It is set in Scotland during the War of the Three Kingdoms and much of the dialogue is in broad lowland Scots which is a challenge. Nevertheless I found myself getting by in it quite comfortably and it was only about two-thirds of the way through that I discovered the glossary in the back!
David Sempril returns to the village where he grew up as the Minister of the Presbyterian Kirk, a rather hell fire and damnation puritanical sect fixed firmly on a retributive God from the Old Testament. He has high hopes of fulfilment in his new role. But on the edges of his parish lurks the Black Wood. Despite the warnings of his housekeeper, the brilliantly characterised Isobel (Buchan describes her "charity seasoned with maledictions") and others, he travels through the wood to rush to the bedside of a dying parishioner. Suddenly the mood turns sombre: "It was as if he had stripped and dived into a stagnant pool." It grows cold and dark as the pines close in. "He recited a psalm, but his voice, for usual notably full and mellow, seemed not to carry a yard." He hears owls and moths flap into his face. His horse shies. Its "flanks were damp with sweat." He is too late. His parishioner has died before he arrives.
And from this begins his descent. That night he meets some soldiers in the woods and guides them to the local laird's house where he encounters a beautiful girl. Later he discovers that these soldiers are Montrose and two of his men, on their way to fight the armies of the Kirk. Then the winter sets in and he is busy rushing around his village trying to keep the poor folk alive. Towards the end of the winter a lot of babies are born out of wedlock; many of them are born dead. Something strange is going on. And then ...
By chance he meets the girl again in a beautiful part of the wood that she calls Paradise. Shortly after that, trying to find the same place after dark, he blunders into the Black Wood and gets lost. Again terror rises. And he stumbles across a coven of witches celebrating a black mass.
Armed with the wrath of the Kirk, he decides to expose the hypocritical parishioners who are selling their souls to the devil. He is repeatedly advised to let things be, by Isobel, by villagers and by his elder priests. But he is determined to prosecute the Satanists. He seeks to spy on their next Black Mass and collects evidence against them. This he lays before the elders of the Kirk, despite being again warned (by them) to let things lie. Then, half way through the book, a simple act of charity puts him on the wrong side of the Law of the Kirk.
There is still so much to come, so much of it inevitable as his life spirals into despair. He is censured. Plague arrives at the village. And finally, when everything has gone wrong, there is a confrontation with the Arch Priest of Satan.
Stunning descriptions, brilliant characters, and a wonderful plot, perfectly paced: this book has it all. It is a classic tragedy of an innocent struggling against the evil of the world. The monolithic Kirk, a religion with no charity, and the dark forces of Satan which seem to be able to destroy at will, are the Scylla and Charybdis between which David is unable to navigate.
Read it! July 2015; 301 pages
Books by John Buchan reviewed in this blog:
- My very favourite: a historical novel set in Scotland which proved that Buchan really could write: Witch Wood
- Weird plot, terribly un-PC but with some wonderful characters, a laugh aloud speech, and a real feel for the joys of hunting: John Macnab
- Well written but with the most ridiculously bonkers plot and some horrible classism, racism and anti-semitism: The Three Hostages
- A wonderful description of the Scottish countryside and some fantastic characters and some brilliant counterpointing: Huntingtower
- Greenmantle: another bonkers plot with weak characters set during the First World War