"The Devil's Footprints" by John Burnside

Author John Burnside leads us, the intrigued readers, on an intimate tour of the unaccepting and brutish heart of smalltown coastal Scotland in “The Devil’s Fooprints.” But that exploration serves as just the appetizer for the first-person narrator’s – Michael’s – descent into his own low-key, “elective” madness. The devil does indeed leave his footprints all over this story, and in some way, Michael, by turns willfully and unwittingly, follows them. Rather closely.

As Michael grows up his parents are reviled as outsiders. His parents die within a few months of each other during his university years, his mother in negligent homicide, his father in weighted solitude. Michael’s own history includes his victimization by a bully for several months when a grade-schooler, an episode in which Michael finds courage and turns aggressor. However, these just set the stage for Michael's reaction to the horrific suicide by a townswoman, years later, who kills two of her sons along with herself. This precipitates a downward spiral in Michael, mainly because he thinks he may be the father of the victim’s fourteen-year-old daughter.

All this sounds dreary indeed, and I regret that, because Mr. Burnside handles all this with such straightforward earnestness, and the exactly appropriate level of somberness, that Michael’s character generates our sympathies. We’re sympathetic when a prank against an old oppressor turns freakishly fatal, but perhaps less so later when he perpetrates a felonious flight with a minor girl. You’ll not find the stunning, hurtling violence of the internal dialog that so distinguishes Anne Enright’s “The Gathering,” not here. Here we find the contemplative, self-aware, well-meaning man, aware of his ever-loosening grip, yet unable to do anything about it.

The title refers to the town legend that one morning, many years ago, after a night of snow, the early townspeople found footsteps in the snow, deep and burning, sulfuric and discoloring, clear trough the snow to the ground. They are clearly not human, and no known animal could have made them. They hop fences and go right up the side of the church, across the roof, and down the other side. Michael’s misadventure with his purported daughter ultimately results in an impossible trek on foot that nearly kills him, and the ruminations during this walk are worth the price of admission by themselves. Suffice it to say that what possesses people who act like demons becomes far more familiar to us, and is not at all what you think. Pick this piece up and  reflect with the author on the durable fear that priests and landowners feel about the demons that threaten to take them over.

I recommend this book very, very highly. Here’s why: the language will stun you with its simple effectiveness and the rightness of its diction. The characters will strike you as real, as will their symptoms. And the thematic issues of motivation, secrecy, and near-demonic possession will challenge you and bring you new understanding. You will understand more about human nature, and there is no higher compliment I can give to a piece of fiction. Congratulations to Mr. Burnside for this quiet, shaded triumph.

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