So how did I come to Mark Samuels’ just self-published novel A Pilgrim Stranger, “an ebullient satire of contemporary values”?
Through a link off Castalia House to his blog where I found mention him mentioning not only this novel but discussing his traditional Catholicism and his “low opinion of crass modernity, pessimism, and identity politics zombies, both of the left and the right”.
Well, I’m onboard with a critique of modernity. I’m afraid I’m a congenital pessimist though. As to identity politics, I think they’re unfortunate but inevitable.
While I’m not Catholic myself and never have been, I know some and read and listen to others, particularly Kevin Michael Grace over at the Grace & Steel podcast and find their diagnosis of modern ills insightful if not convincing in their solutions.
My “intellectual history” with Catholicism goes from reading how it was the “Whore of Babylon” and looking at the gruesome woodcuts of Fox’s Book of Martyrs when young to reading chunks of the Catholic Vulgate Bible (in translation), St. Augustine’s The City of God and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in my English major days. (My professor rightly concluded that reading medieval English literature was pointless without knowledge of the theological references. Certainly, the Harrowing of Hell was not in the King James Bible I read as a boy.) Out of college, it was reading about medieval heresies. (And I concluded it is very hard to invent a novel Christian heresy.) Then watching cable reruns of Bishop Fulton Sheen – entertaining and charismatic. I can certainly understand why, in the words of a Catholic friend, he casts a large shadow still. I’ve also listened to some Great Courses on early Christianity.
I’m afraid, though, I’m unlikely to ever be a Catholic. First I am very unspiritual. I say it not with pride, just an acknowledgement that my brain seems missing some common nodule. Second, if I were to become a Christian – and, by the doctrines of the church I grew up in, I never was – it wouldn’t be the Catholic faith. (I’ll be reviewing a couple of books, one old and one new, about the Church of my youth soon.) I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to shake my old antitrinitarianism. I’ve seem to have picked up a bit of pelagianism on the way too.
However, I have respect for the governmental structure of the Church if not its doctrines. I also believe that Christianity and its idea of an orderly and knowable creation descending from the mind of God made Western science and technology possible. The cultures of Asia now contribute to science, but they didn’t create science.
Now, Samuels is not some hack who had to get a rant off his chest. He’s a scholar of Arthur Machen and a fan of J. G. Ballard, Anna Kavan, and, like me, a Poe devotee. His fiction has been published by Tartarus Press, and PS Publishing, and he has a story in the massive anthology The Weird from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
So, I was interested in how Samuels would combine political beliefs I’m sympathetic to with a background in weird fiction.
Review: A Pilgrim Stranger, Mark Samuels, 2017.
This “ebullient satire on contemporary values” gets off to a dry and unpromising start. It’s not particularly lively or funny in its first third.
That section takes place in Britain in the fall of 1981. It’s Thatcher’s England, a London of crappy streets and dog crap all over and litter and teacher strikes.
Our hero, Alfredo Salgado, orphaned and now under the care of his aunt, shows up at the Southwood Comprehensive School for Boys where he meets Dennis Spencer, resplendent in his “Trotsky beard” and attendant Marxist beliefs.
Salgado, as the name implies, is Spanish, or to be precise half-Spanish, his Spanish aunt relocating to England after the death of Salgado’s parents. Given the long history of Spanish villains in English literature, it’s an odd and I’m sure knowingly provocative choice on Samuels’ part. Salgado is also very Catholic. Old school Catholic as in not any time for popes after Pope Pius XIII and attending the Tridentine Mass at a church largely supported by that aunt.
Salgado is very precocious, and it’s not long before he’s arguing with Spencer over the legitimacy of Elizabeth I and the value of Whiggish history in a section that, for me, seemed warmed over Hilaire Belloc-style romanticism about the Middle Ages.
The book doesn’t follow just Salgado around. Characters we’ll see more of are Dorian Marsh, a drink-scrounging hippy and “professional occultist”, and Ernest Quinn, member of a swastika-wearing group of National Front skinheads handing out literature outside of Salgado’s school.
It is with Quinn we first hear of the “dead English Catholic writer called Sinclair Egremont Xavier”. (Xavier is fictitious; Samuels’ work sometimes features invented authors.)
As a travelogue to a dismal London I never saw, it’s interesting but has an air of earnest caricature about it in the characters. Salgado seems a bit too-good, the debates sterile, the satire muted.
That’s only the first third though. Things kick off with a bang for the remainder of the novel.
Well, actually it’s the thud of a hit and run car accident that puts Salgado out of commission until 2015. Continue reading