In 2019 I read again my favorite novel The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The experience only hardened my adoration of this book. It’s so full of wonderful descriptions and crazy characters.
Tor.com ran an article by Francesco Dimitri proclaiming it a stealth fantasy novel, which is an interesting (and typical) mistake of philosophical naturalists. Now, I don’t know for sure if Dimitri is a philosophical naturalist, and since he has announced his love of The Secret History he is automatically my best friend, and in short, I’m not here to run down philosophical naturalists. But they are prone to certain assumptions. In a secular environment, that philosophy is the default assumption. And just to make things even more interesting, Donna Tartt has described novel writing as an inherently secular activity, literally in the sense that it must be about worldly activities if it is to succeed. So for all those reasons I think Dimitir’s “mistake” is a reasonable one. Yet, I think it is a mistake.
Quick summary: under the guise of reviving pagan worship, a group of classics students at an elite, isolated liberal arts college head to the hills to conjure Dionysus, after which a cascade of evil is loosed. And so, despite Tartt’s stated secular purpose, she drops into this novel a big ol’ dollop of the supernatural.
While many readers probably don’t take this supernatural element seriously, Dimitri at least did not dismiss it. But he does describe it as fantasy.
The thing is, Tartt is an adult convert to Catholicism. She’s not writing “fantasy”; she’s reporting fact. That “Dionysus” entity was a demon. Now, Catholics come in all sorts of flavors, but I’m pretty sure Tartt believes all this stuff, or something close to it. Converts tend to go whole hog when they go. Maybe she’d say she was exaggerating, but I really doubt she’d call it “fantasy.”
As I get older, I get harder to scare. I generally find horror unimpressive unless it “goes full Satan”. That’s the key to why I love The Secret History so much. It goes full Satan. No one would call it a horror novel, but, when one character says something like, “At times there was another person with with us,” it makes the hairs stand up on my arms.
That, and the theme of Elitism Gone Wrong, makes The Secret History my number one novel recommendation. Satan and Elites: two great things that go great together. Definitely add The Secret History to your 2020 reading list.