17 thoughts on “A Pilgrim Stranger – Mark Samuels

  1. Caveat: I knew Mark Samuels as a friend in the late 1980s and the 1990s, one of my drinking partners and a co-enthusiast about Weird Fiction. Also I am portrayed as Snape in his novella ‘The Face of Twilight’.

    I am now a real-time reviewer of books in various fiction genres, including Modern Literary, Classic Literary, Weird, Horror, SF, Fantasy, Experimental…

    Intrigued by this book’s publisher’s name, I found this on the internet:
    Ulymas: “Either an Arabic word, meaning ‘the wise man,’ or an Aramaic word meaning ‘the mighty man.'”


    Pages 1 – 40

    “She was always calling in the same plumber to do odd jobs. Ethel said he looked just like the actor Robin Asquith.”

    I think that is a reference to the ‘Confessions’ series of cinema films.
    For me, meanwhile, an engaging enough start, in a plainly spoken narrative, with scenes depending to some extent on a knowledge of political and other references to 1981 England, two years after Thatcher had become Prime Minister.
    So far, there have been three main points of view. Or four if you count Salgado himself meeting the National Front members (outside the Comprehensive School gates) who are pushing right-wing leaflets. Salgado a 14 year old who is new to the school, an avid demonstrative Catholic and with a forceful, disruptive Intelligence out-pacing his fellow pupils and probably the teachers, too,
    There is Dennis Spencer his first teacher at the school. A well-characterised womaniser, smoker and drinker .
    The Comprehensive School headmaster nearing retirement whose wife is Ethel and with a passion for growing his vegetables.
    And Salgado’s mother who took Salgado away from the local Catholic School because of its headmaster, Father Morgan, staring at her bust and, with her hatred of modernism, his lack of what she imagined English tradition to be. Through her, we learn of Salgado’s backstory.
    I do not intend to continue itemising the plot of this, so far, presumably intended wittily didactic novel, but in future I shall only give you broad brushstrokes as to its thrust, and my reaction to it.
    I am not yet sure how quickly I shall read it. I keep my powder dry.

      • Second Caveat: I am and have always been an atheist who somehow believes in a form of spiritual preternaturalism that led eventually in 2008 to these gestalt real-time reviews, the first one happening almost by chance to be based on a Mark Samuels fiction collection at that time. I married someone in 1970 who came from a strong Catholic family, my mother-in-law being a very active noted modernist in the Church and my father-in-law a convert traditionalist.

  2. Pages 40 – 71

    “All of European civilisation is being disintegrated from within.”

    There is an authorial note at the start of this novel explaining its first draft was completed in April 2016 and nothing has been changed in the light of subsequent real events in the world. Again I keep my powder dry. But, despite this seeming to be an unashamed roman à clef, in fact not a Catholic novel, but a pro-traditionalist ROMAN Catholic one, I have so far found it absorbing in its own terms, as we grow to know Salgado and his aunt, and the surrounding tensions of North London 1981, tensions religious and political (and occult and weird Crowley literary). Including the competing heresies and dynamics of the Catholic Church itself. We also see these factors through the prism of Dennis Spencer’s world of pub culture of the times (see also ‘The Face of Twilight’)…
    I sense the tensions within its authorial voice, Salgado and Spencer perhaps representing such historical personal tensions? As I say, absorbing. And well-written for the novel’s perceived own purposes. But I, of all people, must not be tempted down the path of the Intentional Fallacy in Literature. If this book had been published nemonymously, would I have quite different views about it? Would I have considered reading it at all?

  3. Pages 73 – 107

    “The single, central source of illumination left the remaining areas of the chapel in a perpetual twilight…”

    I can smell the incense, the chapel descriptions are so redolent. Alfredo Salgado (whom, like the author, I will now call Alfredo) has a perfectly logical need for absolution in Confession, the absolvable pride he feels that he has no need for absolution. Later, (cause and effect?) there is a significant turn of events in the plot, a critical moment upon which audit trails of much literature often turns. One that leads to a seemingly ‘miraculous’ aftermath, one which makes me wonder where the weird and the fiction fantastic end and where the truly miraculous begins. I often feel the sense of the miraculous when creating the interconnected labyrinth that is my site for book reviews triangulating themselves.
    Meanwhile, the intermittent reportage of Dennis Spencer and his life – including some new characters in this book wreaking right-wing revolution — and of 1981 in England, particularly its easy smoking, its politics and social hierarchies and reactionary / progressive aspects, act as a backdrop to the Alfredo syndrome, almost, for me, like static on older communication systems. Ontological or teleological?
    And I agree with Alfredo’s view that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is too curdled for religion when compared with plainsong. Although I do enjoy Beethoven on another level.

  4. CAVEAT: By nature of this book’s type of plot and of the act of real-time reviewing, there may be inadvertent plot spoilers from this point on.

    Pages 109 – 149

    “He recalled, too, that his great literary hero Sinclair Egremont Xavier, the Catholic author and philosopher, had written a great deal about the beneficial aspects of tavern life and consuming traditional English ale in vast quantities.”

    I said earlier that I would give only broad brushstrokes of the plot and my reactions to it. Indeed, in accordance to the references in these pages to Van Gogh paintings and Henry James late prose, I will try to curdle the impressions, in contradistinction to the new-found high definition in some of the aspects of the plot’s new ingredients instead of static. And the political conspiracies that seem to be going on in our present day, of which we are as yet unaware, but to which we may have been given some clue via our then (in 2015) near future’s full onset of Trump or Brexit?

    This is both a Pilgrim’s Progress and a Reaction against Progress itself (or against Regress disguised as Progress?) with Alfredo now as the Stranger in a Strange Land, that Land being for him the SF year of 2015 and with there also being (disregarding the plot’s ‘mad scientist’ machinations of Miracle creating this situation) NO memory for Alfredo between 1981 and 2015. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating narrative comparing the two eras in England (by nature of the circumstances of booze, smoking, vehicles, Internet, smartphone, lack of static on high definition screens etc.) and I, for one, look forward to more of this enthralling story as filtered through the viewpoint of Alfredo whose already complex personality and nature of faith we have only known so far as a 14 year old in 1981.

  5. Pages 151 – 190

    There are more surprises in these pages that I shall leave you to discover from scratch, as you should. Meanwhile….

    “Alfredo was troubled in the night by a recurring dream of a speeding car bearing down on him and driven by a man with no face.”

    I sense this book itself is also a version of the car in this dream…
    A dream with its own vestigial memories in the car’s boot of (just as a few examples) the Latin American experience mentioned in the text and the crowding in of exponential digital communication and alcohol as a pejorative word and the ability now to smoke electronically (if I understand that mechanism correctly), whereby a whole new coterie of characters (one or two mixed up with earlier versions of themselves) now grow into the story ostensibly to fulfil the promise of the past and the future of this book. Keeping it on the road, as it were.
    When this work is more well known (this being my own projected dream about it), I can imagine Mastermind or pub quizzes with questions about it, like ‘To what phenomenon in the novel “A Pilgrim Stranger” is being-pelted-with-popcorn compared?’
    Alongside Alfredo comparing 1981 and 2015 without memories between, I have been trying to place myself in a similar position by comparing from my own discrete memories the 1950s with the 1980s. It has been illuminating.

  6. Pages 192 – 203

    This is our Alfredo’s pure essay as seeming mouthpiece for this roman’s clef. A clef to a certain view on history, politics and religion. And this essay should, I feel, be read both within what I have already found to be this fiction book’s sometimes literary-preternatural disintentional context and in purist isolation without the power of the rest of the book’s gestalt as fiction. One essay, but two meanings
    My own purist view, outside of the context of this book, is that there are many ways to skin a cat, and good can sometimes lead to bad, and vice versa. It is only the gestalt of each human endeavour that counts eventually, leading to a final gestalt of gestalts, clinched in hindsight at the end of times, whatever one’s religion or beliefs. The probably unverifiable test for each individual is their skill at predicting and then hopefully using that end gestalt – and instinctively working with that prediction depending on a natural, unknowable spiritualism without prejudice or dogma, even if it is eventually discovered that any such predictions are intrinsically unpredictable or that logically such a gestalt can never be clinched by hindsight, as hindsight never ends?

  7. Pages 204 – 261

    “The conclusions of the paranoiac, though often highly internally consistent, were dependent upon precisely not being in possession of all the facts; or, perhaps, rather, of ruthlessly filtering out or of discounting, before prior examination, those objections that do not fit the pattern of the schemata.”

    Schemata, or Stigmata?

    A section that ends with Vile Bodies in more ways than two, and not the one to one at a time version of Askwith’s Confessions, I guess.

    We travel alongside Alfredo, with various other characters’ points of views as a backdrop digital radio’s musak, scenarios disguised as temptations in the wilderness, like conspiracy theories and Catholic and Muslimak dynamics and more. Exploitable (eg by that staticless radio?) but strong, too , Alfredo is set to stand that ‘test’ of hindsight time I mentioned above. A literary hero.
    Preternaturally created, nemonymously so, as perhaps a major literary hero, Alfredo, who will be remembered, I hope, as a metaphorical example of what to do and what not to do, do and think. Setting out the options, if not the answers. So far.
    Preter as Priest? The faceless man in the car?

    “‘I can’t think why you should believe I might be testing you,’ Alfredo said.”

  8. Pages 263 – 315

    “…coupled with Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s vile…”

    vile body? vile body and blood of Christ? Rhetorical questions of mine.
    Meanwhile, there follow two wonderfully and credibly created genii-loci of Central London and Brighton in 2015. Alfredo is struck by the cleanliness of Central London when compared to 1981 and the phones that outsmart the people using them, but, later, he can’t compare Brighton, as this is his first visit – a visit to an acronym joke as well as a convention that has exceeded its traditional rationale. We follow Alfredo along this path, sharing empathy with him, hoping he can share ours. And his attritional pilgrimage towards out of the way abbey ruins, a pilgrimage now with no pills, including the pills of the ‘mad scientist’ plot – and into the ‘chaos’ and mnemonic fugues of another ‘mad scientist’ in the skies?
    Whatever your interpretation, and I still keep my powder dry (but my having consumed this book so unexpectedly fast and self-compellingly must prove something about it), this has the potential of becoming a major literary work of religion and (social) history and philosophical and political movements, including the transcendent stigmata as well as the schemata of its hero. Blighted or blessed by its roman’s clef? I’ll leave others to decide. But not the Spanish Inquisition, something nobody should expect, but a fiction work bordering on truth, blended as naively blatant as well as sophisticatedly subtle, a paradoxical blend that defeats me as to how it actually works here.
    (It seems ages ago that I said above “I sense the tensions within its authorial voice, Salgado and Spencer perhaps representing such historical personal tensions?” and I have wept inside these brackets.)
    Graham Greene, Teilhard de Chardin, François Mauriac…? Or, rather, the young man with spectacles? At Waugh with himself.

    “The connections were coming together.”


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