the observer Sat 29 August 2009
If you think that the best response to religious extremism is to laugh at it, then James Hogg's most famous work, published in 1824, demands your full attention. A tale of demonic possession, it is also a caustic comedy, skewering the religious bigotry that existed among the era's Scottish Reformers.
The plot is a satire on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: the belief that God has, since the start of time, preordained the saved - those who will go to Heaven - and those heading for the other place. Robert Wringhim, brought up by parents who obsess over church dogma with Pharisaical hypocrisy, takes this inherited wisdom to extremes.
Prompted by his charismatic companion - who lacks only cloven hooves to give his identity away - Wringhim is easily tempted into the belief that he can be God's champion by killing the already damned. Conveniently, as one of the elect, his lies, cruelty and murders cannot be held against him, since his salvation is already secured.
Hogg was a shepherd poet, with only six months of formal education. It is a fact that makes this early novel all the more astonishing, not only for its intricate study of the mind of a fanatic, but also for its ingenious form: the narrative is presented as a memoir with an editor's expository notes. The result is teasingly brilliant and prefigures some of postmodernism's best trickery. It also impresses as a piece of psychological realism, as Wringhim's personality is riven beyond his control. An entertaining ride with the devil.