Gideon mack is a church minister in Scotland who disappeared into the mountains one day and never returned, presumed dead, and this was confirmed when his body was found months later. However, this was not his first brush with death. Shortly before his disappearance, he fell into a gorge trying to rescue his fellow ministers dog, and showed up three days later, utterly convinced he spent the time in a cave with the devil, who rescued him, healed him and sent him back out into the world.
Written almost entirely by Gideon Mack as his testament to what happened before he disappeared for good, this does come across as if he is writing what actually happened. The only sections not penned by Gideon are the prologue and the epilogue. The prologue is written by a publisher who wants to publish the manuscript, and the epilogue is a series of interviews with the other characters in the novel to try and establish his state of mind. As he was obviously considered to be insane, or at least going through some kind of mental breakdown.
This is not spoiling any plot or suspense as we are told all this fairly early on in the novel. Gideon's manuscript itself does not just deal with these events though, it covers his whole life, from his childhood through his adolescent and university years and on to more recent events. He has a quite austere, religious upbringing with a devout, minister father and rebels against this, but ends up following in his father's footsteps, even though for the majority of the novel he professes not to believe in God, but in community. Not a bad ethos for a small town minister I thought. He has some tragedies along the way, one in particular which may have shaped the way his life panned out.
The strange events that happen in the latter part of his life begin when he sees a standing stone in the woods he runs through that no-one else can see. Although, he does doubt himself so he never actually gets around to taking anyone to see it! But he does try and take a picture which doesn't develop, although this was on a very old film, so it is not clear whether it is stone eluding visual capture or a faulty film. This is in fact the essence of this story. Was he mad, imagining things, or having a breakdown which would be the more rational, normal explanation, or did he in fact meet the devil? It's left ambiguous, there are aspects of his disappearance that can't be explained, but also things stated in the epilogue about other events in his life that don't tie in with what he writes about. In the end he is an unreliable narrator, narrating an unbelievable tale, but that doesn't make it wrong. That's what I was left thinking anyway. The ambiguity is actually what I really liked about this book. It would have been disappointing if it had all been tied up with it either being a supernatural explanation, or a question of mental illness. I thought it did sway slightly more in one direction than the other, but it was left open.
However, if this book was just about Gideon Mack it wouldn't be as good. What adds to the readability and interest of this is the other characters. His best friends, John and Elsie, who grow ever more exasperated with him, although try to be understanding. The Dogmatic Church council who didn't like his methods before his experience, and took legal action against him once he went public. But most interesting for me was his relationship with the elderly Catherine Craigie, an atheist and local scholar who request some very specific and controversial funeral arrangements, carried out by Mack himself after his meeting with the devil.
All in all, I liked this book. But then I do like things with a religious slant, particularly if its questioning religion.