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.
He suffers a strange malady of awakening and being conscious and cognizant – but only for 15 minute intervals then his short term memory is wiped and things reset.
This goes on for years until his aunt dies, conveniently leaving him enough to live on without employment, and modern medicine and one Dr. Isaac Huntley bring Salgado back to a normal life.
Things, to put it mildly, have changed a bit since Salgado went in the hospital.
The world has been cleaned up. The trains are shinier, the streets cleaner. But material progress does not equal spiritual progress.
In fact, Thomist Salgado is appalled at the unreason he finds on the internet and the faces locked on smartphones.
It is the notebooks (which rather reminded me in its blocky polemic presence of the Inner Party doctrines that show up in Orwell’s 1984 – a book Salgado doesn’t think much of) Salgado returns to on his reawakening and writes his observations of the modern world where Samuels makes most of his critiques of modernity.
How persuasive that critique is I can’t say because I’ve encountered much of it elsewhere and agree with most of it. I can say it is succinct, perhaps too much so.
However, I think Samuels is reporting and not trying to convince. Elsewhere in the book, he alludes to the basic problem of politics as our true faith, a faith of unreason and unconsidered assumptions:
The word ‘problematic’ was a semiotic reflex that was repeated thereafter interminably by them in order to disavow and dismiss, without deeper consideration, a topic.
Things do get funny in this part of the novel as the innocent boy Salgado, in a man’s body, re-encounters Spencer, now a priest and a symptom of increasing rot in the Church, and Marsh.
Marsh is the most realistic character in the book. Foolish, conniving, petty, illogical, yet, as an ex-Catholic, he is the one that provides the sharpest retort and most plausible answer to Salgado’s defense of the faith:
And those lives are lived in an age where society and any other books they read repudiates the conclusions reached in theology however much they were previously convinced on an abstract level. So they slip back to the comfort zones of popular culture and popular opinion that’s being drummed into them all the time. And I tell you this; the idle layman who’s bothered to read stuff like Thomas Aquinas or Henry Newman is every bit as unlikely to cross the threshold of a church as those who haven’t bothered to read stuff like that at all. It’s grist to their – ahem – philosophically – um – anarchistic mill. If it’s intellectual chaos, which you may claim, at least it’s their own individually chosen chaos. It’s certainly a better informed chaos, for sure.
It’s Marsh who first gets Salgado drunk following the pro-libation philosophy of his beloved Master Xavier.
And it’s Marsh who sets in motion the comical, mini-Gotterdammerung of a dinner party with Spencer, Salgado, Isaac, and, in the book’s closest thing to an unredeemed villain, the BBC employee Meera. The attendant social media firestorm of faux outrage and groveling apologies and ruined careers and intersectional progressive bloodletting is the strongest backing for Samuels’ claim that elements of this novel, written in 2015, are prophetic about aspects of the post-Brexit and post-Trump election world.
And then the darkness descends as Salgado discovers that even the memory of his beloved Master Xaiver has been tainted. He becomes a pilgrim.
If satire must offer hope as well as critique, here it is only the hope and faith of considering eternity and following the true and universal faith and believe that, somehow, its flame will only gutter in the dark but not extinguish.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
If weird fiction is the consideration of mystery and the uncanny, it is understandable that the religious would take it up. Weird fiction does not have to draw from the nihilistic well of a Thomas Ligotti or an atheistic rebellion against modernity like H. P. Lovecraft.
Specifically, Samuels has attacked the notion of Arthur Machen’s faith being irrelevant to appreciating his fiction and its depths. That is reflected in this novel when Salgado and Quinn, now also a traditional Catholic who has repudiated his racist past, attend a meeting of the Xavier society. It’s now run by his son, a drunken mountebank who mocks mention of Xavier’s faith.
The power of the weird shows up in the powerful conclusion of the novel, the moment of epiphany when Salgado realizes the world no longer has a place for him. It is the ruins of Brighton’s West Pier, the same pier decades ago where suicidal, drunken, lapsed-Catholic Xavier’s faith was reborn.
Finally, the mist cleared enough for Alfredo to be able to see properly into that middle distance.
The crimson light of the low, setting sun, off to the right of the structure, broke through almost all at once – the mist dissipated rapidly – and the rays illuminated the ghastly remains of the pier.
Only a central, titanic lattice-work of black metal loomed out of the water. The rest of it had collapsed or been burnt away.
The West Pier was skeletal and obscene.
It was dead, an eviscerated horror.
The red, backlit horizon seemed like blood, shed across the whole sky.
Like the ruined abbey where Salgado dies, it is a sign of Western decay, one temporal, one spiritual.
Samuels has his faith that the Faith will not be extinguished, that modernity and its ever enticing blandishments will not prevail. Perhaps, like Father Spencer giving Salgado final absolution, we will be redeemed.
But I doubt it. We will hike to the bright uplands of a more technological future of bodily transformation and find we seem to have just possibly misplaced something on the way.
Or we will succumb to the pathologies of guilt and allow an illiberal faith of submission to transform us, a faith only permitted by our misplaced liberality and the generosity of spirit that Samuels’ faith, in part, has permitted.