching poured into his mind since he was a child. As such he came to believe that due to him being one of the elect nothing that he did could effect that salvation. This belief was compounded when he meets Gil-Martin, a rather strange character that is generally recognised as Satan. What Gil-Martin does is that he feeds on this belief that the anti-hero has and encourages him to go around and start murdering people because, well, they are all sinners and deserve to die.
This is where the interesting part of the novel arises. Note that it was written in 1824, around the same time as Frankenstein. As I have written in my commentary of Frankenstein, what we have during this period is a shift away from demons and angels to a more scientific approach to viewing the world. I would suggest that this book is no different. Since most of it is told from the point of view of the anti-hero, we really don't know whether Gil-Martin is real, or merely a figment of his imagination. However, it does not matter whether he is, or he isn't, because he is still incredibly dangerous because this figment of his imagination (if that is what he is) is justifying his actions in committing various crimes (such as murder). While I am religious myself, and believe that religion has done a lot of good to the world, it can also be a very destructive force, as Hogg is indicating, especially if you are dealing with children. Our anti-hero was fed an extreme form of Calvinism from a very young age, and as such had a lot of difficulty being able to differentiate reality from fantasy. What is scary is that there are still a lot of children, even today, being fed such dogma and being denied the ability to be able to work things out for themselves.
One final thought is that when this book was originally released it wasn't all that well received (probably because it upset the Calvinists, and it ended up being rewritten to placate them) and it was not really picked up until modern times. Mind you, I probably wouldn't call this a classic, not in the same level as Frankenstein and the like, but it is still interesting to see how relatively obscure books can come out of the shadows and start to enthral people years after it was written. It makes me wonder what other obscure, and relatively unpopular books, are lying around today that are going to become the fad a hundred years from now (maybe my blog sarkology.net).